When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, a cry of alarm rose from the private and public sectors. The prophets of doom claimed the law would put people out of business and raise the costs of products and services. A decade later, those predictions have failed to materialize.

But as 2001 rolls on, the naysayers are at it again. Amendments to Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act require the federal government to purchase only those IT products and services that are accessible to people with disabilities. As a result, there is renewed controversy about what effect the ADA will have on American governments and businesses.

Cynthia Waddell, a vigorous crusader for disability rights and accessibility, is on a mission to dispel those concerns and tell the public how the new standards will advance the electronic future for everyone.

"The benefits of accessible technology extend far beyond the disabled community," Waddell said. "It allows people with low technology devices to access high technology."

The benefactors, according to Waddell, include a worldwide community of 750 million disabled people, 54 million of them in the United States.

Making a Difference

According to a Harris poll conducted earlier this year, disabled individuals use the Internet twice as much as the mainstream population, and it has made a difference in their lives. Half of disabled users surveyed said Internet access has significantly improved their lives while only one-quarter of the non-disabled users reported lifestyle enhancement.

Waddell, who wears two hearing aids and often depends upon captioning technology in her use of the Internet, is an attorney who was previously the compliance officer for the

city of San Jose, Calif. It was there she became immersed in the challenges that evolving technology presents to sight and hearing impaired people and those with mobility limitations. "What I didnt know then," she remembered, "was that, as I was trying to solve disability issues for the city of San Jose, it really was an international issue."

Waddell has since broadened her horizons by taking a position with PSINets Accessibility Center of Excellence, a unique training and consulting service provided to governments and companies to facilitate compliance with disability laws. She is working feverishly to educate businesses and government about the details and the timeline for compliance with the new regulations, which are scheduled to take effect in June.

In the spotlight are technology standards that allow people with disabilities to actively use the Internet and communications technologies, including telephones, wireless devices, copy machines and Web pages. At the same time, accessibility adaptations should have a positive effect on the general marketplace, creating compatibility and integrated systems that do not currently exist.

According to Gregg Vanderheiden, executive director of the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, challenges in using the Web are universal. For example, who hasnt come across a Web page that runs off the screen, making content a guessing game? "If that page were laid out to be more flexible, it could be viewed on a narrower screen or a [handheld device]," he said. "The key to access is basic flexibility."

Designing for All Users

Difficulties arise when features on a Web page can only be deciphered by one sense, such as sight or hearing. For example, a graphic element might convey important information. But for a blind person, the content is invisible if the graphic is not coded for accessibility. Screen-reader software allows a blind user to access content conveyed by the graphic. The text will be read out loud or accessed through the users refreshable Braille display. By coding the graphic for accessibility, the content is revealed to two senses. The same is true for audio content and the hearing impaired. A system that permits captioning is a

Darby Patterson  |  Editor