Pair of lawmakers pushes 508 rule for Capitol Hill

'It is unacceptable that Congress' Web sites are not accessible.'

'Rep. Jim Langevin

Disability Caucus leaders plan a campaign to get colleagues to upgrade their Web sites and meet other usability specifications

Congress is intended to be of the people, by the people and for the people, but on many lawmakers' Web sites, that doesn't include the nation's 54 million disabled citizens.

Few congressmen have met the accessibility standards to which they demanded federal agencies be held under the Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

When Congress passed the amendments requiring agencies make IT and Web sites accessible to people with disabilities, lawmakers exempted themselves from the edict.

Now, a year after the Section 508 deadline, there is a movement by lawmakers to make 508 apply to the legislative branch, too. No one is sure how many congressional Web sites are 508-compliant, but some experts estimate that less than half meet the standards. Others have said that no Web sites do.

Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.), who oversee the Disability Caucus, plan to write letters to fellow House members explaining Section 508 and encouraging them to make their sites accessible.

'We want to use the letter as a catalyst to get members interested,' said Morella, who said she has a staff member with visual and hearing impairments. 'We are aware of 508 but have never really taken a deep interest in it. The letter will help us get it going.'

A matter of education

Langevin agreed. 'It is unacceptable that Congress' Web sites are not accessible,' he said. 'I think it is a matter of educating the members. It's easy to assume Web sites are accessible if you don't really understand what it means.'

The caucus last month held an event on Capitol Hill commemorating the one-year anniversary of the 508 deadline. The group was established last fall and has 30 members.

Langevin, who has been a quadriplegic since age 16, said that by the end of the year he will take the strategy one step further by introducing legislation to change the workplace and labor laws that apply to the legislative branch. This would include Congress, the General Accounting Office, the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress. Some legislative branch agencies, such as GPO, have voluntarily made their sites and other IT equipment compliant.

Langevin's staff is working with the Office of Compliance, a bipartisan office created by Congress to oversee the rights and protections legislative branch employees have under employment and labor laws. The office's board of directors in January released a report recommending the legislative branch adhere to 508 requirements.

'Once members become aware of what 508 is about, the issue will take care of itself,' said Bill Thompson, executive director of the Compliance Office.

Langevin is working with Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the Administration Committee, to introduce his bill for markup by the committee. Ney also will sign the caucus letter.

Not expensive

'It is important for people to be able to communicate through electronic means and monitor what is going on,' Langevin said. 'They can only do that if they have accessible Web sites.'
The cost of enhancing a Web site is minimal, Langevin said.
The House Information Resources Office, which handles IT for 110 members, can help them bring their sites into compliance, said Rich Zannatta, the Web branch systems manager for the office.

Technicians can remediate a Web in a week to 10 days using off-the-shelf software, Zannatta said.

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