Guarded Optimism Greets New Section 508 Rules

Guarded Optimism Greets New Section 508 Rules

New rules published by the U.S. Access Board late last week for making technology accessible to the disabled have received a cautious endorsement from a key organization representing the information technology community.

Federal agencies will have to comply with the rules beginning June 21, 2001. The board is an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities.

Officials at the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., are cautiously optimistic about the new rules, saying they allow for appropriate technological innovation but some questions remain.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that agencies develop, procure, maintain and use electronic and information technologies that are accessible to people with disabilities, unless it would pose an undue burden to do so.

The new rules tell government agencies ? and companies that sell technology to government ? how to make their computers, software, networks, copy machines and Web sites compliant. The rules do not require agencies to retrofit existing technology.

Compliance with the new rules could cost $177 million to $1.068 billion annually, according to the Access Board. The federal portion of those costs is estimated at $85 million to $691 million annually, or .01 percent to 0.06 percent of the total federal budget.

The IT industry lobbied for the six-month lag time between the rules announcement and required compliance. The industry also lobbied to ensure the rules would spell out the technological functions needed to meet the needs of the disabled and not the technological means to achieve them, said Bartlett Cleland, vice president of software and counsel for ITAA.

"At the end of the day, every time you build a keyboard, it has to be in some way compliant with the regulations so, [for example], people who are blind will be able to use it," Cleland said. "It's bad [if] they say you have to put raised dots and have a keyboard of this size. That shoots our innovation in the foot."

Generally, "the Access Board moved in a way that allows for innovation," Cleland said.

ITAA asked for clarifications regarding the undue burden exemption; requirements for products with embedded software; back-office software exemptions; and provisions for scripts, applets and plug-ins.

Since the Rehabilitation Act Amendments were signed two years ago, IT products have become more accessible to the disabled, Cleland said, but it's unlikely many products will be perfectly compliant by the June deadline.

"The good news, from our understanding, is that on June 21, the government will start looking for the most compliant products and go from there," he said.

In fiscal year 1997, the federal government employed 167,902 persons with disabilities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Access Board estimates that the standards will produce an increase in productivity between 5 percent and 10 percent.

ITAA and the General Services Administration will host seminars around the country to explain the rules. A seminar in Washington is scheduled for March 26.

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