May 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 2

Policy Update

U.S. Access Board Meets to Begin Section 508 Revisions

On March 25, several dozen of the more than 4,000 participants at the annual CSUN Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities gathered in a ballroom at the host hotel. They were not watching a demonstration of the latest in access technology, nor was a breakthrough research paper being presented. Still, the topic of discussion is at least as significant to the lives of disabled Americans as any of the dozens of similar-sized gatherings that took place at the conference. The presentations were from the public, not from academicians, and the real audience was gathered on the stage, not in the rows of chairs that filled the room. The event was the first public meeting of the U.S. Access Board at which a set of proposed revisions and updates to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act were publically discussed.

Some readers of this publication may have only the vaguest idea of what Section 508 represents. For others, Section 508 isn't even on the radar as part of the technology dictionary. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal requirement that electronic and information technology purchased by the federal government be accessible to persons with disabilities. As you can imagine, the federal government is a huge customer of electronic and information technology. The potential impact reaches far beyond federal purchasing as many states use Section 508 to create statewide accessibility requirements for their own purchases. By requiring accessibility by such large purchasers of technology, it is assumed companies will include accessibility in all technology produced, not just that which is produced for the government.

As elsewhere in federal law, the language of the statute stating the requirement to purchase accessible electronic and information technology is relatively short. Since the actual text of the law cannot include the vastly complex requirements to make this mandate a reality, a set of regulations was created over a decade ago when Section 508 was enacted. However, the rapid pace of progress and phenomenal changes in technology have quickly made the original regulations outdated.

Beginning more than three years ago, AFB participated in a process through which consumers and industry and government agencies prepared recommendations to the U.S. Access Board to update current regulations. The Access Board received this report in April 2009. From the report, and with the assistance of Access Board staff, a set of proposed regulations was published for public comment on March 22, in time for the meeting that took place at CSUN.

The current Section 508 regulations, as well as those that will replace them, reside at the center of a very complex set of governmental and private-sector procedures and activities that combine to create the process for government procurement. The individuals who stood before the Access Board on March 25 reflected the many perspectives that the Board will consider as it moves forward.

The tone of the comments was generally positive. Because the regulations are extensive, occupying three large braille volumes, the common thread that opened most comments was, "I haven't had the chance to look at all of the information in detail, but what I see looks very promising."

Several individuals addressed specific language and requested particular changes. For example, one individual suggested the terms "audio described" and "video described" be clarified and, where necessary, changed. Another was a request by an individual who works in the scientific efforts of an agency that the Board include scientific equipment in examples describing where the regulations must be applied.

It is important to recognize that the regulations for implementing Section 508 can address only the technical characteristics of technology. Despite this limitation, an impassioned plea was made to tighten up a part of the procurement process in which an agency conducts "market research." The purpose of the research is to gain an understanding of the available technology the agency may choose from when making purchases. In the experience of the presenter, this process is often an opportunity for mischief making if the agency wants to exclude a particular brand or model of equipment for a reason that is not essential. An example was later pointed out to me in which an agency purchased laptop computers with a touchpad rather than a pointer, excluding a particular brand and ensuring that only one manufacturer would receive the very large contract. The implications for accessibility are clear; if accessible technology is excluded for trivial reasons, then disabled federal employees and citizens lose out.

Focusing specifically on the first draft of the regulations, it was observed that time is a very tough taskmaster. As we look back on the existing regulations, we see that the regulations did not anticipate several of today's important trends. Thus, we must take very great care to "future proof" the new regulations.

The tremendous inconsistencies observed among federal agencies in procurement was discussed by at least one presenter. In some important respects, this topic cannot be addressed directly by means of technical specifications, yet additional information and supplemental documentation created to assist procurement officials clearly falls within the scope of the Board's mandate.

AccessWorld is committed to covering all aspects of technology and accessibility that impact our readers. "This is the beginning of a process," observed Mark Richert, AFB's director of public policy. "The Board started out by asking some questions. When they have those answers from AFB, the public, and others, they will move on to the next step." He continued, "We're just getting on a ride which may take 24 months. If you're interested in accessibility, it is a good idea to jump in and learn more about these regulations. People need to keep informed and participate."

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