Luigart links innovation, 508

Luigart links innovation, 508


Some people in government might consider Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 a nuisance, a hurdle, another deadline.

Craig Luigart, the Education Department's chief information officer, sees it as a technological horn of plenty.

Craig Luigart
'I try to bring a sense of what 508 means to society, not just to the federal government.'
In Luigart's world, making electronic equipment and information technology accessible, as Section 508 requires federal agencies to do, ultimately will mean a high-tech feast for everybody, not just for disabled Americans.

'Now we're recognizing that the same things that make sense for accessible technology actually enable a whole different set of uses,' Luigart said.

He offered the example of television closed captioning, which lets hearing-impaired people read on the screen what's being said.

In 1990, when Congress passed a law that required all televisions with screens larger than 13 inches to have caption decoding circuitry, 'the TV industry screamed,' Luigart said.
'They said it was too costly, that it didn't make sense. Yet what's the No. 1 or No. 2 use of closed captioning today in America? Sports bars and athletic clubs. So [the law] created an entire new market for those technologies.'

Luigart also cited an example closer to home: a new copier in his offices at Education. It features an LCD panel that is slanted at a 30-degree angle so that people in wheelchairs can see and use it.

'As it was being installed, one of the mothers in the office said, 'I'll bet the kids can use this one.' So all of a sudden you have a copying machine that a second-grader can use,' he recounted. 'In the past, that second-grader would have needed a stool to stand on and look down on the panel.'

The bottom line: A good design change made for disabled users can create a whole new market niche for a system or technology.

That's the kind of vision that Luigart, as the Chief Information Officers Council's representative on disability issues, brings to his role as the government's head cheerleader on Section 508 and accessibility.

'I try to bring a sense of what 508 means to society, not just to the federal government,' he said.

Luigart sees nothing but a vast technological bounty ahead as a result of Section 508-generated innovations.

The genesis and evolution of Section 508


Congress adds Section 508 to Title V of the Rehabilitation Act
of l973, establishing nonbinding guidelines for technological access for federal employees with disabilities. Lawmakers did not include compliance mechanisms.


Under the Workforce Investment Act, Congress amends Section 508 to require agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to disabled employees and members of the public. It is not retroactive; it applies only to new procurements. Lawmakers provided a timetable for implementation and directed the Access Board to develop standards, the General Services Administration to provide technical assistance and the Justice Department to report biannually on progress in compliance.

July 26, 2000

President Clinton, marking the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and citing the requirements of federal disability law, including Section 508, directs agencies to make all programs offered on their Internet and intranet sites accessible to people with disabilities by July 27, 2001.

Dec. 21, 2000

The Access Board issues final rules governing the implementation of Section 508 and enforceable on June 21, 2001. Among the main points the standards address are the required functionality and performance of specific technologies and product categories, and exceptions to the requirements.

April 25, 2001

The Federal Acquisition Regula-tion Council, which sets procurement policy, issues a final rule amending the FAR to make Section 508 standards part of the government purchasing process. The council mandated an effective date of June 25, 2001, for purchases over $2,500.

June 21, 2001

Agencies are required to meet or show progress on standards set by the Access Board. "It's not the end; it's only the beginning," a board official says.

June 25, 2001

Agencies are required to comply with FAR procurement standards under Section 508.

July 27, 2001

Agencies must meet the deadline for making Web sites accessible under Clinton's order of July 26, 2000. The order, though,
is not enforceable. One official describes it as "encouragement from the president."

Aug. 7, 2001

The Justice Department is required to deliver a report to Congress on the status of Section 508 implementation. The report will be based on the self-evaluation forms that agencies must submit to DOJ biannually, as required by the Access Board.


Under FAR rules, electronic equipment and information technology purchases under $2,500 must meet Section 508 accessiblity standards on Jan. 1.

For example, screen-reader technology for the blind eventually will let sighted users listen to the Web while they're zipping along in their cars. Luigart calls it Radio Web.

'You don't want to be mousing around while you're driving,' he said. 'But good Web site design means you can listen to a Web site and not read it. [Screen-reader technology] is the same technology that is going to be required for you to listen to a Web site in your car. So I like to remind folks that most of the things that 508-accessible technology calls for are really just a matter of good technical design.'

Luigart conceded that there will be technical stumbling blocks in meeting 508 requirements as technologies continue to evolve rapidly.

For instance, there aren't any handheld computers on the market today that have screen readers for the blind. That's potentially a big problem for blind employees as enterprises move away from a desktop PC environment.

'The mobile form factor alone appears to be a significant challenge,' he said. 'But it's one that can be overcome. There's a whole new variety of challenges coming, but there's a whole new variety of answers coming, too.'

And there is another benefit Luigart foresees from making IT more accessible generally. It will help harness the future economic strength of children in the United States who suffer from disabilities.

'The biggest group in the world that gets disenfranchised is the 6.5 million kids that end up 70 to 80 percent underemployed or unemployed,' he said. 'They have the same cranium that I have. When you look at that chunk of kids, being able to turn on that much more economic power as contributing adults, that's a powerful thing.'

Aid to an aging population

Luigart spends a segment of his busy schedule as Education CIO out on the stump for Section 508, talking to the IT industry, as well as government procurement officers and IT managers, about 508 and explaining what it means and what it doesn't mean.

He also tries to drive home how important it is for the nondisabled population to expand accessibility.

Aging is a case in point.

'Nearly half of all people reaching 60 years of age have some need of functional augmentation to use technology,' he said. 'By the time we get to 75, about three-quarters of us need some kind of technology augmentation.'

Moreover, anybody of any age can become disabled at anytime.

'I try explain how you can be walking on Day 1 and need 508 on Day 2,' he said.
Luigart knows all about that.

Ten years ago, he was a Navy commander and pilot. Today, he spends much of his day in a wheelchair.

In late 1991, after returning from a Navy mission in Pakistan, he was struck by primary lateral sclerosis, a rare but nonfatal neurological disorder that initially affected his legs. There are only about 50 known cases in the country, he said.

'It's not life-threatening. It's quality-of-life-degrading,' Luigart said. 'Right now, thank the Lord, it's progressing very slowly.'

In time, however, he will become a quadriplegic, he said.

Following the PLS diagnosis, Luigart stayed in the Navy for another five years, serving as CIO for the Naval Air Systems Command and later as program manager for the Navy's Information Network Program Office in Washington.

In 1996, he retired from the Navy after two decades and spent several years working in Atlanta as a technology specialist for medical and health care companies.

'Post-Gutenberg age'

But it wasn't long before he again felt the lure of government service: Former Education secretary Richard Riley invited him to Washington for a chat about the CIO position.

'I didn't really want to move back to D.C.,' Luigart said. 'But as a naval officer you're trained not to say no to folks like that. So I came up for a day, fell in love with the [Education Department's] mission, and the rest is history.'

Luigart became Education's CIO in September of 1999.

What attracted him to the job?

'I had two kids in school,' he said. 'I watched the schools wrestle with technology and teachers wrestle with assistive technology. I'm a great believer that we're entering the post-Gutenberg age, and if our educational institutions don't manage their way into the post-Gutenberg age, we will leave our children behind. When I looked at those issues and realized I could make a difference, it seemed like a pretty easy decision.'

Luigart's disability doesn't keep him from doing with alacrity his job as CIO at Education'where he oversees the department's nearly $1 billion in IT investments'or from making his appointed rounds as a major voice for Section 508 and accessibility.

A few weeks ago, for example, he traveled to Chicago to lead a panel on assistive technologies at the National Educational Computing Association's conference.

Luigart said that he always considered himself a compassionate person, so his disability hasn't turned him into a rabid advocate for the disabled.

But it has affected his outlook in subtle ways. And it helps that he's seen the issues from both sides.

'It's made me, as a technology leader, much more aware of the need for education, the need for dialogue and the power of what doing this right can mean for society,' he said. 'I think Craig Luigart would still be Craig Luigart without the disability. But that fact that I'm in this position'that I've walked both walks'has given me the opportunity to help empower the message.'


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