REDMOND, Wash., June 12, 2002 — One year ago this month, new regulations went into effect requiring all agencies of the U.S. government to ensure that any electronic or information technology they purchase, develop or use is accessible to people with disabilities -- whether they are federal employees or members of the public.
That one change in federal law promised unprecedented opportunity for 54 million Americans with a wide range of disabilities to pursue new careers, gain better access to government services and information, and benefit in countless ways from new accessible products that technology companies would develop in response to new government procurement policies. It also ensured that the 7 percent of federal workers who have disabilities -- more than 160,000 people -- could take advantage of the latest advances in accessible technology.
The regulations in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act also created unexpected challenges for thousands of government workers who were suddenly required to do extensive market research prior to purchasing any technology covered by the new guidelines, and for technology firms faced with providing detailed information about their products' accessibility in order to compete for government contracts.
Although Section 508 neither regulates the technology industry nor requires private companies to alter their products, it does establish strict accessibility standards that every technology product must be measured against before a federal agency can consider purchasing it. As a result, any technology company that wants to do business with the U.S. government -- one of the world's largest markets for electronic and information technology -- must make accessibility a priority.
Today, one year after Section 508 took effect, the opportunities it heralded for people with disabilities are becoming realities, while the challenges it created for government and industry have been sharply reduced, thanks in part to a successful public/private partnership that is making it easier for both to satisfy the new requirements.
A Section 508 'Solution'
"We still have a long way to go, but if you look at where we started a year ago and then look today at how all of the parts now work together as a result of this partnership between industry and government, the progress is amazing," says Laura Ruby, program manager for regulatory and industry affairs in the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft, and chair of the Information Technology Industry Council's Section 508 working group. "We've created a Section 508 solution, in a sense, because we now have this system set up where manufacturers can show how their products meet the Section 508 standards and federal agencies can easily access that information."
The "solution" is deceptively simple.
A company evaluates a product, and then completes a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), an informational tool developed jointly by industry and government to assist federal procurement and contracting officials with the market research duties they are required to perform under Section 508. The VPAT describes precisely how a product does and does not meet Section 508 standards. The company then posts the VPAT on its corporate Web site, providing both government officials and consumers easy access to the information. The VPATs for Microsoft products, along with information about Section 508 and related topics, can be found at http://microsoft.com/usa/government/section508.asp
While a VPAT offers an easy way for companies to provide information about product accessibility, it's still a fairly new system. Many companies aren't yet aware of the VPATs, or don't think Section 508 applies to them, or simply don't understand what government officials need before they can consider purchasing products under the new regulations. Groups like the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) are trying to get the word out to technology companies that want to do business with the government. Meanwhile, government officials, who are now required by law to do thorough market research and to buy only the most accessible technology available, are doing much of the job of educating industry.
One complicating factor of the new regulations is the large number of government employees who have to know how to comply with them. Rather than affecting only government procurement officials, Section 508 applies to everyone who is what the government classifies as a "requiring official," which could be almost any government employee who ever needs to make a request for a new technology product.
"Everybody in government interacts with electronic and information technology in the course of their business day," says Katherine Rhodes, a program analyst at the General Services Administration (GSA), who is charged with educating federal employees about Section 508 and providing resources to help them comply. "If something happens to that equipment or they need to change software, they become a requiring official. If they use a photocopier, or a fax machine, or a computer, and they ever go to someone to request a new piece of equipment or software, they need to understand Section 508."
Government's Dual Approach
Government agencies have taken two different approaches to complying with Section 508 and meeting their new responsibilities. Some of the large agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the Departments of Labor, Justice and Education, have set up comprehensive internal processes to integrate Section 508 guidelines into their procurement practices, Web design, and internal technology development programs. Most other agencies work in partnership with the General Services Administration (GSA).
Generally, the GSA exists to leverage federal buying power, to provide the facilities, services and supplies -- from buildings to paper clips -- that enable the government to accomplish its mission. More specifically, the GSA has developed a Section 508 training program and a centralized Web site called Buy Accessible as a resource to help federal employees comply with the regulations. The Buy Accessible website can be found at www.Section508.gov .
According to the GSA's Rhodes, Buy Accessible was developed to provide government buyers with a way to get comparative information on the accessibility of products in the marketplace. After vendors complete VPATs about their products and post the information on their corporate Web sites, they can submit the URL for those pages to Buy Accessible. Buy Accessible then functions as a kind of portal site, providing access to product information stored on individual company Web sites. It's totally voluntary, but for vendors that choose to participate it provides a single place where they can report how accessible their products are, responding only once instead of answering hundreds of similar queries from federal requiring officers.
"The use of Buy Accessible has exploded," Rhodes says, citing 616 registered users, 387 registered products and 380 approved vendors. "But statistics don't show the change in the quality of participation. Laura Ruby and her Section 508 working group at ITIC have worked very hard to ensure that people filling out the templates are adding value instead of just checking a box saying, 'yes, we do this.'So, not only are we getting more participation, but people are also going back to improve the quality of their submissions.
"Sometimes they go back because I call them and say, 'you know, your VPAT doesn't tell me much,'" Rhodes says, laughing. "I kind of do 'touch-base calls' on the side to let people know when they're not really leveraging the opportunity."
Rhodes recently improved the site by finding a way to include vendors who are not product manufacturers but provide valuable services, such as systems integrators and technology consultants who can help agencies deal with various issues, run accessibility tests on Web sites, etc. Those vendors were unable to fill out a VPAT, because they don't have products and the template is specifically designed to gather product information. Rhodes added a category on Buy Accessible for service providers, and she now offers links to one-page descriptions of their services as part of the expanding resources Buy Accessible provides. She also revamped the site to make it more user-friendly, eliminating excess policy language and providing clearer, streamlined navigation to quickly lead people to the information they need.
"My view of the government is that we're here only to provide services to our constituents," Rhodes says. "If there are any barriers between me and my constituents, I won't be able to complete my mission. And there should be no barriers preventing any American from participating in government. I take that very seriously in everything I do. That's why accessibility is so important, especially as we provide more and more of our services through electronic government."
Social Security Designs Its Own Process
The Social Security Administration (SSA) established policies and procedures for Section 508 in an agency-wide implementation plan that is specific to SSA. The plan includes step-by-step procedures for procuring electronic and information technology, ensuring that it is meeting the Section 508 requirements, or determining that an exception is applicable.
SSA first informs every requiring official making a purchase request that they have to conduct market research. That means identifying vendors who sell the kind of products they need and asking the vendors to complete VPATs for their products. The vendors must then either provide the VPAT information directly to SSA or post it on their corporate Web sites so that requiring officials have easy access to it. Sometimes SSA even brings technology in-house to do hands-on testing, especially if it's a large procurement and there is some question about whether the technology conforms to the Section 508 standards. Every step in the SSA process is well documented to help the agency keep track of information already gathered, exceptions already identified, etc.
"It has been helpful in our agency to have a process that is clearly defined and that everybody has to go through - one in which we can document our success and keep track of exceptions," says Clare Bellus, director of usability and accessibility for the Social Security Administration.
According to Bellus, who has worked on accessibility issues since 1993, SSA has had a program to provide accessible technology and accommodations to employees with disabilities since the late 1980s. As a result, the agency has many employees with disabilities and a staff that is very aware of assistive and accessible technologies. Still, Bellus said, Section 508 has greatly increased employee awareness of accessibility issues at SSA, especially among those who may never have worked directly with someone who has a disability.
"As an agency, SSA has been very proactive on accessibility," Bellus says. "Section 508 is an extension of that. It underscores the importance of accessibility, and really reinforces what we were trying to do with our procurement before it was implemented."
Bellus said the first year under Section 508 also raised accessibility awareness in the private sector. Many companies now have accessibility groups and testing processes, and they are completing VPATs and posting them on their corporate Web sites. Section 508 also created a strong incentive for technology companies to build more and better accessibility features into their products.
"I've seen changes in technology that are very promising," she says. "Under 508, agencies are required by law to comply with the new accessibility guidelines. If vendors want us to buy their products, they have to follow the guidelines as well."
Bellus says SSA designs and develops some of its own technology, and Section 508 regulates those products, too. Internally, SSA has merged its accessibility and usability staffs to improve its designs by basing accessibility on the way people actually use technology. All SSA Web masters are aware of accessibility, and have tested their sites to make sure they are accessible. SSA has placed Section 508 requirements early in the life cycle of its design and development process for new technology.
"We've learned from experience that you can't make technology accessible with a patch; you have to build it in from the beginning," she says.
In a recent report on Section 508, Gartner Inc. highlighted the important role that Microsoft and other operating system manufacturers play in assuring accessible software that works well with assistive technology (AT). By including accessibility application programming interfaces (APIs) in their operating systems, companies like Microsoft give developers with limited resources an easy and efficient way to create highly accessible software.
"At Microsoft," says Ruby, "we believe Section 508 is good for everyone: government, industry, and people with disabilities. By using Section 508 to highlight the value of accessible technology to its employees and constituents, the federal government is encouraging industry to compete more vigorously to develop innovative technologies that are accessible to all users.
"If Section 508 works as intended, we'll be competing on the basis of accessibility -- and people with disabilities will benefit because they'll be getting the technology that is the most accessible," she adds.
According to Ruby, Microsoft has implemented a rigorous process to ensure that its product teams consider Section 508 standards at each stage of design and development for every new Microsoft product, and that those technologies are tested against each of the federal standards. And because Microsoft builds only one version of its products -- rather than separate versions for government, business and home users -- new accessibility features that are added because of Section 508 will benefit all users, not only federal employees.
Many state governments and universities are following the federal example, adopting procurement policies that require technology to be accessible. These changes are creating new education and career opportunities for the estimated 54 million people with disabilities in the U.S., including 8.5 million who want to work but remain unemployed. And should anyone think that this is a problem that only affects other people, Ruby points out that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 70 percent of all Americans will experience some kind of disability before they reach age 75.
"As people age, they have more challenges," says the Social Security Administration's Bellus. "Accessible technology allows people to stay in the workforce and not go on disability."
Within the next couple of product cycles, manufacturers will begin to align their product designs more closely with Section 508 requirements, Ruby says, and that will change the purchasing patterns in terms of what people buy and how accessible technology is to employees who need those resources to be fully productive. Federal employees with disabilities will begin to see the benefits in the next year or two as government agencies purchase and implement the newer technology.
"Most product cycles are 6-24 months, so we haven't seen the real fruits of Section 508 in products yet," Ruby says. "Many of us have done a good job of showing the accessibility features that already exist in our products, but the new products that are going to roll out in the next year are the ones that will incrementally have more and more of the Section 508 guidelines incorporated in their designs."
Even though Rhodes, Bellus and Ruby view Section 508 from different perspectives, and have slightly different goals for the second year working with the new accessibility guidelines, they all agree on one thing -- the key to the success of Section 508 is continuing partnership between industry and government.
Rhodes would like to reach everyone in government who is a requiring official, and let them walk away with the knowledge that Section 508 applies to them, but that there are resources to help, that government and industry are working together, and complying with the regulations is not an insurmountable challenge.
"That's a lofty goal, but I think if we advocate enough and work with industry and government colleagues, we can get the word out," she says.
"We've set up a best practice, and now we need to attract others to it who aren't yet involved," Ruby says. "The long-term success of Section 508 will depend on how well we're able to sustain a healthy ecosystem to support it, where the interdependencies and partnerships continue to work even as we improve the system."
Bellus agrees: "Section 508 is very positive legislation, but there are going to be new challenges as technology continues to change, so government and industry will need to work together to find new and innovative ways to overcome those evolving accessibility issues."
"To implement Section 508 successfully, and to make government more accessible, industry and government need to actively work together," Rhodes says. "Without that partnership, accessibility will not continue to improve."