When federal guidelines for purchasing accessible technologies in government were issued in June 2001, most people bet it would take litigation for state and local governments to adopt Section 508. Now, nearly two years later, more than a dozen states have, without lawsuit threats, adopted some version of the federal statute as policy.

Section 508 requires specific departments in the federal government to purchase technology that people with a wide range of disabilities can use. This does not mean, for example, that computers must be equipped with screen readers or other assistive technologies. It means things like fax and copy machines, PCs and Web sites must accept enabling technologies.

The federal government continues to be the nation's pilot for access guidelines and resources. Section 508 is a continuing effort, said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodation in the General Services Administration (GSA). "I would call it a success," she said. "But it's not over. It takes a while to turn this ship around." Although Weaver and her team have focused on federal compliance, she is eager to reach out to state and local government. "I see a lot of synergy at the state level because that's where the programs are that impact citizens," she said.

The Business Case

Although there is still much to do, the introduction of Section 508 heightened awareness about accessibility and IT. In addition, major IT companies are seeing a business case for building accessible products due to growing demand for accessible technologies.

Technologies that allow people with sight, mobility, cognitive or hearing impairments to be part of the work force are slowly emerging into mainstream applications, and as this happens, prices of accessible technologies will plummet.

The major players have reached out to smaller assistive technology companies to ensure tools will work on their platforms or with their applications. IBM partnered with Crunchy Technologies, a small company headquartered in Virginia, and Microsoft is working with Macromedia, a San Francisco-based firm with an aggressive accessibility program.

On the Same Page

Nevertheless, industry leaders are calling for compatibility standards. "From a procurement standpoint, it is important to establish exactly what the standards are, and we think 508 is the best way," said accessibility advocate Michael Takamura, who is director of corporate desktops at HP. He is also concerned about states venturing out on their own. "Right now, we have 50 states going in 50 different directions."

States characteristically guard their independence and are prone to customize their policies. This tendency creates a malady that plagues governments at all levels. Disparate standards confuse and complicate adoption and compliance.

For example, some states have adopted portions of the Section 508 standards but added a requirement that vendors stipulate what elements of their proposed solution are not accessible. The federal rule asks for what is compliant. At least one state decided to start from scratch and write its own standards.

As variations creep into policy, advocates like Laura Ruby, program manager of regulatory and industry affairs for Microsoft, struggle to keep everyone on the same page. "We are trying to get the message out to state policy folks that if you are going to adopt 508-like standards, please adopt the VPAT [voluntary product accessibility template]," she said. The VPAT was developed by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) and GSA. "We in industry don't believe we will have the ability to build to 50 different standards," she added. "And we believe the federal 508 standards are a great framework for accessibility."

The VPAT is available online and gives IT vendors a consistent template for documenting product accessibility when responding to an RFP.

HP's Takamura agreed. "I think it is important to have legitimacy behind the accessibility effort," he

Darby Patterson  |  Editor in Chief