Breaking The Access Barrier

While government hails the internet and automated information systems as a means for improving service delivery and boosting internal efficiency, information technology represents a double-edged sword for Americans with disabilities.

by / February 10, 2001
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 published in late December or early January. Federal agencies then have six months to comply.

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 they would have to do to accomplish that. So it was a little bit fuzzy, but at least it got their attention, and in most cases, the vendors were willing to work with us."

Texas IT access policies have since evolved to include both purchasing rules for accessible technology and design standards for government Web sites. The states ongoing efforts resulted in a 2000 Recognition Award from NASIRE for outstanding achievement in information technology. Texas purchasing
standards are available online as are the states Web design standards.

Missouri, another early adopter of IT access policies, enacted legislation requiring state agencies to purchase, develop and maintain accessible information technology nearly two years ago. Golden said Missouri has created some standards under the law -- it adopted the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines for Web site accessibility -- but has waited for the U.S. Access Board to complete its task before finalizing the states IT access criteria.

"Obviously, whatever the board uses for software [access standards], commercial developers are going to start complying with," she said. "So those are the same standards we want to use, because Missouris not going to get a developer to do something different just for Missouri."

Golden added concrete standards that define what accessibility for various IT products and systems are vital to governments effort to purchase accessible IT products. Missouri learned the value of such standards soon after the release of Microsofts Windows 95 software, when former state CIO Mike Benzen refused to purchase the popular
software package until a compatible screen-reader application became available. A marginally acceptable product appeared some five months later, according to Golden.

"State agencies were calling me all the time asking me, Why on earth they couldnt buy this thing," she said. "That just drove home to us that we werent gong to be able to stand on a no-buy decision very long without some really clear, verifiable standards. Quite honestly, without clear standards, you cant force the issue. If you dont have testable standards and you dont have protocols to test against those standards, theres really no way you are going to be able to reject a proposal or a bid."

Need for Speed

With the explosive pace of technology development in the public sector, both Golden and Johnson said IT accessibility issues must be addressed early to minimize expensive retrofitting.

"If agencies go full-bore and do something that is not accessible, its going to cost them to go back and change that," Johnson said. "Its critical, as were starting to look at putting more services on the Web, to address accessibility when we start. Then the cost is insignificant."

That proactive approach appears to be taking hold, at least in some jurisdictions. A handful of states -- including Texas, Missouri and Virginia -- have taken a lead role in tackling disabled access issues, said David Nadler, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky. Nadler, who specializes in government contract law, expects other states to quickly follow suit as federal government IT access initiatives ramp up.

"On these types of policy matters, the states tend to piggyback on the feds," he said. "I would expect that anybody who does state contracting business is going to have to deal with this over the next year or so."

Microsofts Ruby also pointed to growing awareness among the companys government clients. "Theres been heightened interest from our enterprise customers as accessibility has become more of a mainstream concern," she said. "As states have become more active in putting accessibility requirements in their contract and the 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

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. 

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