Accessibility Law Evokes Cheers, Fears

WASHINGTON (04/21/2000) - Section 508, a technology-related amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), is scheduled to take effect Aug. 7. The amendment is being both hailed as a milestone and criticized as premature.

The law will help prevent job discrimination against people with disabilities, said Attorney General Janet Reno at last week's FOSE trade show and government user conference. "Some employees with disabilities lost jobs or became underemployed due to technological advances," Reno charged in a report to the president on the issue.

According to the 1994 U.S. Census, 49 million Americans have a disability, 24 million require assistive devices such as wheelchairs, and only about a quarter of people with disabilities have jobs.

Guidelines for 508 call for use of standard application programming interfaces for assistive technology. But compliance can be as simple as providing a keyboard option for a mouse click, such as typing "Control-P" instead of using a mouse to select the print option from a menu, Reno said.

Waivers are available for some applications, such as fighter planes or weapons systems, or if compliance would call for fundamental changes in the device or software, Wakefield said.

It's not the law but its timing that is at issue, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America industry group in Arlington, Virginia. Standards for product compliance won't be ready by Aug. 7, therefore no products can be in compliance by then, Miller said.

The group charged with defining the standards, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board), recommended that the law take effect not on Aug. 7, but six months later, said David M. Capozzi, a director of the board's Technical and Information Services. The ITAA plans to petition Congress for a similar extension.

The law doesn't require vendors to embed more costly, assistive technology such as braille displays or screen readers, said Douglas Wakefield, IT accessibility specialist at the Access Board.

It's preferable that they don't add such technology, Wakefield said. Use of standard application programming interfaces in software, for example, would let a user choose any screen reader and it would work with that software, he said.

For five years, the U.S. Department of Education has been working in its testing lab with information technology vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. to develop many of the requirements and language in Section 508, said Craig Luigart, the department's CIO.

Section 508 covers only the federal government, but its requirements likely will be reflected in the private sector within five years, Luigart said, driven not by the disabled but by aging baby boomers.

Bernard B. LaFleur, president and CEO of kiosk vendor Quad Media in Radford, Virginia, scoffed at timing objections. The ADA details many of the standards, as do proposed guidelines for the 508 amendment, LaFleur said. Technology to make IT accessible "is not new," he said.

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