For millions of citizens with vision, hearing, dexterity and short-term memory challenges, the ability to use emerging electronic government applications hinges upon careful attention to accessible design. The American Association of People with Disabilities estimates that one in five Americans has some type of impairment, making accessible technology vital to widespread use of e-government.

IT accessibility policies also play a vital role in meeting the needs of government workers with disabilities as agencies continue to automate manual processes. For instance, Texas estimates that more than half of all state employees with disabilities work as professionals or paraprofessionals, presumably requiring access to a wide range of electronic information systems. And in the federal government, more than 7 percent of employees in branch agencies are disabled, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Call to Action

Given the rapid growth of e-government applications and the proliferation of automated systems in the workplace, IT accessibility for people with disabilities has reached a critical turning point, according to the State Information Technology Access Coalition (SITAC), an alliance of state CIOs, procurement officers and assistive technology program officials. In a recent accessibility status report, the organization contends many Americans with disabilities remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

"For people with disabilities, a basic reason for exclusion from the digital environment is inaccessibility of the information technology product," the report said. "Inaccessible Web sites, software that is incompatible with adaptive devices, voice-automated systems that cannot be accessed by adaptive telephones and other access barriers continue to exclude people with disabilities from digital government."

However, accessibility concerns have sparked a flurry of activity aimed at opening government IT applications and Web sites to citizens and employees with disabilities. Indeed, some observers expect government and industry to pour an unprecedented amount of effort into breaking down accessibility barriers this year.

At least 10 states have already created their own IT access laws, rules or policies, according to Diane Golden, chairwoman of the Association of Tech Act Projects, an organization that tracks state access initiatives and promotes awareness of assistive technology. Meanwhile, federal government agencies are scrambling to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires them to procure IT hardware and software that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Golden and others call the emerging efforts a prudent step by public jurisdictions to address accessibility issues while the most complex electronic government systems are still on the drawing board. "If youre going to build e-government, now is the time to talk about access," she said. "Because if you get things half-way built, it is painfully difficult and expensive to retrofit them."

But along with the growing activity comes a fair amount of uncertainty. Some state government officials worry they may be bound by Section 508 requirements if they accept certain types of federal grants. Furthermore, manufacturers must contend with multiple access standards budding from myriad organizations.

"Youd be surprised if I were to list all of the different standards and working groups that exist right now. Thats one of the challenges for us as [an] industry," said Laura Ruby, regulatory program manager for Microsoft Corp.s Accessible Technology Group. "There are a lot of really exciting things going on, but its really scattered right now."

States of Confusion

Perhaps the biggest question facing state officials involves whether Section 508 applies beyond the federal government. The law, originally scheduled to take effect Aug. 7, 2000, requires federal agencies to ensure that government IT systems and electronic information meet a series of accessibility standards.

President Bill Clinton delayed implementation of the law late last year because the U.S. Access Board, an independent agency that enforces accessibility rules for federally funded facilities, had not finalized standards. Final standards were expected to be

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.