February 10, 2001 By Steve Towns
Although both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Access Board say section 508s scope is limited to federal agencies and departments, some state officials arent so sure. Thats because the U.S. Department of Education says the law applies to states receiving funds from its Assistive Technology Act State Grant program, which funnels $38 million annually into efforts to implement assistive technology devices and policies.
"States are still in a terribly awkward position in terms of legal application of Section 508," said Golden, who is also director of Missouris Office of Assistive Technology. "We are just floundering around with that issue, and I dont know when it will be resolved."
Applying Section 508 requirements to Assistive Technology grant recipients exposes state governments to potentially broad liability, some officials say. Currently, all 50 states and U.S. territories receive Assistive Technology Act funds and, therefore, have written some form of Section 508 assurance into their grant applications, according to the SITAC report. But these assurances generally consist of simple statements, offering few details about which state entities are subject to the requirements, what standards will be used to judge compliance, and who is responsible for enforcement and oversight.
"As part of the grant application, the state has to say something like, We assure the state will comply with section 508," said Golden. "In most states, that has meant nothing because it is vague. Theres so much ambiguity about what would be covered -- if that assurance even had the effect of law."
Depending on the scope of Section 508 enforcement under the program, states may consider foregoing Assistive Technology grants altogether, some believe. "Funding for the Assistive Technology Act is very limited, with an average state grant of about $400,000, making this a poor incentive for development of extensive policies and procedures to assure state compliance," the SITAC report said.
The extent of Section 508s impact on state governments may remain murky until the law faces a legal test, suggested Microsofts Ruby. "Its a very contentious issue right now," she said. "As with many laws, often times there are gray areas that dont get defined until complaints are filed or the laws are challenged."
Looking for Guidance
While Section 508s reach remains in question, state officials expect the Access Boards final accessibility guidelines to provide a valuable model for state policies. Several states already have incorporated material from proposed accessibility standards which was published by the Access Board last March and, is available online.
"At least [the proposed standards] gave everyone a target to shoot for and a better understanding of how you classify something as meeting accessibility criteria. Quite honestly, I had not thought of a lot of the devices that they have mentioned," said Jerry Johnson, senior policy analyst of the Texas Department of Information Resources.
Texas became one of the first states in the nation to create an IT access policy with the passage of 1997 legislation that added an accessibility clause to state information technology contracts. "Basically, it puts the burden on agencies to include that clause in every contract and for vendors selling the product to warrant that it can be adapted to make it accessible for people with visual disabilities," said Johnson.
He gave the states technology vendors credit for cooperating with the Texas policy -- even before its access requirements were clearly defined.
"Back in 1997, we didnt have the same situation we have today with the Access Board publishing standards. We were kind of winging it on our own," Johnson said. "We were asking vendors to verify that their software would meet accessibility without giving them specific examples of what
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