Report recommends ways to increase technology accessibility

The same day that federal regulations took effect mandating that all federal agencies make their technology disability-friendly, a presidentially appointed panel sent a report to President Bush and Congress highlighting ways that current laws can be changed to more effectively allow those with disabilities to take advantage of information technology.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) Thursday released a report, "The Accessible Future," which calls for a strong private-public partnership to enhance such current statutes as the Americans With Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act -- the latter of which requires telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 took effect Thursday.

"No one would dispute the importance of this technology in our day-to-day lives," said NCD member Bonnie O'Day, "and no one would dispute the right or the need of individuals with disabilities of this technology."

NCD estimates there are about 54 million Americans with some level of disability, and that about 8 percent of those who use the Web have a disability. In the first quarter of 2000, more than 5 million Americans joined the online world, which snares about 55,000 new users each day. But the rate of computer usage and Internet access for those with disabilities is about half that of those without disabilities, according to NCD.

The report's recommendations on how to accelerate the pace at which various technologies are made accessible include: establishing a blue-ribbon commission to examine barriers to implementation of existing laws regarding electronic and information technology; having that commission conduct a cost-benefit analysis for providing such technologies, along with calculating the costs of missed opportunities if they are not provided; making electronic and information technology access part of overall planning processes at federal agencies; involving consumers in the implementation of electronic and information technology policies; and increasing FCC monitoring and enforcement of Section 255 of the Communications Act.

"The rapid advancement in technology [mandates] that access be high on the agendas of industry, government and consumers," O'Day said. David Capozzi, director of technical and information services for the Access Board -- a federal agency -- said "industry is responding in an unprecedented fashion" to concerns about access from the disability community, and hailed the Bush administration for including the issue in the president's "New Freedom Initiative."

The General Services Administration Thursday published a set of questions and answers on the Internet to assist federal agencies in acquiring disability-friendly technology.

Industry representatives also are touting recent market moves designed to make their products more disability-friendly. They note that although such technologies are now primarily sold to the government, individual consumers also can soon expect them to hit the market. "Our companies all believe our success depends on our ability to make our technology available to everyone, including those with disabilities," said Laura Ruby, program manager for regulatory and industry affairs for Microsoft's access trade group and chairwoman of the Information Technology Industry Council's accessibility working group. But she noted that interoperability remains a key issue the industry needs to work out.

"Accessibility is an ongoing journey -- not a destination," she added.

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