New access law has a precedent

Ira Hobbs

As readers of GCN surely know by now, federal agencies are working to implement Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This landmark legislation in part requires agencies to buy and deploy information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities.

After months of delay, the June 21 deadline for implementation brought widespread attention to the goals and demands of this legislation.

From now on when agencies purchase IT, whether Web applications or telephones, they must ensure that the technology is accessible to employees and external users who are disabled. This will help ensure access for millions of Americans to technology'and consequently information, programs and services.

In the midst of the activity over 508, I want to recall another tool for including disabled Americans, a tool that gets far too little attention. I am intimately familiar with this tool, having been appointed to lead this program at the Agriculture Department in 1994. I know the program works, and I encourage those of you who can to be a part of making it successful as well.

I'm talking about the Javits-Wagner-O'Day law, or JWOD. It mandates use of federal purchasing power to provide the blind or other severely disabled workers with employment and training opportunities for developing skills and preparing them for employment outside of the program.

JWOD is led by the President's Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. Its members, all appointed by the president, represent a cross-section of the federal work force.

JWOD dates to 1938 legislation addressing the employment needs of persons with blindness. It commits the federal government to purchase products manufactured in workshops designed for people who otherwise face tremendous difficulties finding work.

As a result of the law, thousands of persons with such disabilities have been trained and employed over the decades. At the end of fiscal 2000, some 36,000 disabled people worked almost 30 million direct labor hours on JWOD contracts.

The JWOD statute commits federal agencies to buy products and services listed by the President's Committee.

Some 600 community rehabilitation programs, such as Lighthouse International of New York and Goodwill Industries International Inc. of Bethesda, Md., provide jobs and training to blind or disabled employees who in turn produce high-quality products and services.

At Agriculture, JWOD has grown from a relatively minuscule $1.7 million program creating 21 jobs in 1994 to a program that we expect to create more than 400 jobs on purchases of some $40 million this fiscal year.

But our JWOD program's value really cannot be quantified; it is a tool for including some very capable members of society who suffer an unemployment rate of more than 70 percent.

It helps avoid the costs of alternative social support, such as welfare. And it improves the skills and self-esteem of citizens who have much to offer if given the opportunity.
Like Section 508, the goal of JWOD is to include those who are too often left out. Agencies should use both of these tools to get the job done.

Ira Hobbs is deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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