North Carolina moves to make IT accessible for disabled

North Carolina moves to make IT accessible for disabled

By Donna Young

GCN Staff

The final rules of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 will define what agencies must do to make electronic and information technology accessible to the disabled.

While federal agencies hold their breath awaiting these rules, many state governments are tackling other issues.

But not North Carolina and a few others.


Katie Dorsett, secretary of administration, pushed to get North Carolina to take action on accessibility issues.
The southern state is taking action to make its government systems more electronically accessible to users with disabilities.

The state's Information Resource Management Commission formed a workgroup to research accessibility and recommend policies after Katie Dorsett, secretary of administration, brought attention to state-owned IT that was not accessible to disabled employees.

Dorsett contacted Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker about the problem after learning a state employee with a visual impairment could not use a calendaring function of the state's Netscape Navigator browser. Dorsett investigated and found that several disabled employees had problems working with the state's IT.

'We had a cross section of people that formed three different committees of the workgroup to tackle all electronic and technology accessibility issues,' Dorsett said. 'Since everything takes a while for government processes, we wanted to get some things in place right away, so we started with the Web pages.'

The state adopted the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for its recently launched portal North Carolina @ Your Service, at www.ncgov.com/html/basic/index.html, as well as for all other state Web sites.

Guide to IT

W3C's guidelines are embraced by advocates for the disabled, and the federal government's Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, known as the Access Board, used the guidelines as a base for its proposed standards for IT released last March. North Carolina follows New York in adopting the guidelines.

Last year, New York state implemented a policy that requires all agency Web sites to provide universal accessibility to users with disabilities. Maryland's Insurance Administration recently redesigned its Web site, at mdinsurance.state.md.us, to make it more accessible, particularly to blind Internet users.

California and Texas have initiatives mandating Internet course accessibility for disabled students. And Connecticut recently adopted the W3C guidelines as well. But most states do not have such laws enforcing state Web site accessibility for the disabled.

Allison Bowen, assistant director of the North Carolina Governor's Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities, said the state wants to ensure that all its residents and employees have access to online technology and services.

'We have discovered that improving our technology to make it accessible for people with disabilities is a true asset for everybody,' Bowen said. 'We want our state to be a leader in accessibility for all and hope other state governments will follow.'

In addition to recommending the Web page changes, the North Carolina commission's workgroup proposed measures to assure greater IT accessibility and highlighted the need for better training and support for adaptive equipment.

The state hired PSINet Consulting Solutions of Raleigh, N.C., to help write its recommendations.

Mark Urban, PSINet consultant for the state, said the workgroup looked closely at the federal Access Board's proposed standards for Section 508.

'The workgroup's recommendations should become standard operating procedures just like following Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and codes when building a new building,' Urban said. 'The things you can't see are important to people with disabilities.'

Bowen said the cost for not implementing changes to meet accessibility needs of the disabled will be greater for the state if the workgroup's recommendations are not implemented.

Worth the cost

'There is a lot of talk about the cost to federal agencies to meet Section 508,' she said. 'Everyone seems to be afraid of lawsuits. But the cost to society to leave out the disabled from participating in technology will be much higher.'

The commission now is considering the workgroup's recommendations.

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