Road to accessible technology just beginning, managers say

As of today, federal agencies are required by law to provide assistive technology to employees with disabilities. But federal managers say the day marks the beginning of efforts to improve technology accessibility, not the end. The accessibility regulations, laid out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, require agencies to ensure that federal employees and members of the public with disabilities can use computers, information kiosks, copiers, printers and all other technologies without having to attach assistive devices to them. The rules also affect government procurement, because all software used in federal contracts awarded on or after June 25 must also be Section 508-compliant. Agencies' preparation for the new rules has run the gamut from minor tweaking of Web sites to major overhauls of computer networks. But for most, the work has only just begun. "[The Veterans Affairs Department] has focused on the Section 508 deadline as a beginning, not an end," said Ernesto Castro, director of the technology integration service at the VA. The agency has spent the last nine months shaping up its Web technology in anticipation of the Section 508 compliance date, according to Rosetta Screven, the VA's Section 508 coordinator. "We have been successful because we have been very proactive," Screven said. Technology accessibility has been a natural fit for the VA because of the agency's large number of disabled clients said Patrick Sheehan, a visually impaired computer specialist. Of the 60,000 veterans employed by the agency, more than 15,000 are disabled. But testing technology hasn't been the only part of the preparation. Developing strong ties with software vendors has been one of the most critical aspects of preparing for the Section 508 deadline, according to several federal managers. "The vendor's readiness to provide assistive technology is a large part of Section 508," Castro said. "We [federal agencies] don't make these products, but it is our responsibility to incorporate Section 508 language into our contracts with vendors and to raise awareness of the issue within the vendor community." Susan Smoter, Section 508 coordinator in the Transportation Department's Office of the Chief Information Officer, agreed. "Compliance is to make sure that everything we start to procure is in adherence with the standards," she said. Section 508 compliance efforts have been in overdrive at Transportation since February, Smoter said. Transportation has directed each of its 13 agencies to make their 20 most-visited Web pages compliant. So far, only one of Transportation's agencies has finished this task-- the rest are still working, Smoter said. On June 11, Transportation signed a blanket-purchase agreement with two vendors that should help ease the transition. Transportation Web chiefs can buy services from Johnston McLamb CASE Solutions, a Chantilly, Va.-based company, and Crunchy Technologies, an Arlington-Va. company that has developed PageScreamer, a tool for identifying non-compliant images on Web sites. "Orders are flying fast and furious now," said Smoter. Colleen Hope, director of the Office of Electronic Information in the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs, said she has been aware of the need to make State's main Web site, www.state.gov, accessible since 1997. In 1999 Hope proposed to move State's Web site to a content management system with a backend database, and wrote accessibility guidelines in to her proposal for the new system. "Some contractors didn't have the faintest idea what it meant in the proposal," she said. But today, "you don't have to explain accessibility. Contractors are going to understand," she said. Section 508 has also saved Hope the headache of convincing others that they can't have flashy graphics or huge image files on the site "It's much easier to tell everyone inside the agency that there's a law that other government agencies are following than to explain usability and accessibility," she said.
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