Systems access for disabled is worthy but costly

Stephen M. Ryan

In 1998, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was amended with a slew of updates in the Workforce Investment Act. This year, expect these provisions to dramatically change the federal market for information technology products and services.'For industry and agencies alike it will provide both opportunity and headaches.

Everyone agrees that it's basically fair to remove barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating fully in society.

The Rehabilitation Act forced changes in access for the disabled to buildings, education, transportation and the like.

Nowadays, ramps into buildings and interpreters for the deaf at public events are unremarkable.

Now, Section 508 of the amended act requires that the disabled be given 'access to and use of information and data that is comparable to' the access available to any user.

It applies to internal agency systems as well as to those used by the public'such as federal Web sites.

A draft rule to implement this change is due next month, with a final rule set for August.

Now that agencies are mostly through with year 2000 date code problems, many are energetically pursuing new systems initiatives. So the law comes at a sensitive time.

Section 508 mandates the creation of binding, enforceable standards that will be incorporated into federal procurement regulations. It directs the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the Access Board, to consult with members of the industry, agencies and representatives for the disabled to develop these standards.

Last year, the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Board issued a long and comprehensive report on this issue. But the report does not give insight into the development of this public policy.

The policy issues are complex. For example, the act requires IT equipment and software to be 'accessible and usable.' A person with disabilities must be able to perform the same tasks and operating functions'including input and control, mechanical operation, and video and audio access'that any other person could perform.

But the range of disabilities covered is extensive. It includes limited or no vision, limited or no hearing, limited dexterity, impaired speech, limited memory, learning disabilities and upper-extremity prosthetics'to name a few.

Some disabilities are shared by more people and therefore provide a larger market volume over which to spread costs. For rare disabilities, the cost to make a given system compliant with Section 508 will likely be prohibitive.

Although the standards being drafted stress alternative technical approaches, systems ultimately will have to provide at least one mode that permits use by the disabled.

Cost, of course, is a big issue for agencies embarking on new systems. Who is supposed to pay for increased systems access? When Republicans gained the majority in Congress in 1995, there was concern about unfunded mandates being foisted on state and local governments. It is not clear whether the Workforce Investment Act constitutes unfunded mandates on industry.

Simple but profound questions remain. For example, it is unclear whether software and hardware manufacturers could be prohibited from selling their goods to the federal government if those goods lacked the requisite capacity to service the disabled. Though some disabilities can be overcome with existing technology, engineering every system to accommodate every disability could dramatically increase the costs of R&D, production and stocking goods.

Words to the wise

Manufacturers as well as systems integrators must be wary of how the new mandate will be met. No one knows yet, for instance, whether a few access nodes will be required in a multiuser system or if every terminal must be equally accessible.

A just society will see that the estimated 50 million Americans with disabilities not only have rights but also are a valuable resource and not a burden. But a policy of equal access to all entails costs. Wise decision-making and cost allocation will be necessary to satisfy such a policy when money is limited.

Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at [email protected].


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