New Disability Standards Create Long-Term Opportunities
New Disability Standards Create Long-Term Opportunities<@VM>Giving Teeth to Section 508
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Apr 12, 2001
Twelve years ago, one Microsoft Corp. employee expressed interest in making the software giant's products more accessible to people with disabilities, spawning an initiative that has grown into a company unit of 40 full-time workers.
"As the computer became a part of how people did their jobs, all of a sudden people with disabilities had computers on their desks and couldn't use them," said Laura Ruby, who handles regulatory and industry affairs for the unit, called the Accessible Technology Group. "And as companies made software standard, people with disabilities were saying, 'Wait a minute, how do I use this?' It was enough to cause us at Microsoft to get started."
Microsoft's team members make sure the Redmond, Wash., company's operating systems work with assistive technologies, such as screen readers for the blind, and build accessibility tools into those systems. They also help Microsoft staff understand accessibility requirements and work with assistive technology vendors to ensure the companies' products work together.
This effort paid off for the company when the federal government in December 2000 published new standards requiring that information technology products be accessible to federal workers and citizens with disabilities.
Although vendors were given just six months to comply or risk losing their sales to federal agencies, Microsoft was ready, having worked more than a decade developing solutions.
"We're glad we can help our government customers meet their
[purchasing] requirements. It's our job," Ruby said.
Starting June 21, all new electronic and information technology purchased by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, unless the purchasing agency can show an undue burden in doing so. In addition, all IT products altered after June 21 must be accessible. For instance, if a federal worker changes the Web site of the Education Department, the altered portion must be accessible.
The standards, required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, apply to software and operating systems, Web-based applications and information, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, desktop and portable computers and self-contained products, such as information kiosks.
Six months isn't a long time to change Web pages so they can be read by screen readers, produce copiers with control panels reachable by people in wheelchairs, or change color displays so they can be discerned by the colorblind. But like Microsoft, many companies have been following the legislation and working on accessible design for years in anticipation of the day standards would become final.
"We had been tracking the standards a couple of years ago and realized they would have an impact on us ... and any systems we want to continue selling to the federal government," said Kate Walser, a senior technologist at American Management Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va. She leads a task force of employees who address accessibility issues.
AMS worked closely with federal agencies in defining the requirements for accessible technology, said Zip Brown, vice president of the eGovernment Solutions Group. As a result, she said, the company's Momentum financial management software, used by 20 federal agencies, needed only minor changes after the standards were finalized.
"We felt it is our responsibility to be first to market to deliver," Brown said.
Because the federal government is one of the world's largest purchasers of IT products and services, vendors such as AMS have a vested interest in making their products accessible. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the federal government spent $37.6 billion on IT products in fiscal 1999.
"Capitalism is the No. 1 reason" vendors are taking steps to comply, said Bartlett Cleland, vice president for software and counsel for the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.
Accessibility is also the right thing to do, said Craig Luigart, chief information officer of the Education Department.
The rules are "good for our work force, business and the nation," Luigart said. "Fifty million [disabled] folks today will be affected by this legislation. Business needs disabled workers. It's good for business and not very painful."
The legislation also will help millions of temporarily disabled people and the elderly, who may also need assistance using IT products, said government and industry representatives who worked on the standards. That's because the IT products developed for compliance with federal standards will be sold and deployed in the private sector, too.
"All of society will benefit," Cleland said. "Industry isn't going to create a separate product for government and one for everyone else."
Government estimates indicate the total cost to comply with the standards could be $177 million to $1.068 billion annually, with government and industry each absorbing some of the cost. The government will probably spend between $85 million and $691 million annually to comply with the standards, according to the final accessibility rule.
Those expenditures presented an opportunity for systems integrators, such as AMS and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, and consulting firms, such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. The companies offer their federal clients a range of services, from altering Web sites and computer systems to choosing assistive devices that will aid federal employees.
Booz-Allen began developing Section 508 services at the end of 1999, when officials realized agencies would need help complying with the standards.
"We were determined to be able to service our federal agency clients when they were ready for us," said Jeff Schaffer, a principal who leads the disabilities consulting team. The firm is now working with half a dozen agencies and departments to plan for and implement accessible technologies, Schaffer said.
SAIC developed its offering last summer. "We have worked really hard to be technically prepared. We can make sure we have the right solutions ready to go," said Monica Dussman, corporate section 508 coordinator.
Providing 508 services is not a short-term business, industry officials said.
"Our position is that universal design of IT products and building accessibility into products is not just a temporary requirement. The market goes beyond the initial implementation of 508 by federal agencies," Schaffer said.
Wilson Lim, marketing manager for the Accessibility Solutions Group of Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., agreed. "The market is huge," he said. "Four hundred million to 500 million people worldwide have some kind of disability and need to have access to IT."
Computer manufacturer HP and competitor Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston, have worked on IT accessibility for many years, but like SAIC and Booz-Allen, they recently formed special offices to focus on the issue.
"We realized we needed to have a lot more focus, driving accessibility within the whole company. We want everybody to understand accessibility from the customer's point of view," said Lim, whose office was formed late last year.
Compaq's products already meet about 85 percent of the accessibility requirements, said Michael Takemura, director of the company's Accessibility Program Office. It was created last month.The concept of accessibility in information technology has existed since 1986, when Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 requires federal agencies to buy electronic and information technologies that are accessible to people with disabilities.
However, Section 508 lacked an enforcement mechanism to ensure that agencies purchased only accessible IT products.
"There were no standards, so it couldn't be implemented," said Bud Rizer, director of the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge.
It wasn't until Aug. 7, 1998, when President Clinton signed the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, that the accessibility requirements began to get some teeth. The Workforce Investment Act included amendments to the Rehabilitation Act that expanded and strengthened the technology access requirements in Section 508.
"People are paying attention now because there have been some useful guidelines put forth," said Paul Schroeder, vice president of governmental relations for the American Federation for the Blind in Washington.
The amendments required the Access Board, an independent federal agency, to develop standards that will help agencies determine whether IT products are accessible to people with disabilities. Those final standards were published Dec. 21, 2000.
The amendments also required the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council to incorporate the standards into procurement regulations to ensure that agencies purchase only accessible products.
The council published a proposed rule Jan. 22 that would implement the standards in procurement. It has until June 21 to publish a final rule that will give industry and government guidance on producing and purchasing IT products after that date.