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 said. "Using the VPAT does that."
Microsoft published Accessible Technology in Today's Business: Case Studies for Success
, a book that outlines the business case for building accessibility and includes an extensive list of training and information resources.
The Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center (ITTATC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology -- armed with funding from National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (part of the U.S. Department of Education) -- offers training programs, design resources, support for government procurement officials and implementation assistance. In addition, part of the team is looking for potential pitfalls of wireless technologies that sometimes are challenging -- even for mainstream users.
ITTATC also creates resources for state and local government. "Forty-some states have something related to Web accessibility -- sometimes a statute or just a statement of commitment to accessibility," said Deborah Buck, director of ITTATC's state IT accessibility initiatives. "They are not mandating a strategy. Our intent is to synthesize all that information and put it in a form that is usable for states. One of the things we are finding is that states are all over the place in terms of standards and guidelines. Some have W3C priority one or two, and others have 508 or something combined with 508."
ITTATC hopes to spread the word to state and local governments that resources are available.
"We are offering assistance in a variety of ways," said ITTATC project director Mimi Kessler. "One is handouts; another is the Web site where people can search in natural language that is connected to five disability and government oriented sites."
The group is also developing teams of trainers to prepare for regional outreach to state and local governments, procurement officials and the public marketplace. "We also have a consumer training program starting this year," she added. "Industry has told us it is good to have the incentive of federal dollars, but they need consumers demanding accessibility also."
"In some ways, the products are getting worse," said W. Edward Price, research director at ITTATC. Some mobile phones won't work with hearing aids; screens are often so small they can only be read by someone with 20/20 vision; and keypads can't be used by people with even a slight tremor in their hands. The wireless industry is virtually exploding, but little thought is given to accessibility.
"It's style over function," Price continued. "They are less worried about usability -- some of the phones are horribly unusable." He said better, more tactile keypads on phones would benefit everyone.
Section 508 stipulates that agencies must purchase accessible technologies, even if the product or service is not the low bid. With the increasing popularity of wireless devices in government, companies that don't include accessible features take a big risk.
Late last year, Microsoft and Freedom Scientific brought PAC Mate to the consumer market. PAC Mate -- a PDA accessible to the sight-impaired -- allows users to check e-mail, contact lists and calendars, and perform other functions common to mainstream devices.
In a joint announcement, the companies emphasized the employment opportunities that accessible technologies will bring to people with disabilities. Of the approximately 54 million people in the United States with disabilities, an estimated 70 percent are unemployed. With governments facing unprecedented retirement figures and needing skilled workers, enabling technologies can open up a new resource of capable employees.
According to Jim Sinocchi, director of diversity communications at IBM, there is a lot of untapped talent. "I am excited about this because it takes the concept of people with disabilities out of the 'compassion' role," he said. "There are a lot of skills that people with disabilities can bring to the table."
When he began his 26-year career with IBM, disabilities were probably not on Sinocchi's radar screen. But at the age of 25, his neck was broken in an accident. As a quadriplegic, he uses accessible technology in his career and personal life.
"I think technology is a great equalizer for the disabled," he said. "When you deal with a person through technology, you are dealing with a person's mind."
Sinocchi's mission is to integrate accessibility in the initial design of technologies, rather than as an adaptation or add-on -- an approach he said makes business sense and brings benefits to the entire market. "Audio, visual, cognitive commands -- why can't that be customized?" he asked. "Why can't that be built into technology like safety is built into a Volvo?"
IBM shares Sinocchi's attitude. Accessibility has been elevated as companywide priority. "When IBM makes an investment as a marketplace issue, the disabled have graduated," he said. "It is no longer on the charitable side of the house. It's like the best technology -- when you need it, it is there -- like airbags and anti-lock brakes."
To institutionalize the integration of accessibility in mainstream technology, IBM brought on Shon Saliga as director of IBM's Accessibility Center. "For many years products have been designed and built for people who have access issues. Those solutions have typically been very expensive," Saliga said. "But now the mainstream is beginning to take notice of these accessible features and functions."
Already we take some accessible features for granted. Closed captioning (originally designed for the hearing impaired) is commonplace in bars, restaurants and airports. Hands-free telephones and mobile phones, magnified type on a screen, and screens that talk to us are relatively common. But Saliga is thinking far beyond those horizons.
"What we are seeing is that the Internet has become the backbone for communicating between devices," he said, explaining that it's already possible to regulate the temperature in your home or activate security systems by sending a voice command from a cell phone in your car.
A Global Standard
Microsoft's Ruby, who also chairs ITI's Accessibility Working Group, said she is concerned about international accessibility standards.
"A number of countries in Europe are also thinking of adopting 508," she said. "We are trying to get the message out. We all need to take a more proactive approach if we want to achieve one set of standards and keep the momentum going."
Along with creating ubiquitous accessibility in products, Saliga shares Ruby's concerns about standards, particularly on the international level.
"The United States doesn't border many countries, and we are not aware of what is happening in other countries," he said. "I know other countries are frustrated with the U.S.-centric point of view. The good news is, we are ahead in accessibility and lead the world."
But the challenge here is more formidable. Policies are set at the federal, state and local levels -- which is not a formula for swift change or compatibility. Other countries implement policies much faster and with less political pain.
"We want one product that will be used all around the world," Saliga said. "We [industry] are not going to support 60 different products. It's beneficial for us and the states and the global market to work on united standards. It's a message we have tried to share with agencies -- we have to care about what is going on around the world."
Cynthia Waddell, an IT accessibility pioneer, has been a global ambassador. She is the executive director for the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), a nonprofit group dedicated to advocating opportunity and resources for persons with disabilities. She said the most surprising finding in her trips to address European Union and United Nations officials is the concern that U.S. manufacturers might divest themselves of inaccessible products by shipping them overseas.
"It seems the effort to have accessibility in the United States could be perceived as having a harmful effect elsewhere," she said.
But during a recent trip to participate in a forum in Manila, Waddell found developing nations were taking steps to ensure their work forces include people with disabilities.
"The strategy in developing nations is to ensure there is accessible architecture so they can have the most diverse users and make better use of the resource," she said, adding that she was gratified that the forum resulted in new policies, specifically mentioning the protection of people with disabilities from discrimination along with a call for equal access to IT.
"There is the discussion of accessibility in the context of developing countries," Waddell said. "But rather than talking about charity and welfare, it's about electronic access."