Officials tout benefits of IT accessibility rules

Officials are marking the two-year anniversary of rules requiring the federal government to adopt technologies that are accessible to the disabled by noting progress toward that goal. But they also warn that without proper monitoring and ongoing improvements, full accessibility to government technology services may lag for years to come.

The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent agency tasked with making recommendations on disability polices to White House, noted in an excerpt of a forthcoming report to Congress that federal agencies generally are increasing their awareness and adoption of information technology products and services that are accessible to disabled Americans. Those efforts are required by rules promulgated under statutory language known as Section 508.

"I think we're still making gains," said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodations at the General Services Administration (GSA). "We are not still in the position we were two years ago when people said '5-0-what?'"

The mandate, named after its place in the Rehabilitation Act, took effect in June 2001 and requires all federal agencies to make their electronic communications and technology systems accessible to all people with disabilities.

The Justice Department is tasked with monitoring implementation of the rule, and in its capacity as a federal supplier, GSA has been assisting agencies in purchasing products that comply with Section 508 standards. Among other things, the rules require that government Web sites include coding that enables blind people to access the services offered on the sites.

"The first year, right around the date it started, you had Webmasters pulling their hair out," Weaver said. Over the last two years, "we built a baseline of knowledge up ... but there's a lot more to go because this is not a simple mandate," she added.

GSA helps train federal employees across the country about acquiring disability-friendly tech systems and educate e-government managers on integrating accessibility into their IT strategies.

One major plus is that over the last year, high-tech firms have heeded the accessibility message. "They want to sell what we want to buy," Weaver said.

Microsoft, for example, last week unveiled new features to its software systems. And the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) has facilitated an industry-led effort to identify new software, hardware and other products that meet Section 508 standards. The demand from government has led to the proliferation of choices for disabled consumers as well.

"We've been able to meet more consumer needs just because we've had more input" from government customers, said Laura Ruby, program manager for regulatory and industry affairs at Microsoft's accessible-technology group.

But Martin Gould, a senior research specialist with NCD, cautioned that roadblocks to Section 508 compliance remain. Not all industry developers consider accessibility when building gadgets, he said. He added that the accessibility mandates do not apply to some small IT purchases by agencies and that Congress must make strides to comply with the rules.

Lawmakers likely will review Section 508 when the Rehabilitation Act faces reauthorization later this year.