Confusion Reigns With Disability Regs

Confusion Reigns With Disability Regs

By Gail Repsher Emery,

Washington Technology Staff Writer


Information technology companies are uncertain whether they can meet a June 25 deadline that says all electronic and IT products they sell to the U.S. government must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The problem is not that companies are resisting the requirements or unable to alter their products, but that no government body has been given authority to certify whether a company's technologies meet the government's accessibility standards.

The accessibility standards, required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, are designed to provide equal access to technologies for disabled government workers and citizens who use government Web sites. The standards apply to software and operating systems, Web-based applications and information, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, desktop and portable computers and self-contained products, such as information kiosks.

After June 25, government agencies could face administrative complaints and federal lawsuits from individuals with disabilities if they purchase products that don't meet the standards.

Absent a government-approved method of validating accessibility and amid the threat of legal action against their government clients, vendors are reluctant to claim that their technologies meet the new standards.

And while government and industry officials recently have begun efforts to establish an authoritative voice for determining compliance, many say it will take months and possibly years to unravel the meaning of Section 508.

'We absolutely desire a strong voice of authority from government that is able to address some of the questions we have, to make sure we do the best job we can to meet the standards and provide accurate information that helps procurement officers make wise decisions,' said Michael Takemura, director of the Accessibility Program Office at computer maker Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston.

Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation at the General Services Administration, acknowledged the potential for confusion, saying that many technical solutions could be used to meet the requirements of Section 508, so questions about the standards could be answered correctly in different ways by different government officials.

She also suggested that a strong government voice would be helpful.

'We would really like to have somebody be the authority, but the legislation didn't make anybody the authority,' Weaver said.

The U.S. Access Board, an independent government agency, issued the standards in December 2000. In April, the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council, which sets procurement policy, issued a rule that made the standards part of the government purchasing process.

Government workers and technology vendors have pored over both documents, but they still have lots of questions that they're struggling to find answers to at meetings of government agencies, industry meetings and Capitol Hill, as well as through e-mails, phone calls and letters.

'There's a lot of confusion in industry and government,' said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group in Arlington, Va.

'You can't just say a product is compliant [with the standards] or not. The answer is not that simple,' Grkavac said. 'It depends on the agency infrastructure, what assistive technologies they're using, how the agencies are going to interpret [the standards].'

Yet Grkavac said some parts of the federal acquisition rule imply that a 'yes' or 'no' answer about accessibility is needed as agencies decide what IT products and services they'll buy. In a May 24 letter, ITAA asked the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council to clarify several parts of the rule.

For example, the Access Board standards allow for 'equivalent facilitation,' which means that if a product provides equal or better access in a slightly different way than is spelled out in the standards, the product can be considered accessible. However, the federal acquisition rule regarding accessibility doesn't mention equivalent facilitation, which Grkavac said may lead some government purchasers to overlook the equivalent facilitation option when they make product decisions.

The confusion about Section 508 means vendors can't say with certainty their products and services meet the accessibility standards, said Bob Harvey, president of iCan Inc., a
Web-based community for disabled people. The Birmingham, Mich., company also provides services such as Web site accessibility assessments.

'What are the thresholds for compliance that the government wants to hold a company to?' he asked.

In other words, how do you know when a product or service meets the accessibility requirements? For example, if a product meets 25 of the 28 standards that apply to it, does it meet the requirements? If a software application works with five different screen readers, does that mean it's accessible to the blind under Section 508?

Without further guidance from government, IT vendors say they are doing the best they can to document their products' capabilities under Section 508. For example, a software application might be designed to work with three screen readers instead of all screen readers on the market.

'When a vendor is going to certify that their products meet the goals of Section 508, they are trying to be broad enough to say 'We comply,' but specific enough to identify the conditions under which they comply,' said Greg Pisocky, a business development manager for software manufacturer Adobe Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Industry officials said some of the confusion around Section 508 stems from the fact that so many groups are involved in its implementation.

Congress instructed the Access Board to write the accessibility standards, the General Services Administration to provide technical assistance in its implementation and the Justice Department to report on its progress. However, no one group seems to have the final word.

'The fact that there is confusion and there is no one authoritatively providing examples [of compliance with the standards] ... is an issue,' said Craig Warsaw, chief technology officer in the e-Government Solutions division of Commerce One Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif., e-commerce company.

Help may come from an executive-level committee recently formed to provide a high-level government voice on Section 508, although it's uncertain exactly what the group will do. Members include GSA, the Access Board, the Office of Management and Budget and the departments of Defense and Education, said Justice Department attorney Mary Lou Mobley.

Additional efforts are under way to address the compliance question, but not all will be complete by June 25, government and industry officials said.

For example, a group of agencies, including GSA, OMB, Defense and Education hope to post answers to a set of frequently asked questions about Section 508 on the Web site www.section508.gov in early June, Mobley said.

The Accessibility Forum is another group trying to bring clarity to Section 508. It's an industry-led initiative sponsored by GSA as part of its technical assistance efforts. In three days of meetings last month, about 80 industry and government representatives, members of the academic community and advocates for the disabled grappled with the uncertainties of accessibility.

The group is working to provide ways for industry and government to evaluate product accessibility, and hopes to finalize in early June a list of projects it will undertake to aid in compliance efforts. The projects may include a compliance checklist and development of a common interface between hardware, software and assistive technologies, said Jack Corley, forum program manager.

Technology industry groups are rallying around the idea of a common interface, Pisocky said.

'The more layers you add ' Web browsers, Internet applications, software applications and assistive technologies ' getting all these things to work together is no easy feat,' he said. 'The whole industry needs [a common interface].'

GSA, meanwhile, is working with industry groups to develop a template that vendors can use to describe the accessibility features of their products and services. Weaver said she hopes to have the template available in early June on www.section508.gov.

'That is the best solution we can offer to people [by] June 25,' Weaver said.

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