The federal government is aggressively promoting disability access, with the General Services Administration playing a lead role. GSA, along with the U.S. Access Board, GSA, the CIO Council's Accessibility Community of Practice, the Justice Department of Justice, and the Office of E-Government & Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget work together to implement the standards laid out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act in 1986, and has been revised since then, most notably in 1998, when an amendment changed its prescriptions from non-binding guidelines to binding, enforceable standards.

In short, the section requires that electronic and information technology that federal agencies create or purchase must be accessible to people with disabilities unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. The agencies are responsible for ensuring accessibility of their technologies.

The Access Board sets the direction and policy for Section 508 compliance. OMB's e-government and IT administrator helps agencies implement the standards, a role assigned to that office in the E-Gov Act of 2002. Meanwhile, GSA's Office of Government-wide Policy provides technical assistance to agencies. The help comes primarily through Section 508 Coordinators meetings — OGP held six such meetings in FY 2015 — and through individual requests from agencies.

OGP leads the development and management of tools, such as the Section portal and the BuyAccessible Wizard, for use by the acquisition, IT, and Section 508 coordinator communities.

Even with all that help, though, agencies can find compliance difficult. The challenges are as likely to be cultural as they are technological, said Karen Evans, national director for the U.S. Cyber Challenge and a former administrator of the Office of E-Government & Information Technology at OMB.

"When you start looking at the responsibilities that a CIO has as it relates to accessibility, a lot of times it's not as high on the priority list as say cybersecurity or privacy, or modernization of IT," she said. "But if you start to look at, 'I'm going to modernize the environment that an agency has,' that is the time to start looking at technologies that have implemented international standards as it relates to accessibility so that it becomes a natural byproduct, that you're meeting that responsibility without really thinking about it. It's critical, because you want to be able to address the population and you also want to be able to make sure that when you hire people with disabilities, that the environment and the products that you bought are usable by them."

Compliance begins with acquisition, according to a GSA spokesperson. "Ensuring that IT accessibility technical requirements are properly included in IT solicitations is challenging, given the vast number of individuals preparing solicitations, the ever changing technology universe, and the resources agencies have to verify and check solicitations," the spokesperson said via email. "Often during a solicitation, other factors (i.e. price, business alignment) take priority over accessibility concerns, even when they were included in the requirements."

The spokesperson also noted a cultural challenge. "One of the hardest hurdles to overcome is the common perception that because there are no persons with disabilities on staff, there is then no need to worry about accessibility," the spokesperson said. "Disabilities are not always obvious, and the number of people with disabilities is increasing along with the aging workforce and returning disabled veterans. Ultimately, there needs to be greater awareness throughout the federal community about the steps that are needed to ensure that people with disabilities have the tools they need to work in government."

In Other News
Load More