508 is complex, but there's lots of guidance online

Joseph J. Petrillo

Unless you've been under a rock, you know the new accessibility rules for information technology became effective on June 21. They impose new and explicit requirements for federal IT, with the aim of making it more accessible for disabled federal employees.

Unless there's an exception, the rules under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Admendments of 1998 apply to agencies whenever they develop, procure, maintain or use electronic and information technology. The rules require disabled federal employees to have access to and use of information and data comparable to those who are not disabled. Plus, disabled citizens seeking information or services from federal agencies should have similarly equal access.

You'll find many exceptions to this requirement. They include technology used for intelligence and cryptology, command and control of military forces, and weapons systems.

The most important exception, however, is where providing comparable access for disabled persons would impose an undue burden on the agency. This test, which comes directly from the statute, is defined as 'significant difficulty or expense.' In making this determination the agency must consider all agency resources available to the program.

The procurement-related rules are in Federal Acquisition Circular 97-27, which adds a new subpart to the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Subpart 39.2 took effect June 25. The rules for what IT must do to be accessible, however, are elsewhere. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board published the rules in the Dec. 21, 2000, Federal Register.

The accessibility rules can be fairly detailed. For instance, when software is designed to run on a system that has a keyboard, the software must provide a way to use the keyboard to control features that are identifiable by text.

The rules also recognize that certain activities, such as drawing a design or selecting a color, might not be feasible for keyboard commands. Thus, only actions which can be discerned textually are subject to this requirement.

Another rule is aimed at making Web sites more usable. A version of each page must be available that provides in text form all information needed to comprehend content or navigate the site.

The implementation of Section 508 is itself a good lesson in the use of technology. Find extensive coverage of this topic at www.section508.gov. It includes many frequently asked questions, all the laws and regulations, including proposed versions and public comments, and agency contacts. This site should be the first stop for anyone interested in this topic.

The FAQs offer guidance on an important procurement issue. If none of the offered products fully meet the accessibility rules, the one that does so best must be purchased. By the same token, if one of the products fully meets the rules, and the others do not, you've got to buy the fully compliant one.

Traditional best-value trade-offs apply only when more than one offer has the best level of compliance with the accessibility rules, and then only for those offers with the highest degree of compliance. The only out is when the agency can invoke the undue burden exception for the most compliant offers.

Many of us have seen film of the physicist Stephen Hawking communicating using a computer-generated voice. Technology can be a powerful tool to compensate for disabilities. But like any tool, it has to be used properly.

Joseph J. Petrillo is an attorney with the Washington law firm of Petrillo & Powell. E-mail him at [email protected].


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