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.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (Census 2000), people with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States, accounting for approximately one-fifth of the entire U.S. population. That number is destined to grow as the population ages. Members of the baby boom generation—more than 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964—are now in their forties and fifties. In fact, more than 48 percent of the U.S. workforce is now age 40 or older. By 2005, baby boomers will be reaching age 60 at the rate of one every seven seconds, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2003), and more than half of the 1.8 million federal employees will be eligible for retirement. That figure includes 71 percent of Senior Executive Service employees, the government’s highest-ranking career professionals.
Aging baby boomers in both the public and private sectors are beginning to experience age-related disabilities such as low vision, hearing loss and decreasing dexterity, which is transforming accessibility into a mainstream economic issue. Section 508 ensures aging federal employees will have the support they need to continue working with no loss in productivity, and simultaneously provides broader public access to government services and information.
As the members of this large population segment continue to age, they will face more serious and potentially debilitating issues such as arthritis, glaucoma and cataracts. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 70 percent of all Americans will experience some kind of disability before they reach age 75.
A National Eye Institute study (Friedman, 2002), for example, predicts that the aging baby boom generation could double the number of blind Americans, because growing older is a major factor in developing eye disease. Cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in the world, currently affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older. By age 80, more than half of all Americans develop cataracts. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report (CDC 2003) that the number of older adults in the United States with arthritis or chronic joint symptoms is expected to nearly double to 41.1 million by 2030.
These trends signal a growing need for accessible technology, and for both public and private sector policies to help ensure its widespread adoption and use. Anything less will limit career options for federal workers as they get older, and create unnecessary barriers to government services for members of the public with age-related disabilities. Section 508 is a good beginning, and a valuable model for others to follow.
COMPETITION AND INNOVATION
Virtually unique among federal regulations, Section 508 spurs industry competition and innovation by creating economic incentives for technology companies to build more and better accessibility features into their products. Section 508 does not attempt to regulate the technology industry, nor does it require companies to alter their products. Instead, it simply requires technology products to be measured against a set of accessibility standards that were developed by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, more commonly known as the Access Board, before federal agencies can consider purchasing them. Any technology company that wants to do business with the U.S. government – which currently spends an estimated $52 billion per year on electronic and information technology – must make accessible products and services a priority.
Early critics of Section 508 said the regulations were too vague and would lead to a paralyzing number of lawsuits and bid protests by vendors who failed to win big government contracts. For example, an article in Federal Computer Week (Matthews, 2001), published a little more than two months before Section 508 took effect, said, “The ambiguity in Section 508 is likely to provide ample grounds for challenging agency awards.” The article quoted various attorneys and vendors, including Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, which represents a number of companies that sell goods and services to the federal government. Allen said: “The rules are so vague as to invoke protests and litigation.”
Today, two years after Section 508 was implemented, it looks as though the critics were wrong. By offering the technology industry a carrot instead of a stick, Section 508 set the stage for a proactive public/private partnership. Technology companies rushed to collaborate with government officials: clarifying gray areas in the regulations; establishing voluntary reporting procedures that would help government employees fulfill their regulatory responsibility to conduct thorough market research; and developing a set of best practices for companies that do business with the U.S. government under Section 508.
PARTNERING TO CREATE BEST PRACTICES
As a leading technology company with a long commitment to accessibility, Microsoft was able to help facilitate the partnership between industry and government. For example, Microsoft chaired the industry working group that led the effort to devise the 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 or does not meet Section 508 standards. Companies fill out a VPAT for each of their products and post the completed forms on their corporate Web sites, providing both government officials and consumers easy access to comparative product information. And because the VPATs are posted publicly, companies can see what kind of accessibility features their competitors are building into their products, a situation that helps to spur healthy competition to create the most accessible EIT products.
Although a VPAT offers an easy way for companies to provide information about product accessibility, it’s still a fairly new system. Many companies, especially small and medium-sized companies, aren’t yet aware of the VPATs, or don’t think Section 508 applies to them, or simply don’t understand what kind of information government officials need before they can consider purchasing their 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. At the same time, government officials, who are now required by law to do thorough market research and to buy only the most accessible EIT available, are working to help educate those in industry who don’t know about Section 508.
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 applying only to government procurement officials, Section 508 applies to all “requiring officials,” which could be almost any government employee who ever needs to request or purchase a new EIT 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), whose agency 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 TWO-PRONGED 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 are relying on the General Services Administration (GSA).
Generally, the GSA exists to leverage federal buying power, to provide the facilities, services and supplies 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.
According to Katherine Rhodes at GSA, 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, which then functions as a 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 information about their products’ accessibility, responding only once instead of answering hundreds of similar queries from federal requiring officers.
Rhodes also 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 didn’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.”
SOME AGENCIES DESIGN THEIR OWN PROCESSES
Like some other large agencies, 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 says, 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 says Section 508 also has 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.
MICROSOFT'S INDUSTRY LEADERSHIP
In addition to its work with government officials and other industry leaders on accessibility issues related to Section 508 regulations and the accessibility features it builds into its own products, Microsoft also contributes to accessibility by providing a platform for the development of numerous assistive technologies, such as screen readers for people who are blind.
In a 2002 report on Section 508 (Kreizman, 2002), the Gartner Group highlighted the important role that Microsoft and other operating system manufacturers play in assuring accessible software that works well with assistive technology. 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. In a Research Note dated April 18, 2002, Gartner wrote:
“The AT market consists primarily of small vendors that make niche products to support users with vision, auditory, mobility and cognitive impairments. These developers must determine how to leverage development resources and how to test software to ensure operation with these diverse products.
“We recommend that Windows developers with scarce resources develop to the Microsoft Active Accessibility API when writing development or remediation software to reduce development burden and comply with the requirements of Section 508.”
Microsoft’s view is that 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.
Because of Section 508, technology companies are beginning to compete on the basis of accessibility—and that will benefit everyone. People with disabilities will benefit because they will be getting the most accessible technology available on the market. Public and private employers will benefit, because they will have the means to recruit, accommodate and retain a wider range of talented employees, including older workers and those with disabilities. Other technology users will benefit as well, because accessible technology gives everyone more options for tailoring their work environments to their own needs and preferences. And with the growing trend toward e-government, citizens will have greater access to government services and information online.
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.
THE EXPANDING INFLUENCE OF SECTION 508
Many state governments are following the federal example, adopting procurement policies that require the technology they purchase—from Web sites to personal computers and software applications—to be the most accessible on the market. In doing so, they are creating new job opportunities in state government for people with disabilities and creating better access to government services and information.
Many educational institutions are adopting similar policies. That’s important, because colleges and universities are integrating technology more fully into campus and community life, using personal computers and the Internet to present course information, teach classes, deliver resources, and provide information about an expanding array of services.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics Study on Postsecondary Students with Disabilities (Hurst & Smerdon, 2000), roughly 6 percent of all undergraduate college and university students have a disability. In addition to helping students, faculty and staff, however, accessible and assistive technology also creates new opportunities for people throughout the broader community who take advantage of campus services and activities. Accessible technology is also important to the growing field of distance learning, to ensure that valuable resource is available to all students.
Today, the opportunities that Section 508 heralded for people with disabilities are beginning to emerge, while the challenges it created for government and industry are starting to fade, thanks in part to the successful public-private collaboration that is making it easier for government officials to satisfy the new requirements. But while much has been accomplished, much still remains to be done before the full potential of Section 508 can be achieved.
Section 508 is also having a significant impact in many countries outside the United States. As the world’s largest customer for electronic and information technology, the U.S. government’s procurement policies influence the decisions of technology companies worldwide.
On April 11, 2003, Erkki Liikanen, a member of the European Commission who is responsible for Enterprise and the Information Society, gave a speech (Liikanen, 2003) in Crete to the “Ministerial Symposium on e-Inclusion: Towards an Inclusive Information Society in Europe.” In his remarks, Liikanen demonstrated the kind of influence Section 508 is having on governments and companies around the world.
“We may wish to explore the further strengthening of the requirements for accessibility in public procurement, in order to overcome possible market failure. Together with technical standards this would certainly have an impact on the European market. Both societal and economic interests are at stake.
“It is interesting to consider in this respect the situation in the USA. The Americans with Disabilities Act sets out to ‘prohibit discrimination and ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.’
“This basic legislation has been complemented with The Rehabilitation Act and in particular Section 508, which applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.
“Under Section 508 agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.
“This has a significant influence as the US government is the largest purchaser of ICT products and services in the world.
“Section 508 is not only having a strong impact on the US industry, but also on the European. A European manufacturer of mobile telephones and ICT equipment recognised in a recent "Design for All" workshop, that the main reason for them to consider accessibility in their products and organising their R&D accordingly, was Section 508.”
The technology industry spans the globe, and many technology companies do business in many different countries. Computing devices are the new tools of the global economy, and the Internet has quickly become the medium of choice for business communication and commerce around the world. Meanwhile, the need for accessible technology is acute. According to a United Nations report in 2001, there are approximately 600 million people with disabilities worldwide.
Several countries are currently exploring the idea of establishing unique national policies similar to Section 508 or creating entirely new accessibility guidelines for government procurement. Collaboration on the international harmonization of policies and standards will unite governments, industry and people with disabilities instead of allowing national technology barriers to divide them. Therefore, what is needed most is international harmonization of procurement practices and technology standards for accessibility—to create a relatively uniform global playing field for technology companies, and to ensure accessibility and assistive technology of increasingly high quality for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, in the United States, more work is needed to strengthen government compliance with Section 508 and industry application of its requirements.
On the government side, there is an ongoing need to educate and train federal employees about their responsibilities as requiring officials, and to assure them that government and industry are working together to provide the resources they need to carry out those responsibilities.
At the same time, industry must continue to make it easy for companies to provide government officials with information about the accessibility of their EIT products. Working together, government and industry have established a best practice with the VPAT system, and they must continue to educate and engage companies that aren’t yet involved.
Most of all, government and industry must nurture and extend their partnership, because the long-term success of Section 508 will depend on how well they are able to sustain a healthy ecosystem to support it, where the interdependencies and partnerships continue to function well even as both sides work to improve the system. Section 508 has made a valuable contribution to the widespread adoption and use of accessible technology, but there will be new challenges as technology continues to change. For Section 508 to succeed, industry and government must continue to work together actively. That dynamic public-private partnership is a key component to enabling people with disabilities to realize their full potential.
U.S. Census, 2000
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003
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