federal government has started to be more concise about promulgating rules and standards, were starting to see people talk about accessibility features and products with more of a common language."

Perfect Timing

Pennsylvanias adoption of a statewide policy to ensure accessibility of public-sector Web sites dovetailed with a broad push to deliver services through its government portal, dubbed the "PAPowerPort."

"I think the timing was perfect for the issuance of this policy. We issued the policy in September, and that was really just at the beginning of our really strong push with a ton of e-government applications coming online," said Rhett Hintze, senior policy manager for technology and economic development with the Governors Policy Office.

Released in the form of an Information Technology Bulletin from state CIO Charles Gerhards, the policy contains a number of design components intended to make state Web sites friendly to users with disabilities. Among its recommendations:

* Web designers must include a text description for non-text elements, such as bullets, images and symbols, allowing them to be interpreted by screen-reader software.

* Text transcriptions should accompany audio clips, and video

clips should include an audio description.

* Frames, moving text and blinking text should be avoided.

Gerhards office collaborated with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which regularly works with citizens with disabilities, to develop the guidelines. An inter-governmental project team also reviewed the policys feasibility.

Pennsylvanias multi-agency approach recently won recognition from Temple Universitys Institute on Disabilities, which gave the state an Assistive Technology Achievement Award in November. And Hintze said involving a number of key constituencies resulted in a stronger final product.

"You walk a fine line between writing a policy that is so strict that it becomes prohibitive on what applications or sites you can develop vs. one thats so general that it doesnt do anything," Hintze said. "I think they very nicely found an appropriate balance between what can be done and expected from a vendor, yet still provide enough leeway to have very professional-looking Web sites for those who have no impairment."

False Assumptions

Despite burgeoning interest in breaking down accessibility barriers, state IT access policies remain the exception rather than the norm. A recent survey conducted by the Association of Tech Act Projects discovered significant laws, rules, regulations or policies in Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. In addition, IT access bills were introduced in Oregon, Arizona and West Virginia, according to the organization.

Golden laid some blame for the scarcity of state policies on officials who incorrectly assume the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) already mandates open technology. Though the ADA entitles Americans with disabilities to equal access to government information and programs, it does not require those services to be delivered through accessible information technology, she said.

For instance, Missouri equipped its one-stop employment centers with adaptive computer stations suitable for independent use by citizens with disabilities -- a move not required under the ADA. "The ADA would say you can have persons with disabilities come in and have a staff member get on a computer for them and help them do the job search -- not make the job search accessible, but do the job for them. Thats providing program access, and its perfectly legal under the ADA," Golden said.

Bob Ruppenthal, program analyst for Pennsylvanias Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, said resistance to IT accessibility policies among public agencies or vendors often stems from a simple lack of awareness. He contended IT policies that foster accessible Web sites offer benefits that extend beyond citizens with disabilities.

"I certainly believe that when your site conforms to accessible Web site standards, it actually functions better -- pages load faster, there is less demand on network resources and its going to lower your costs," Ruppenthal said. "Youre also making your Web site more competitive; youre expanding your audience because youre able to reach everyone."

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.