Agencies fear Sect. 508 costs
Agencies fear Sect. 508 costs
The rules could be a positive step in easing IT labor shortage, USDA's Ira L. Hobbs says.
By Christopher J. Dorobek
A draft of a new regulation calls for federal agencies to begin making their technology as accessible to disabled users as their buildings.
The rules could have a significant impact on agencies' budgets'costing the federal government up to $691 million per year, according to some estimates'and require agencies to buy accessible hardware and software and to revise their Web sites.
'Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and the public to the extent it is not an 'undue burden,'' said the Access Board, which drafted the rules.
The board is an independent federal agency that oversees standards on systems access for people with disabilities.
Derived from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, the rules would apply to agencies when they develop, buy, maintain or use information technology. The rules would not require agencies to retrofit existing technology. Section 508 is designed to help disabled federal employees, as well as disabled citizens who use federal IT.
The Access Board will accept comments on the draft until May 31. After it reviews the comments, the board will post a final version.There is some question about when the rules would take effect. By law, Section 508's enforcement provision, which establishes a complaint process, takes effect Aug. 7.
But Doug Wakefield, director of the Access Board's Office of Technical and Information Services, said the new rules would not take effect until six months after the board posted the final notice in the Federal Register. 'That will give everybody a chance to get their act together in terms of requests for proposals in the future,' he said.Cost concerns
The rules have received much more attention among the disabled than from the IT or procurement communities, said Ira L. Hobbs, the Agriculture Department's deputy chief information officer.
But the rules have sparked concern among systems managers and vendors. Many said they are concerned about the potential costs of the mandates. Some officials also said they are worried that they will be blamed for problems technology cannot solve.
The Access Board estimates that implementing Section 508 could cost the government anywhere from $85 million to $691 million.
The rules are so detailed that industry groups are still reviewing the nearly 50-page document, said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president of systems integration for the Information Technology Association of America of Arlington, Va.
'We are very supportive of the goal of the law. We want to be in compliance,' she said. 'We still have more questions than answers.'
Officials at most agencies said they are awaiting a report from the Justice Department that will detail where agencies stand in complying with Section 508. That report is expected any day.
Proponents of the provision suggested that agencies and vendors need not be overly concerned. The rules could even be positive for agencies as they grapple with the shortage of IT workers, said Hobbs, who is co-chairman of the CIO Council's IT Work Force Committee.
One of the committee's recommendations for dealing with the worker shortage is to recruit from nontraditional labor pools, including the disabled [GCN, July 5, 1999, Page 1
]. As many as three out of four disabled people are unemployed, Hobbs said. Section 508 could benefit agencies by broadening the labor base from which to find IT workers, he said.
Plus, the rules specifically state that purchases should not be an undue burden, said Gregg C. Vanderheiden, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin and director of the Trace R&D Center, a federally supported organization created to develop inexpensive and marketable accessible technologies.
The draft rules cover areas such as software, Web information and applications, telecommunications, and kiosks. The section on Web applications, for example, includes a provision that would require agencies to provide alternative keyboard navigation, which is necessary for vision-impaired users.
The rules would not restrict the use of Web site graphics or animation. 'Instead, the standards aim to ensure that such information is also available in a format that is accessible to people with vision impairments,' the draft said.Tags are it
The biggest problem with Web pages is that developers use graphics instead of Hypertext Markup Language .alt tags to specify what graphics represent, said Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator for IT in the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy. Applying the tags is a fix that lets audio readers describe a page to a blind user, he said.
There are resources available to help agencies meet the Section 508 requirements. And Hobbs said the CIO Council would meet with the Education Department to develop a set of best practices.'Education has included access requirements in its IT contracts since 1997, said Joe Tozzi, director of Education's Technology Center and program manager for the agency's Assistive Technology Team. The center demonstrates assistive technologies.
The Office of Management and Budget has directed GSA to lead the governmentwide rollout of Section 508, Thurston said. GSA is spearheading a number of education and training sessions on the rules.
The draft rules are posted at www.access-board.gov/RULES/508nprm.htm