Section 508 expected to affect buying process

Section 508 expected to affect buying process

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

New rules governing the accessibility of information technology will likely have a significant impact on procurement methods, said some federal officials and vendors who are still assessing potential effects.

Amendments to the Federal Acquisition Regulation will spring from the Access Board's rules on implementing Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, which requires accessibility of IT to disabled users.

The rules could affect the availability of some products, create a breeding ground for bid protests and potentially change the IT procurement landscape, observers said.

'That's the bigger story,' said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president for the systems integration division of the IT Association of America, an industry group in Arlington, Va.

Greater detail

The FAR rules will specify how procurement officials implement the Section 508 rules, said Jonathan S. Aronie, an attorney for the Washington law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

The FAR changes are likely to make disabled functionality a potentially protestable issue, experts agreed. A vendor, for example, could protest a contract on the basis that the winning company is not compliant with Section 508 requirements.

But the FAR amendment also will flesh out exactly how agencies can determine whether implementing Section 508 would result in an undue burden, for which they can get an exemption, Grkavac said.

Section 508 rules apply to agencies when they develop, buy, maintain or use IT. But they do not require agencies to retrofit existing technology, and they do provide exemptions for national security.

The Access Board rules will set accessibility standards by which compliance with Section 508 is measured, ITAA officials said.

Some procurement officials are concerned that improper implementation of the rules could set back government procurement reform.

'It would be a nightmare if, as a result of these provisions, the government lost access to off-the-shelf IT,' said Steven Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

'The government spent the last decade moving away from government specifications,' said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement. 'It would be a step in the wrong direction to back up from that and reinstate a bunch of government-only standards.'

Groups for the disabled argue that, although the rule could limit agencies' short-term options, the government market is large enough to drive the use of accessible IT into mainstream products.

Vendors have expressed concern about how Section 508 requirements would affect governmentwide acquisition contracts, including General Services Administration schedule contracts.

GSA's Federal Supply Service, which runs the schedule contracts, will not track whether vendors are compliant with Section 508, said William Gormley, FSS assistant commissioner for acquisitions.

But FSS is creating a Web site on which contractors can list their Section 508-compliant products and services, he said.

The period for comments on the Access Board's rules closed late last month. Industry groups urged the board to focus on functionality rather than precise technical standards that could become obsolete quickly or lock agencies into antiquated technologies.

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