Accessibility Looms as Key Issue in 2000

Accessibility Looms as Key Issue in 2000<@VM>Resources Box

David Bolnick

By John Makulowich, Senior Writer

For the few government contractors with the luxury to focus beyond year 2000 computer issues, an area to watch in the New Year and in which at least one major software company plans to play a key role is accessibility for persons with disabilities.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which contained amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, has ignited interest throughout the private sector in the issue of accessibility. It made changes to Section 508 of the earlier law that are designed to ensure that people with disabilities will have equity in using electronic and information technology (E&IT).

For David Bolnick, product manager in the Accessibility and Disability Group at Microsoft Corp., the focus on people with disabilities is good news. The Redmond, Wash., company has been making contributions to this focus through software features for nearly 10 years.

"It is important that people know [Section] 508 is unique in that it can drive accessibility into the mainstream marketplace," Bolnick said. "Products will become better because of competition for federal dollars. All [IT companies] now will be adding accessibility features as a means of competing. This will allows companies to complete and innovate in the area of accessibility."

According to the U.S. Access Board, an independent agency, the amendments mean that people with disabilities in the government or using federal equipment must be able "to perform all the regular operating functions of the E&IT, including input and control functions, operation of any mechanical mechanisms and access to information displayed in visual and auditory form."

The U.S. Access Board's mission is not only to develop guidelines and requirements for standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Architectural Barriers Act. It is also responsible for developing accessibility guidelines for telecommunications and customer premises equipment under the Telecommunications Act, as well as standards under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

By Feb. 7, the board is to develop and publish standards that define E&IT along with the performance criteria needed to achieve accessibility to the technology and information by individuals with disabilities. A notice of proposed rule making is due out in December.

Section 508 is being enforced through the procurement process and will affect all federal agencies and contractors, according to the regulation. Thus, electronic and information technology procured by the government must be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

Census Bureau data from December 1997, the latest available, indicates there are about 54 million Americans with disabilities. About one in five Americans have some kind of disability, and one in 10 has a severe disability. More importantly, the country's population is aging, and with it the likelihood of disability also is increasing.

Microsoft, which sponsors the Microsoft Accessibility Advisory Committee, is hard at work on a number of voluntary courses to educate its channel partners as well as federal government staff on Section 508. As many as 3,000 companies serving the federal channel could be candidates for the Microsoft courses, company officials said.

The council, which was started in February, is preparing a preliminary report for Microsoft that will assist the company in developing policy and ensuring that it and its products are the most up-to-date in accessibility to people with disabilities. The council includes 26 individuals from non-profit organizations and government agencies. The group has been sponsored until February 2001.

According to Bolnick, the idea for the courses came from the recognition that Microsoft could lend its expertise to those in government who suddenly would be required to address accessibility for E&IT. It also came with the realization that anyone who had not carefully considered accessibility issues could become overwhelmed quickly by the details.

The courses, to be developed and presented by Terri Youngblood, a former technology team member at the Education Department, include a four-hour survey on accessibility issues and terminology for federal division managers, procurement officers and contractors. It will be beta tested in January and February to solutions providers working with federal agencies. Youngblood now is an executive with Accessible Systems Inc.

A second, 16-hour course will cover how to determine software accessibility, including all the technical methods used to test it. Designed for developers, systems analysts and federal program managers, the course also will cover terminology and review the common types of disability.

"This second course is for the more technical people who have to deal with determining if software is accessible and how to implement that level of accessibility for an individual," said Bolnick. "They must know if the software will work and how to make it work."

A third course set for the laboratory now is in the planning stage. It will allow students to put their knowledge to work in an environment where they are introduced to different types of assistive technology.

All the courses will be free, based on Microsoft's policy not to charge for services that involve accessibility. The plan is to start formally conducting the first two courses in February or March, a week or two after the final order is published by the U.S. Access Board.

Welcoming the Microsoft initiative is Jennifer Simpson, employment adviser at the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, a federal agency whose mission is to communicate, coordinate and promote public and private efforts to improve the employment of people with disabilities.

Created by President Truman in 1947 to serve veterans returning from World War II, the agency offers information, training and technical assistance to business leaders, organized labor, rehabilitation and service providers, advocacy organizations, families and individuals with disabilities.

"We strongly support all private-sector efforts for accessibility in the workplace that can reduce the incredibly high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities," said Simpson.

Among the more high-profile programs the committee supports are the Business Leadership Network and the Job Accommodation Network. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce runs the former, while the latter is a free service in which anyone can ask any workplace accessibility question. For example, an employer could ask questions about requirements to comply with the law in hiring a blind person.

Another supporter of the Microsoft effort is Jennifer Sheehy, vice president and director of the CEO Council Program, part of the Washington-based National Organization on Disability, and the chair of the Microsoft Accessibility Advisory Council.

Founded in 1982, the National Organization on Disability promotes the full and equal participation of America's 54 million disabled in all aspects of life. It claims to be the only national disability network organization concerned with all disabilities, all age groups and all disability issues.

"Our goal is universal design where you are not just creating special features for a select audience, but products and features and a culture that is open to everyone," said Sheehy.

She said she sees the importance of Microsoft as an example for other manufacturers, as a partner with suppliers and as an influence on companies outside their industry. Other exemplary employers, or companies with a willingness to employ persons with disabilities, are Apple Computer Inc., Santa Clara Valley, Calif.; IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.; and Gateway Inc., San Diego, Sheehy said.

Beyond the accessibility issue, Sheehy said disability should be a serious part of diversity programs, especially to break down attitudinal barriers. Accessibility & Microsoft

Enable - A Documentary

Federal Communications Commission

Section 255 and Section 251(a)

(2) of the Communications Act of 1934

Microsoft Windows 2000 Accessibility Features


National Organization on Disability

President's Committee on Employment of

People With Disabilities

U.S. Access Board

(aka U.S. Architectural and Transportation

Barriers Compliance Board)

Electronic and Information Technology Access

Advisory Committee

Final Report (12 May 1999)

Justice Department

Section 508 Instructions and Documents

Information Regarding Section 508

Of the Rehabilitation Act

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