Enabling the Disabled

By R.J.W. & W.C.G

Every year, the federal government spends about $35 billion on technology, making it the single largest purchaser of technology in the world. Now, all technology purchased by the government must be accessible to persons with disabilities, in accordance with an initiative announced in June.

In 1998, President Clinton signed into law amendments to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which covers access to federally funded programs and services. A tiny and little-known independent federal agency, the Access Board, developed the accessibility regulations announced in June and is responsible for enforcement. Doug Wakefield, an accessibility expert on the Board, says section 508 ‘should change technology as we know it in this country.’ President Bush has asked Congress for $20 million to allow the Access Board to make grants to companies to develop accessible technology. ‘This will allow companies to make accessible products more affordable for the people who need them, and speed research in developing new technologies,’ Wakefield says.

According to Joy Relton, assistive technology specialist with Unisys Corp., technology makers will soon be producing more disabled-accessible technology for the general public. ‘The federal government is a big customer,’ Relton says. ‘If you’re going to make accessible software for them, you’re not going to make another flavor for the rest of the public.’

Relton, who is blind, explains that 70 percent of disabled people in the U.S. are either unemployed or underemployed. ‘Employers have been hesitant to put disabled people in a position because it was so expensive,’ she says. ‘But every piece of software that comes out will be accessible eventually. It’s going to take time – nothing comes overnight. But the technology will allow [employers] to tap the skills of members of society that are now untapped.’

While the new regulations may spur fundamental changes in the way large technology companies design their products, they also provide an opportunity for smaller manufacturers. Crunchy Technologies, an Arlington, Va.-based company, makes automated software that teaches Web designers what modifications must be made to a Web page to allow better accessibility. ‘Section 508 is not about simple compliance,’ says Lou Hutchinson, Crunchy Technologies’ CEO. ‘It’s about all organizations making Web content available to all on a long-term basis.’

For more information, including regulations and training options, go to www.section508.gov.

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