INTERVIEW: Laura Ruby, Microsoft's accessibility expert
Feds, vendors must cooperate on 508
Laura Ruby is a Microsoft Corp. program manager of regulatory and industry affairs for the company's accessible technology group. She coordinates the company's efforts to make products and services accessible to users with disabilities.
In her job, Ruby deals with Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Communications Commission's closed-captioning rules.
Before joining Microsoft, Ruby worked 10 years at AT&T Wireless Services, spending the last six years as manager of the law and government affairs division.
Ruby served two three-year terms on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, and was chairwoman of its Employment and Training Subcommittee. She also has been a member of the Northwest Disability Advisory Council.
She has a bachelor's degree in social work from Pacific Lutheran University.
GCN staff writer Tony Lee Orr interviewed Ruby by telephone. GCN: How will Section 508's regulations affect federal computing?RUBY:
What changes under Section 508 is that now government has to collect information before making a purchase and make certain a product is compliant with new Federal Acquisition Regulation language. Purchasing agents must now complete competent reviews of a product's accessibility features before approving a contract.
They won't have much of an effect on Microsoft Corp.'s products. Microsoft has always included features within its products, such as the on-screen keyboard, that make its products accessible for the disabled. We were evolutionary and provided what we thought was great accessibility.GCN: Is the new FAR rule everything you thought it would be?RUBY:
Well, I'm not sure I'd say it was everything I thought it was going to be. It had good, it had bad, and it had confusing. But it did answer some questions.
But then it opened up a whole new set of questions, and that is typical for final rules because you are hoping for definitions and decisions on some of the questions that arose during the proposed rule. And then, oftentimes, some of the questions get answered and decisions are made, but oftentimes others are created.GCN: What new questions did the FAR rule raise?RUBY:
A couple of things. First of all, the FAR stated that there were comments. So in the issuance, they included some of the commentary.
One of the questions that got opened up, that we knew was kind of simmering, was this idea that the FAR Council is trying to consider whether clauses are needed. And they asked for comments on that, which could lead to additional potential rule-making on Section 508.GCN: That's a clarification that everyone wants though, isn't it?RUBY:
Well, we had heard that the FAR could ask for warranty clauses or set forth model warranty language for industry, which is something that we were not wanting because the warranty clauses would be kind of all-or-nothing statements. You know: This product complies with 508 standards. Well, that is an all-or-nothing demand.
And the Access Board's standards include a long list of requirements, and there probably aren't a lot of products today that would meet every single one of them. Plus, some of them are gray, and it is very difficult to say either we do or we don't comply.
Some of them require further explanation. So Microsoft and others in the industry wouldn't welcome a warranty statement, because it would be difficult for us to make an all-or-nothing judgment.GCN: There are concerns that the FAR as written includes such broad definitions that what is acceptable at one agency might be unacceptable at another.RUBY:
But that's not new. We knew that could happen. And we did ask for more clarification. I wouldn't say that it was shocking.
What is going to happen in terms of the broad definitions is that definitions are not going to be derived from the FAR, they are going to come from the General Services Administration.
The Justice Department has been quoted as saying a lot of this will be decided in the courts. And, you know, at Microsoft, we are hoping that this doesn't have to be decided in the courts.
A lot of this boils down to the level of communication that we have with our customers. And GSA is the key to that. Right now, GSA is putting together some different proposals for how industry can communicate with agencies about the accessibility features that vendors offer in products so that the purchasing officer can look at a product, look at the accessibility features and then make a best-value decision.GCN: There is no best-value statement in the FAR rule.RUBY:
That's right; there is not. I think that if industry had been shocked by this we would be screaming, but we've all been pretty aware, especially since the proposed FAR rule was issued, that there were a lot of unanswered questions. We did our best to ask for answers, and this is what we got.
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So, we have to take this, and we have to move forward. We have to take this because the FAR becomes effective on June 25, and the Access Board standards are enforceable on June 21, and we have to help our government customers deal with this. We have to help them deal with the new requirements.
We can't scream and say, 'No! We don't accept this.' And neither can our customers.
We have to work with our government customers, and we have to make this work right now. We have to find a way to help them make their purchasing requirements now. That doesn't mean that we won't ask for further clarification.
There is a lot of talking going on between industry and GSA because we are trying to figure out, now that this has been issued, what the next step is. And how can we try to make this easier for the government procurement officer, yet not transfer all the liability for compliance to industry because we don't believe that is our role.
It's clearly stated in the FAR that it is government's role.GCN: How can industry help procurement officers?RUBY:
There was going to be a spot on the Section 508 Web site [www.Section508.gov
] where companies could explain what accessibility functions they offered right now.
We haven't had any agreed-upon template yet, but we have been talking to GSA about a way to let procurement officers go to the GSA Web site and hot-link to vendor Web sites. That way, agencies could get information on accessibility features of a product that would help them with their market research.
This would be something voluntary, but it is one of the possible solutions we have been talking about'again to try to help government customers.
In the FAR, it says that they have to document in writing the nonavailability of a commercial product along with a statement and description of the market research that they performed showing that the rule could not be met. Agency buyers then must provide that to their contracting officer for inclusion in the contract file.
So one potential way to help our government clients do that is to provide the information on our Web sites, to line up product specifications against the Access Board standards and to say whether we support a standard through certain accessibility features.GCN: What other ways can communication make 508 adoption easier?RUBY:
One alternative is for companies to continue to have one-on-one communications with their individual government clients, which is often done by paper. For some larger companies with multiple government customers all wanting the same information, this would be difficult.