What Happened to Section 508’s Promise?
When section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Amendments Act became law on June 21, 2001 President George Bush touted its impact and federal workers with disabilities believed because of 508 they could do their jobs better and enhance their careers.
Section 508 requires that federal agencies' electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities.
More than one year later, the question arises, what happened to implementing section 508? Additional questions are: Is it working? Has it been embraced by the Bush Administration? What are the manufacturers of assistive technology products doing to ensure 508 compliance among vendors requiring their services? What impact has 508 had vendors? Where are the lawsuits from consumers with disabilities and federal employees unable to access federal web sites?
The record on section 508 implementation is mixed. In fact, a double standard exists on enforcing and not enforcing 508. On the periphery, section 508 is working. The Secretaries of Health & Human Services and the Departments of Labor, Justice, Defense, Transportation, Treasury and Housing and Urban Development claim 508 is being implemented. And I know vendors who were told unless they complied with 508 federal agencies would not buy from them. However, not every vendor is meeting 508 compliance requirements.
One reason 508 compliance is difficult is agencies have individual standards that are frustrating and angering vendors One e-commerce vendor who has contracts with about 20 agencies told me in frustration, “All these agencies tell me I must comply with 508. The problem is each agency has its own standards. I can't develop individual compliance products for each of these agencies.” To correct this chaotic state, the General Services Administration must develop standards and ensure that every agency government wide has them.
Vendors tell me they are told to contact assistive technology manufacturers to learn how their products are adapted to ensure they are 508 compliant but they can't find them. To correct this situation, federal agencies should tell vendors to contact the Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), in the U.S. General Services Administration's Office of Government wide Policy, who has been charged with the task of educating federal employees and building the infrastructure necessary to support Section 508 implementation. CTIA gives vendors information on the government's buy accessible program.
In complying with section 508, the agencies must also know how to contact manufacturers of AT products and how their products work with products requiring adaptation. Manufacturers tell me they have not seen an increase in the number of inquiries by vendors since 508 became law. And neither have they seen an increase in their sales. And yet there has been an increase in the number of electronic information technology products sold to the federal government. To eliminate this disconnect, AT manufacturers should have a yearly Assistive technology exhibit in Washington , DC.
In the 16 months since 508 has been operating, I have not heard of successful lawsuits brought by federal employees with disabilities unable to use federal web sites. I have heard the Department of Justice has been successful in negotiating settlements between federal employees with disabilities unable to access the web because of lack of equipment at the agencies employing them. As long as the results satisfy all parties the negotiations should continue.
To comply with 508, money is required. Federal employees with disabilities, one of them well positioned within the administration, told me their supervisors say their agencies lack money to pay for 508 training and to buy the hardware and software needed to ensure compliance with 508. Agencies have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure 508 compliance training occurs. If they are not meeting this obligation, they should be sued.
I am baffled on why consumers with disabilities have not sued federal agencies for non-compliance. Before 508 became law, I heard a streaming flood of complaints against federal agencies whose web sites were not accessible. The complainers said they were suing if federal agencies were not in compliance within several months after 508 became law. Today the Social Security Administration, Veterans Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Defense and other web sites are not accessible. Consumers with disabilities have every right to access federal web sites for information retrieval. After all their tax dollars help support the federal government.
I have heard many reasons why federal employees with disabilities are not suing their agencies for non-compliance. The worst one is federal employees with disabilities tell me they have been told it is unpatriotic to bring lawsuits against the federal government during our war against terrorism. This is dribble. Section 508, which is another way of publishing information, was passed to enhance employment opportunities for federal employees with disabilities. The futures of federal employees with disabilities are at stake if they can't do their jobs. Ensuring equal employment opportunity for federal employees with disabilities by making 508 work is patriotic. I support this type of patriotism.
Additionally, federal employees with disabilities tell me fear of retaliation has persuaded them not to sue their agencies for non 508 compliance. There should not be any retaliation towards an employee filing suit against their agency. Anyone retaliating should be dismissed or demoted immediately. When dismissal occurs, people understand the message.
There are hundreds of thousands of federal employees with disabilities. There are tens of millions of consumers with disabilities using the web. They need access to federal web sites. There is no reason to deny them access.
On a scale of 1 to 10, section 508 compliance ranks 1.5. This is a poor rating for an administration whose president supports 508. He can show his 508 support by ensuring the entire federal government fully complies with implementation, then and only then will we know what is happening to section 508's promise.