Acquisition council issues guidelines on IT accessibility standards

The Federal Acquisition Regulation Council published draft guidelines in the Federal Register Monday to implement new regulations designed to make information technology more accessible to federal employees with disabilities.

The FAR Council's action is the first step in updating federal procurement policy to comply with new IT accessibility regulations that revise Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires agencies to ensure that federal employees with disabilities have access to information, computers and networks comparable to the access enjoyed by federal employees without disabilities, unless it would cause an undue burden on an agency.

Experts in federal procurement said the FAR Council did not make unreasonable demands of agencies and vendors in its application of the new regulations to current procurement practice.

"This was a middle-of-the-road, measured implementation of the regulations," said Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator in the office of governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration. "It tries to consider what's available in the marketplace while ensuring that agencies make accessibility a top priority."

The FAR Council proposed to exempt off-the-shelf "micropurchases" made with the governmentwide commercial purchase card from the accessibility regulations until Jan. 1, 2003, when assistive technology is expected to be the industry standard. Micropurchases are defined as purchases of less than $2,500. Representatives of IT vendors were pleased with this proposal.

"This proposal makes good common sense," said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. "To expect every government employee with the purchase card to adhere to the [accessibility regulations] on each trip to the store is excessive."

The FAR Council also moved to give agencies some flexibility in how they document exemptions to the accessibility regulations. Agencies can gain an exemption from the regulations if they document that the rules cause them undue burden, defined as "a significant difficulty or expense." But the Council proposed to waive the requirement that agencies file undue burden statements when products meeting the accessibility standards are not commercially available. In these situations, procurement officers would be required only to document that a product was not available in the marketplace.

"This should reduce the paperwork burden on agencies," said Thurston.

The FAR Council will accept comments on the interim rule until March 23. Procurement officials said the proposed rule would likely not be subject to the Bush administration's 60-day stay on new regulations.

In a Jan. 20 memo to heads and acting heads of agencies, Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's chief of staff, postponed by 60 days the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Register but have yet to take effect. But the order exempts regulations issued under statutory guidelines. By law, the Section 508 regulations must take effect by June 21.

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