Hey, federal kiosks need 508 fixes, too

Hey, federal kiosks need 508 fixes, too

BY DIPKA BHAMBHANI | GCN STAFF

They didn't meet to talk about systems accessibility; they mostly see their new group as an avenue for addressing the digital divide problem.

But the ubiquitous Section 508 accessibility requirements crept into discussions at the Interagency Kiosk Forum this month anyway (see story, Page 8).

Representatives of the Housing and Urban Development Department and 25 other agencies got together to talk about their kiosk initiatives.

For years, interagency kiosks have been seen as a mechanism for bringing government closer to the people, although relatively few kiosks have been installed.

Now proponents worry about Section 508's looming June 21 deadline that requires federal systems be accessible to disabled employees.

Helen Chamberlain, project manager for the Federal IT Accessibility Initiative in the General Services Administration's Center for Information Technology Accommodation, told the group not to panic.

'Most of [508] is common sense,' Chamberlain said. 'Disabilities are not limited to severe disabilities. It could be arthritis or forgetting your eyeglasses one day. There's no way that everything is going to be done' by June 21, she said.

'But if you do not provide adequate accommodation,' such as assigning someone to read or write for a disabled worker, she said, 'then a disabled person has recourse' to sue the government.

Public kiosks are in a different category, she assured the audience.

Sam Gallagher, HUD's deputy Web manager and kiosk project manager, predicted the department would have its existing red kiosks compliant by the middle or end of the summer.


HUD's Sam Gallagher says the original department kiosks complied with ADA but must be upgraded to meet Section 508.
The June 21 deadline relates only to government workplace systems. Another deadline of July 27 requires agencies to make their Web sites accessible, according to a July 2000 presidential memorandum, Renewing the Commitment to Ensure that Federal Programs are Free from Disability-based Discrimination.

Open to interpretation

Chamberlain called it 'one of those government regulations you just have to look at and interpret.'

Defense Department representatives at the forum said there is little guidance about what is demanded of them.

'We know the Americans with Disabilities Act requires us to do certain things to make items accessible for people, but the question in our minds is to what extent,' said one official who asked not to be identified. 'We're looking at it and scratching our heads.'

His agency is not alone. Of 3,028 Web pages on the top 20 federal Web sites last year, nearly one-third did not incorporate text descriptions of their images, according to an April 2000 Justice Department report, Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility.

The next report is not due until August, but Chamberlain said current statistics show a majority of agencies are at least 50 percent compliant with Section 508 and some are fully compliant. That changes day by day, she said.

'You have maybe one person that controls the site, but you have 450 webmasters to review the pages,' Chamberlain said. 'It's not easy to get your arms around that, and a lot of people don't see that, so they kind of panic.'

Fill in the blanks

The DOD official said orders arrived to accommodate one visually impaired worker, but without further directions. He said Adobe Portable Document Format, for example, could provide screen reader capability, but what if no one else in the office used the software?

'We know we need to do something, we want to do something, but we just aren't sure what needs to be done and how much money needs to be spent,' he said.

Gallagher said accessibility requirements have changed over the years, and now HUD and other agencies find themselves scrambling to figure out how to meet the redefined mandate. HUD will have to spend another $8,000 per kiosk for additional software and hardware to meet accessibility requirements, he predicted.

About 110 metropolitan areas will have HUD kiosks by the end of the year. At a cost of about $20,000 each, the kiosks provide neighborhood housing information. Their design originally 'met ADA requirements, but since then, Section 508 has changed the requirements,' Gallagher said.

Under current accessibility rules set by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, more commonly referred to as the Access Board, agencies must accommodate their disabled employees. Federal contractors are responsible for accommodating their own workers.

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