Enabling Technology

Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require all technology to be accessible to people with disabilities. What effect will this have on state and local governments and the technology they purchase?

by / February 12, 2001
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 flexible and inclusive system.

People with disabilities will use specialized software to enable their computers to talk to them in ways that suit their needs. There is access software that translates information on a screen into speech or Braille. Captioning for the hearing impaired is created through transcription or webcasts, and other technologies allow folks to manipulate computer commands without using their hands.

All these adaptive technologies require friendly computer systems and flexible Internet pages to work. Of course, the elements that construct accessible technology require a little education and upfront time. However, experts agree that its far more economical and efficient to make an initial investment rather than retrofit a design. The road map, Section 508, makes clear to designers of Web pages and applications what must be done.

"Its not much work to do once you know how," explained Vanderheiden. "The challenge is developing strategies for doing it so that when you program, its second nature. Its a learning curve."

The variety of browsers, he added, presents challenges because applications and design can behave differently depending upon the browser used.

"The goal is to change the way products are designed by using standard market mechanisms to create a market with a preference and let industry compete to address those features," said Vanderheiden.

According to Waddell, the expansive definition of electronic information, which includes multiple electronic devices, and technology as outlined in Section 508, will send ripples throughout government and electronic-government companies. On the surface, it seems like a simple e-commerce issue -- purchase only accessible products. However, a short leap of logic says that private technology companies hoping to sell to the federal government will pay close attention to 508 requirements.

"The federal government is the largest consumer of information technology in the world," Waddell said. "It has created a market incentive to ensure functionality of elements in the design of technology. It will be hard for a vendor to say they will make accessible technology for government and not for others. A two-tier system doesnt make sense."

Waddell added that before the final rules were released, 45 major IT companies had voluntarily committed themselves to an accessibility program.

Making a Commitment

It is also important for states to note what the new Section 508 requirements will not do. For example, the law will not require that workstations of non-disabled employees be fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Desktop computers do not have to be equipped with refreshable Braille displays, but they must be compatible with the adaptive technology should a person with a disability need it. In addition, agencies do not have to procure electronic information technology to satisfy Section 508 requirements if the purchase presents "undue burden" or is "commercially unavailable." Finally, the requirements cover the development, maintenance and use of products and services purchased on or after Aug. 7, 2000. Agencies will not be required to retrofit and rebuild systems that existed before that date.

Last September, President Clinton embarked on a tour that focused on adaptive technologies in public schools. Among the technologies viewed by the former presidents entourage was Eye Gaze, LC Technologies communication and control system for people with complex physical disabilities. A video camera mounted below the computer observes one of the users eyes, tracking where it is traveling on the screen. By looking at various keys displayed on the screen, a person can synthesize speech, control the environment, type, operate a telephone, run computer software and access the Internet. In other words, become enabled through technology.

Another application, Jaws for Windows (JFW), is a screen reader that speaks everything on the computer screen. There is also a Braille Window that works with JFW and reads the words in Braille. This function is critical to people who are blind and deaf.

These technologies address some severe disabilities. However, much of the controversy and litigation about accessibility has been inspired by more basic events, such as inaccessibility of information on government sites or the inability to make ATM transactions, that are second nature to the mainstream community.

Section 508 in the Workplace

Sometimes, access is inextricably linked to livelihood. In the 1980s, when the switch from DOS to Windows was made, screen readers wouldnt function, and blind employees were left without access. It was a relatively quiet blood bath that cost jobs and launched several court actions. According to one federal manager, who wished to remain anonymous, "It took much too long, and many, many lives were disrupted."

There are other sound business reasons to create accessible Web design. According to surveys, approximately 70 percent of people in the United States with severe disabilities cant work. Assistive technology could open new windows on the world for people who have been isolated from the economic mainstream.

Darby Patterson is an electronic government program analyst at the Center for Digital Government, the knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic.