Agency policies remain behind the 508 curve

The Access Board's David Capozzi says the questions about 508 have become more complex.

In the year since Section 508 became a fact of life in government, agencies have gained a lot of ground toward making their Web sites and workplaces accessible. But they're also running to catch up on many fronts.

Part of the challenge results from the vast number of systems and situations that have to be accounted for. And part of it results from the success of making agencies and industry aware of the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

Although immature technology is still on the shelf, it's improving faster than agencies can develop their procurement policies and standards.

'In some cases there's not 508 language in procurements,' said Clare Bellus, division director of usability and accessibility at the Social Security Administration. 'Every product has a development lifecycle, but there's much more awareness in private industry than ever before.'

Procurement was the one area for which agencies had a hard deadline last year for accessibility. An amendment to the Federal Acquisition Regulation set June 25, 2001, as the date after which new purchases had to comply with accessibility standards.

Bruce McFarlane, acting director of the Agriculture Department's Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today (TARGET) Center, said agencies are trying to keep up. But rapid technology changes make it more difficult for agencies to budget for accessibility products.

'With an extremely volatile IT market, with upgrades and revisions coming out on a daily basis, the procurement aspect of attaining Section 508 compliance is a real challenge to requesting officials and procurement agents,' he said.

But each agency needs to set and enforce a solid 508 procurement policy, McFarlane said.

'Initially, the impact of Section 508 im-plementation affected the accessibility of the federal Web pages,' he said. 'Now comes the difficult part of training procurement agents, requesting officials, IT specialists and management officials.'

USDA will begin an in-house 508 training program later this month.

The General Services Administration has mobilized its 508 efforts in the past year by bringing together about 130 Section 508 coordinators from various agencies to share information and lessons learned.

'We're educating the government and the vendors, and we're collaborating,' said Terry Weaver, director of GSA's Center for IT Accommodation.

GSA recently opened its own assistive technology center, bringing the total number of centers to 12 throughout the government.

SSA had a 508 implementation plan in place well before the June deadline last year. 'That defined the legislation, roles and responsibilities within our agency and [created] step-by-step instructions,' Bellus said.

Over the past year, Bellus has developed a Section 508 procurement wizard, an intranet application that every procurement official at SSA must consult before making any software or hardware purchases.

Progress and policy

The application displays a list of the voluntary product accessibility templates that are also listed under the 'buy accessible database' on the Section 508 Web site, at www.section508.gov.

'You have to have a policy in place and the standards in place in order to have an impact on the procurement process,' Bellus said. 'Without the legislation and policy you would not see these changes in technology.'

Once the technology changes, 508 compliance could become automatic, and the onus will be on vendors instead of the agency.

'If vendors build in programming languages that produce 508-compliant output, it could become automatic,' Bellus said.

Ken Nakata, a lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the idea behind 508 isn't to create a whole new class of products, but to get agencies to recognize the needs of their work force and make simple adjustments to existing technology.

'A word processor would have to be modified,' Nakata said. 'That doesn't mean that the product is drastically changing.'

Changes in software, which are being made continually, aren't even noticeable to most users, he said.

At least everyone is now more aware of Section 508's requirements, said David Capozzi, director of technical and information services for the federal Access Board.

The congressional Office of Compliance is still trying to get agencies to be accountable to 508 standards, Capozzi said, while pushing for voluntary compliance outside of 508's purview.

In November, well after the 508 deadline, the Office of Compliance suggested to Congress that it also adhere to the 508 standards.

Meanwhile, some other organizations, such as the federal courts, also are not bound by Section 508.

'That may be something that's lingering out there,' Capozzi said. 'That's the gray area.'

But the general mobilization and awareness among agencies points to progress, he said.

The first questions were, 'What is this 508 thing and where do I get a copy?' Capozzi said. 'The questions we get become a lot more complex as time goes on.'

Fixing even the smallest administrative problem automatically poses another technological one. Nakata said agencies need to have an overarching policy that envelops software standards for 508-accessible technology.

'I think one of the key things we have to have is common ground, a common application programming interface for software developers,' Nakata said.

The government has to demand cross-platform-enabled software, for example, for Web sites built using HTML.

Because HTML can be read on systems running Linux, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Unix, 'you get a lot of bang for your buck,' Nakata said.

The government needs to select screen reader software more carefully as well. Screen reader developers use proprietary technology to get information out of applications. Nakata touted GSA's IT center for trying to develop a common interface for accessibility software.

'This is another area that some day has to be addressed,' said Doug Wakefield, IT accessibility specialist at the Access Board. 'At some point, there has to be some performance measures set for assistive technology purchased by the government.'

That's where agency policy becomes im-portant. The Justice Department's pro-gress report on Section 508, which was due last August, will be coming out soon with more recommendations and insight into how agencies can boost accessibility.

'508 is not a policy, it's the law,' Wakefield said. 'Agencies have the freedom to develop their own policies. They can go over it, but they can't go under it.'

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