Accessibility Law Creates Confusion

By June 21, federal Web Sites must comply with a new regulation mandating easy access by the disabled. The problem: Agencies aren't sure how to do it.

By June 21, federal Web Sites must comply with a new regulation mandating easy access by the disabled. The problem: Agencies arent sure how to do it.

President Bill Clinton punted the details of implementing the 1998 law, an amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, to a small, independent federal agency called the Access Board, which issued the final version of the law in December and gave agencies six months to comply.

Meeting Section 508 standards should not be difficult, said Access Board accessibility specialist Doug Wakefield, who is the agency leader on the issue. The law, he said, does not force agencies to redesign their Web sites. Instead, it requires that from June 21 on, every purchase of an electronic communications service or device by federal agencies must comply with the law.

But what does that mean, exactly? A senior government official, who wished to remain anonymous and who has long wrestled with Section 508, said the law remains vague, compelling many agencies to make everything compliant to cover their bases. The official described agencies approach to compliance as "chaotic."

"The Department of Justice wants everything compliant. The Access Boards position is theyll get as much compliance as they can get," the official said. "The messages going out are very mixed."

Among other things, the official predicted that Section 508 will have a "chilling effect" upon federal agencies innovative attempts to use the Web because officials will fear that their projects may fail to address all possible complaints by disabled users.

Opinions about that effect were split, said Diana Hynek, Section 508 coordinator for the Department of Commerce, between officials who lament that the law will deaden Web applications and others who point to the many companies developing products specifically for Section 508.

Hynek also said some officials are worried about lawsuits.

"You can rest assured that when the implementation date comes, it will be like dropping the flag at [the] Indianapolis [500], in terms of lawsuits," said Larry Allen, executive director at the Coalition for Government Procurement. "Thats the word on the street, that there have already been several briefs drawn up, and there are groups waiting in the wings with their own beefs. Its so pervasive, and coming from so many areas."

Attorneys versed in Section 508 nitty-gritty said the laws lack of specificity has made some companies fearful about selling electronic products that might not satisfy every accessibility issue.

"No company I deal with wants to sign on the dotted line saying they are 508-compliant, because that opens them up for liability," Allen said.

"Its foggy. There are different standards floating around out there for different applications, so there is a fair amount of confusion," said David Nadler, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin and Oshinksy. "My view is the government didnt do a good job of spearheading this. Right now, there is disconnect and uncertainty in both the vendor and government communities. They are trying to figure out what they can and cannot do."

He added that he believes Congress will use Section 508 to push for a nationwide access law like the Americans with Disabilities Act, but this one would apply to cyberspace and electronic communications devices.

Many companies are unhappy about having to manufacture products tailor-made for the federal marketplace, but some are using the law to gain a competitive edge.

"If you want to play, sometimes you have to pay," said Zip Brown, vice president for government solutions at information technology consulting giant American Management Systems. "I think everybody in their heart of hearts believes its the right thing to do to support the objectives, but the question is what is a reasonable investment, and not everybody agrees on that. We felt it was appropriate, but there are companies that feel the investment is quite burdensome."