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Reno urges agencies to hire disabled workers

Attorney General Janet Reno said Tuesday that although the information age has enhanced the lives of disabled Americans, employment of people with severe disabilities has not kept pace with advances in technology.

Reno gave the keynote address at the third annual Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase (IDEAS) hosted by the Agriculture Department, the General Services Administration and the Presidential Task Force on the Employment of Adults with Disabilities.

President Clinton established the task force in 1998 to coordinate an agressive national disability policy.

The employment rate for people with disabilities in the United States has not kept up with the boom in assistive technology, Reno said. Seventy-five percent of Americans with significant disabilities are unemployed or underemployed, according to the Census Bureau. Overall, one in ten Americans has a severe disability.

Reno said that statistic was ironic considering that number of technology jobs that go unfilled.

"Many of these [tech] jobs are perfect for people with disabilities," said Reno.

In July, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring the federal government to hire 100,000 disabled workers by 2005.

The two-day IDEAS conference ends Oct. 18 and features panel discussions and workshops on federal regulations affecting disabled workers, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 508 requires agencies to ensure that federal employees with disabilities have the same access to information and computers enjoyed by federal employees without disabilities, assuming doing so would not cause an undue burden on an agency.

"The importance of 508 to people with disabilities cannot be overemphasized," said Reno. She said Section 508 empowers the disabled with the authority to hold the federal government accountable on disability workforce issues.

Reno delivered a similar speech on the importance of Section 508 and assistive technology at FOSE 2000, a government technology trade show held in Washington in April. The attorney general yesterday reiterated her stance that "accessible design is good design," and emphasized that making technology accessible to everyone will promote inclusion, efficiency and productivity.

Reno praised Agriculture's Accessible Technology Program and its resource center for disabled employees, known as the TARGET Center (for Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today). The center contains cutting-edge assistive technology such as screen readers for the visually-impaired and text telephones for the hearing-impaired.

Two Web sites-www.Section508.gov and www.disability.gov-contain an abundance of information on federal disability law, programs and resources for disabled people and assistive technology.

In March, the federal Access Board proposed a new set of standards aimed at making federal information systems more accessible to federal employees and to citizens with disabilities.

The Access Board drafted the standards to implement 1998 amendments to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Final standards were supposed to be incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulation by Aug. 7, but are still in the works.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, said that the final standards would most likely go to the Office of Management and Budget in November, and be published in the Federal Register by the end of the year.