Agencies find tangible success on 508

Agencies find tangible success on 508

Craig Luigart, chairman of the Section 508 Steering Committee, says 'people have a natural desire to make the law work.'

Congressional mandates usually tell agencies to manage what Education CIO Craig Luigart calls white space'that
is, business processes or issues. And that's often why agencies fail to comply with them.

Section 508 is different. It requires tangible results and visible benefits, something agency officials recognized from the start.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires agencies to make federal Web sites accessible to users with disabilities and to make sure all new IT purchases meet accessibility standards for their employees, starting last June.

Hands on

That's why, many officials said, agencies have more successfully complied with Section 508 standards than with just about any other congressionally sponsored edict.

'508 is a people issue and one that everyone can directly relate to,' said Luigart, who's also chairman of the Section 508 Steering Committee. 'There are a lot of mandates that are processes and make sense but cross major cultural, legacy and bureaucratic boundaries. You can't feel the impact of those like you do with this one.'

Many officials compare Section 508's requirements to those of the Americans with Disabilities Act because both delivered concrete changes. ADA, for instance, required wheelchair ramps in all public buildings. Section 508 does the equivalent for the digital world, said Lew Oleinick, on detail from the Office of Management and Budget as special assistant to Luigart.

Much of this success can be credited to Luigart's steering committee, according to several other government sources. The committee, made up of volunteers from the 12 largest agencies, helped maneuver the government through the uncertain future of setting up and complying with the standards. Its regular meetings were especially important during the first months leading up to implementation, officials said.

'508 [involves] so many areas, such as procurement, IT, civil rights. These people never have been in the same room together,' said a Justice Department official who works with 508 compliance and asked not to be identified. 'The committee was able to bring everyone together, and with that much energy things start to happen.'

Soon agencies found that making some changes'such as re-coding Web sites to include tags that let software text reader programs read images as text'was neither difficult nor costly, the official said.

The Committee also helped focus the Section 508 Web site, www.section508.gov, to make sure a single message was being sent to the agencies.

'We created a strong consensual opinion and guidance that would be on the Web site,' Luigart said. 'Our outreach and training also had to be unified so we didn't step on each others' toes, and the Web site helped do that.'

Private-sector support

Industry's acceptance of Section 508 standards also made a difference, said Terry Weaver, director of the General Services Administration's Center for IT Accommodations. 'Vendors were not trying to figure out how to get around it or undo it, and that was important,' she said.

Finally, many officials pointed to the standards themselves as a spur to compliance.

Dennis Cannon, an accessibility specialist with the Access Board, an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, said the standards were written by technical people for technical people who would understand them.

The standards also told agencies what the final product had to do, but not how to do it, he added.

'We made sure we put engineering types on the standards committee because these are the people who will be solving the problems,' Cannon said. 'We tried to run a fine line,' between a highly specified standard and a performance standard that emphasizes results.

Luigart said outreach and training remain constant hurdles because program mangers need to continue adhering to Section 508.

'508 is a living law,' he said. 'People have a natural desire to make the law work, and they recognized we should hurdle it sooner rather than later.'

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