THE VIEW FROM INSIDE: Walter R. Houser

Section 508 spells trouble for some federal sites

Walter R. Houser

Aug. 7 may be the last day for many federal Web sites to exist'at least as they're configured now. That's the date after which people with disabilities can sue federal agencies for failing to provide accessible Web sites.

Some program managers will shut down their Web sites rather than try to figure out the standards, make the effort to comply and risk a court appearance.

Others will grumble about diverting scarce time, talent and money to yet another unfunded mandate. Those razzle-dazzle graphics and image maps that so appeal to the sighted are the most burdensome to the disabled. Our appetite for rich eye-candy will need to be tempered with alternate, low-calorie pages and tags.

If the administration and Congress were really serious about providing access to the disabled, they wouldn't be doing it on the cheap. They wouldn't adopt a posture of pious indifference while agencies scramble to deal with this challenge. This is another example of leadership by sound bite.

On March 31, the Access Board published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking containing draft accessibility standards to implement Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. Comments are due by May 30.

The proposed standard is available for comment at www.access-board.gov/RULES/508nprm.htm.

Any comment?

Sixty days is the bare minimum to push even trivial comments out of a major bureaucracy. This period will be nearly over by the time you read this; internal comment periods'if your agency will comment at all'may already be past. But the Access Board does practice one of its own recommendations by providing ample e-mail links.

These standards apply to the full spectrum of information technologies. Just because most of the fuss has focused on the Web doesn't mean other technology managers are off the hook. But Web sites are highly visible and vulnerable to criticism. The Web is where the precedents will be set.

If you are not already on a first-name basis with your agency's general counsel, you will be by autumn. But don't wait until then. Take your new lawyer friends to visit management and finance people and beg for midyear funding to fix your site. Take good notes of those conversations because you will want your money people to join you when the depositions and interrogatories start flying back and forth.

This amendment to Section 508 was signed by President Clinton in August 1998. As described by the Justice Department, it 'requires federal agencies to ensure the accessibility of federal electronic and information technology'such as federal Web sites, telecommunications, software, hardware, printers, fax machines, copiers, and information kiosks'to people with disabilities.'

Section 508 prohibits agencies from procuring, developing, maintaining or using IT that is inaccessible to people with disabilities, subject to an undue burden defense. 'Undue burden' generally means a significant difficulty or expense.

Beginning Aug. 7, if a manufacturer wishes to sell desktop computers or other gear to federal agencies, it must ensure the items comply with the Access Board's Section 508 standards. Otherwise, agencies will be prohibited from purchasing them. Once these are finalized, the General Services Administration will incorporate these standards in the Federal Acquisition Regulation, mandating them for all federal IT acquisitions.

Justice warns that citizens and employees with disabilities may file administrative complaints with agencies they believe to be in violation of Section 508. Or they may file private lawsuits in Federal District Court.

The prudent webmaster should read the board's documents at www.access-board.gov. Other valuable references:

•'The article 'Making IT available to disabled helps everyone, Reno says' at www.gcn.com/vol1_no1/daily-updates/1741-1.html

•'Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility at www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/report/content.htm

•'Section 508 itself at www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/cita/law_pol.htm.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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