WASHINGTON (04/04/2000) - New "accessibility" standards would require federal agencies to make their information technology -- from computers to photocopiers to World Wide Web sites -- usable by people with disabilities. But some agency technology experts fear the cost of compliance may be exorbitant.
The standards strive to make office equipment and Web sites accessible to people with vision, hearing and other disabilities. But at costs up to $1 billion a year government-wide, agencies might use an escape clause: They don't have to comply if they can show compliance is "a significant difficulty or expense."
But individuals can take legal action against agencies for noncompliance. The standards apply to electronic equipment and IT procured after Aug. 7. Some of the standards appear relatively easy to meet. If there are color-coded buttons on office equipment, for example, there should also be other ways to tell "on" from "off."
And computer programs that typically require a mouse should also be operable via keyboard for people who can't see a cursor or operate a mouse. But the rules governing Web pages worry some agency technology experts. Most of the information available on Web sites is presented in visual form, but the accessibility standards require it to be usable by the visually impaired.
Pictures and graphics, for instance, must be accompanied by audio information or text that can be read by a text reader. Such rules may mean "doing everything twice," said a technology specialist for the General Services Administration. The cost and time "could have a chilling effect" on agencies using the Internet, he said.
More worrisome is how the new standards would apply to information already on the Web. "There is such a huge volume of information out there now, I can't imagine the cost of going back and updating and changing it to comply with the new standards," he said.
The standards are a proposal developed by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The board will accept comments for 60 days, and it may revise the standards before publishing a final version in May.