Another View: Making progress on accessibility

Laura Ruby

When Congress voted to strengthen Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, federal law promised opportunities for millions of Americans with disabilities to pursue new careers and gain better access to government services and information.

Section 508 requires federal agencies to ensure that any electronic or information technology they purchase, develop or use is accessible to employees and constituents with disabilities. The enforcement provisions of Section 508 took effect three years ago today.

IT product companies now use a standardized voluntary product accessibility template, to give government purchasers detailed accessibility information. VPAT was developed in a government-industry partnership.

With hundreds of such templates posted on IT company Web sites, procurement officials can compare competing products and services to ensure they are purchasing the most accessible technology. Federal Web designers and software developers also build sites and applications with accessibility in mind.

It all adds up to the emergence of new education and career opportunities for employees with disabilities, and government services that are more accessible to citizens.

While much remains to be done, I see recent indications of a solid commitment to further improvement.

In the past year, the General Services Administration has deployed online training in designing accessible Web sites, and the agency recently developed an automated wizard to help procurement officials determine which of the Section 508 standards apply to the product or service they are purchasing.

One exciting and unexpected outcome of Section 508 is that many state governments are following the federal example. Nearly every state now has some sort of Web accessibility policy, and more than 20 states have adopted procurement policies around accessible technology. This year alone, Arizona, Oklahoma and Virginia passed accessibility and procurement laws modeled on Section 508.

Deborah Buck, executive director of the Association of Tech Act Projects, says states have started to focus much more attention on accessibility. Reasons include the growing trend of providing more information and services online and the need to serve an increasingly diverse population.

And an aging one. According to research commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., 60 percent of U.S. adults ages 18-64 and 57 percent of working-age computer users could benefit from accessible technology for vision, hearing, dexterity or other impairments.

Other countries are looking to the United States as an example of how to ensure accessibility for their citizens and employees. This fall, officials from the United States and the European Union will gather to share best practices and explore ways to harmonize their policies, laws and standards on accessibility to support international trade and ensure high-quality services to people everywhere.

All eyes are watching the United States and its implementation of Section 508 to see whether procurement policy can be used to achieve accessible government. It is critical to continue the effort.

Laura Ruby is a program manager in charge of regulatory and industry affairs for the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft Corp.

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