Access Board Issues Standards for Electronic and Information Technology
Under standards published by the Board on December 21, 2000, the Federal government will be in the forefront in ensuring access to electronic and information technology. These standards, the first of their kind in the Federal sector, cover various means of disseminating information, including computers, software, and electronic office equipment. They provide criteria that spell out what makes these products accessible to people with disabilities, including those with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments. The Board developed these standards under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended by Congress in 1998. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use such technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it does not pose an "undue burden." The law directed the Board to develop access standards that are to become part of the Federal government's procurement regulations. The scope of section 508 and the Board's standards are limited to the Federal sector.
The new standards provide technical criteria specific to various types of technologies and performance-based requirements, which focus on the functional capabilities of covered technologies. Specific criteria cover software applications and operating systems; web-based information or applications; telecommunications functions; video or multi-media products; self contained, closed products such as information kiosks and transaction machines, and computers. Also covered is compatibility with adaptive equipment people with disabilities commonly use for information and communication access.
The standards are based on recommendations from an advisory committee the Board established for this purpose. The Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee was composed of 27 members representing industry, various disability organizations, and other groups with an interest in the issues to be addressed. The Board published the standards in proposed form on March 31, 2000 and made them available for public comment for 60days. Over 100 individuals and organizations submitted comments on the standards. Comments were submitted by Federal agencies, representatives of the information technology industry, disability groups, and persons with disabilities. The Board finalized the standards according to its review and analysis of these comments.
The final standards, which will become part of the Federal procurement regulations, will help Federal agencies determine whether or not a technology product or system is accessible. Section 508 uses the Federal procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the Federal government is accessible. The law also sets up an administrative complaint process which becomes effective 6 months from publication of the Board's standards.
The Federal government is not alone in taking action on this front. Private industry and research entities have demonstrated significant initiative in improving access for people with disabilities in the Digital Age. In a major policy address last fall, President Clinton called attention to these various initiatives. "Breaking down barriers is not enough," the President noted, "People actually have to have the tools they need to take advantage of this remarkable moment of opportunity -- especially the tools they need in cyberspace." He called attention to a letter he received from the CEOs of leading high-tech companies indicating their commitment to a corporate-wide policy on accessibility. Pledged to this goal are the CEOs of 3Com, Adobe, AOL, AT&T, Bell South, Compaq, eBay, Global Crossing, Handspring, Hewlett-Packard, Macromedia, Microsoft, NCR, PeoplePC, Qualcomm, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems, among others. In addition, the heads of the nation's top 25 research universities, including the University of California, the University of Michigan, and MIT, promised the President that they would take a number of important steps to expand research and education on accessibility. These efforts will include: ensuring that computer scientists and engineers receive training on accessibility; expanding the number of faculty who conduct research on accessibility; and ensuring that university online resources are accessible to people with disabilities. "Bridging the digital divide is not just the morally right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do," the President stated, " and if we build new on-ramps to the information super highway, people with disabilities will help us build an even stronger America, and, I might add, share in the promise of the declaration of true independence."
The Access Board and the General Services Administration (GSA) are directed to provide technical assistance to individuals and Federal agencies concerning the requirements of Section 508. The Federal Information Technology Accessibility Initiative (FITAI) is an interagency effort, coordinated by GSA, to offer technical assistance and to provide an informal means of cooperation and sharing of information on implementation of Section 508. Under a contract awarded to a private firm in September, the Board is developing training modules and technical assistance materials on the new standards and section 508. Materials to be developed include fact sheets, brochures, answers to frequently asked questions, multimedia presentations, narrated slide shows, practical "how-to" tips on making websites accessible to people with disabilities, and comprehensive annotated lists of reference materials. Training modules will be available for use by speakers at workshops and conferences. The modules will be designed to meet the needs of various audiences, such as Federal managers, end-users with disabilities, the procurement community, and producers of technology.
In addition, the Department of Education has provided a 5-year, $7.5 million grant to the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Rehabilitation Technology. This grant will provide training and technical assistance on universal design to technology manufacturers, product designers, and purchasers of information technology. It will also help improve the implementation of Section 508.