Lack of access to information because of the inability to read print is a persistent problem for blind and visually impaired persons in employment, education, home life, civic and social life. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), with over 50,000 members, is having considerable success on the state and federal level to address this issue through legislation and litigation. This article is an overview of important landmarks such as a suit against AOL for lack of access, efforts concerning the Voting Rights bill, the background for Section 508 (which affects the internal and external accessibility of all federal agency electronic and information technology), passage of similar state laws, and other important initiatives of the NFB to address computer accessibility problems affecting all blind and visually impaired Americans. The article demonstrates an approach to access focused on the law of procurement and not solely on nondiscrimination law. It concludes with a look at current and future legislative initiatives.
Volume IX Number 1, October 2003
Introducing a special issue of Information Technology and Disabilities: PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES: ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
Guest Editor: Steve Noble
Policy Analyst, Kentucky Assistive Technology Service Network
It is a distinct pleasure to introduce the first installment of ITD's two-part special series on public policy issues. This collection of articles, and those that will follow in the upcoming issue, are part of our special theme to address the public policy aspects relating to the emerging civil right of access to information. In a world so dependent upon the flow of information and the operation of information technology, it is clearly a social imperative that all people are afforded equal access to this vital resource. In particular, those who help shape public policy must collectively safeguard this right and ensure that individuals with disabilities do not find themselves on the wrong side of the "digital divide."
On behalf of EASI, Equal Access to Software and Information, I would like to say a special "thank you" to all the authors who contributed to this series.
Special Theme Articles
Federal Regulation Creates Economic Incentives For Competition, Innovation Among Technology Companies
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, which took effect in June 2001, requires all agencies of the U.S. government to ensure that any electronic or information technology (EIT) they “develop, procure, maintain or use” is accessible to people with disabilities. That one change in federal law promises unprecedented new opportunities in employment, education and independent living for more than 54 million Americans with disabilities. Whether that promise is fulfilled will depend largely on how effectively government and industry work together to achieve the goals of Section 508, and to make accessible technology an integral part of American society and our national economy.
Dramatic changes have occurred in recent years related to accessibility of information technology (IT) within state government. With the proliferation of web based services and the clamor for comprehensive e-government initiatives, accessibility for people with disabilities has become a critical issue for state IT policy makers. Supported by legislative imperatives at the federal level, such as Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, many states have embarked on their own IT accessibility policy development and implementation.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 empowers individuals with disabilities to be employed and included in society and prohibits discrimination. In 1998 the act was amended and strengthened by adding provisions covering access to electronic and information technology. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act “requires access to the Federal government’s electronic and information technology.” Although these standards were originally designed for federal government agencies, some state legislatures and local agencies have subsequently required compliance with Section 508.
In the U.S., coins of different denominations can be readily distinguished by people who are blind and visually impaired because the look and feel of each denomination is different. On the other hand, banknotes are all the same size and texture, regardless of their denomination. While it is true that the images and numerals vary from one denomination to another, much of this information is indistinguishable by people who have limited vision, and cannot be identified at all by people who are blind.
In the United States, access to published print material for people with disabilities has been improved by the 1996 passage of the Chafee Amendment to the copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 121 [ 1]). This enables nonprofit organizations or governmental agencies to provide alternative accessible copies of previously published nondramatic literary works in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities. The Chafee Amendment has supported access to information by people with disabilities that affect their ability to access print material, both in and outside the education setting.
The Importance of Accurately Measuring The Accessibility of The Federal Electronic Government: Developing The Research Agenda
Studying the effectiveness of the federal electronic government (e-government) is very important if the e-government is to mature into a completely functional virtual representation of the federal government providing full democratic participation in cyberspace. In order for the e-government to be wholly democratic, it must be fully accessible to all citizens, including individuals with disabilities. Federal law actually requires that all federal e-government websites provide their information and services in a fully accessible manner, though such universal accessibility is nowhere near the actual situation at this point.
What Color Is That Comment: The Mechanics Of Online Collaboration From A Blind Student's Perspective
As the first blind student to attempt to complete the MS in Education, Online Teaching and Learning, program at California State University, Hayward, I am blazing a trail for other students with disabilities who desire to participate in the cyber classroom as online teachers and learners. In this article, I briefly open the window to allow readers a quick view of my experience.