As we move to a more technology-centered society, where many of our governmental
functions are increasingly dependent upon computers and other types of emerging technology,
the degree of accessibility of these technologies to people with disabilities will become more
significant. Like others, people with disabilities who want to work for the Federal Government,
pay their taxes, apply for benefits or services, or have access to the vast amount and variety of
information provided by the government to the public, will increasingly use electronic methods
to accomplish these goals.
This report, "Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of
Federal Accessibility" (Report), presents a snapshot of whether people with disabilities could
easily use the Federal Government's information technology at the time of this survey. It also
recommends specific steps to ameliorate some existing problems and prevent future ones. The
Report will serve as a baseline against which future progress may be measured. Because
agencies are generally not required to retrofit existing information technology to be accessible to
people with disabilities (except as a reasonable accommodation upon request from a particular
person, or to meet the general nondiscrimination obligations of sections 501 and 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act), the Report does not criticize individual agencies, regardless of the current
degree of accessibility of their information technology.
When computers first became a standard feature in the American workplace, people with
disabilities were generally able to use the new technology with relative ease, with assistance
from adaptive or assistive technology. For instance, people who were blind could function well
using operating systems similar to the Disk Operating System (DOS) environment by using a
"screen reader" -- technology which reads aloud, in an artificial voice, the words and punctuation
marks that appear on a computer monitor. Since a computer mouse was not used in a DOS
environment, people who were blind who had screen readers could use computers very
effectively because everything on the screen and all commands necessary to interact with the
software were discrete, text-based commands such as "control P to print." Additionally, very
few technology applications contained auditory features, so that most people who were deaf or
hard of hearing had no trouble using the technology.
As technology became more sophisticated, applications came to rely heavily on graphical
user interfaces (GUI). Software applications and Internet pages now often require users to
"point-and-click" -- using a computer mouse to click on an icon to accomplish a task. Many
people with disabilities cannot work in a "point-and-click" environment unless it contains
redundant features, such as a software application that allows the user to choose between clicking
on a printer icon or hitting "control P" to print a document. Screen readers cannot read images --
icons, buttons, or graphics -- unless there is text associated with them. Similarly, multimedia
environments tend to screen out people who are deaf or hard of hearing unless important audio
information is also conveyed visually.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
The transition from a DOS environment to a GUI environment meant that many people
with disabilities who were capable of functioning fully in the past were locked out due to
technology advances. Congress responded to this unintended consequence of the evolution in
technology by passing section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1986. Pub. L. No. 93-112, Title
V, § 508, as added Pub. L. No. 99-506, Title VI, §603(a), Oct. 21, 1986, 100 Stat. 1830. The
amendment, entitled "Electronic Equipment Accessibility," called for the Administrator of the
General Services Administration and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation
Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education to develop guidelines for the Federal
Government's procurement of accessible electronic equipment. Although this original 1986
version of section 508 required each federal agency to comply with these guidelines, little
progress was made.
Twelve years later, when Congress revisited the Rehabilitation Act in the context of the
Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-220, 112 Stat. 936 (1998), it acknowledged
the need for new legislation to strengthen section 508. The Senate Labor and Human Resources
Committee found the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 "provide needed emphasis on . . .
access to computers and information technology." S. Rep. No. 105-166, at 2 (1998). Under the
amended section 508, electronic and information technology (EIT) that is developed, procured,
maintained or used by federal agencies must be accessible to federal employees and members of
the public with disabilities, unless compliance would impose an undue burden. Section 508
contains six key concepts:
- Section 508 Standards. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers
Compliance Board (Access Board) will issue final Section 508 Standards to
measure the degree of accessibility to people with disabilities of the Federal
Government's electronic and information technology.
- Agencies' responsibilities. Agencies' EIT products must comply with the Access
Board's Section 508 Standards which will be rolled into the Federal Acquisition
Regulation (FAR) and into the acquisition regulations of all agencies not covered
by the FAR -- if the products are procured on or after August 7, 2000.
- Periodic compliance reviews and reports. Under the guidance of the Department
of Justice, every federal agency will periodically evaluate the accessibility of its
EIT and the Department of Justice will evaluate agencies' responses to
complaints. This information will be gathered in reports from the Attorney
General to the President and Congress.
- Enforceability. Both members of the public and federal employees with
disabilities can sue in federal court or file administrative complaints for violations
of section 508 with respect to EIT procured on or after August 7, 2000.
- Bid challenges. Because the Section 508 Standards will become part of the FAR,
losing bidders who offered accessible EIT products to agencies may challenge the
bid process if they believe that an agency awarded a bid to the offeror of an
inaccessible product, where procuring the more accessible product would not have
imposed an undue burden.
- Section 508 applies regardless of whether an agency has employees with
Section 508 contains some important limitations:
- Built-in assistive technology is not required where it is not needed. The law does
not require every workstation of nondisabled employees or every EIT product
to be fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Products like desktop
computers do not have to be outfitted with refreshable Braille displays, but they
must be compatible with refreshable Braille displays so that if an individual who
is blind needs one as a reasonable accommodation, he or she can use it with the
agency's standard workstations. The Access Board's Section 508 Standards will
determine when an EIT product must be fully accessible and when it must only be
compatible with assistive technology.
- Undue burden. Agencies do not have to procure EIT products that satisfy the
Access Board's Section 508 Standards if doing so is an undue burden. "Undue
burden" generally means a "significant difficulty or expense." The Standards will
include factors that agencies can use to help apply this term consistently.
- Development, maintenance, and use of EIT products. In addition to its language
regarding procurement, section 508 requires agencies to "develop, maintain, and
use" only EIT products that are accessible to and usable by persons with
disabilities. However, the enforcement provisions of section 508 cover only
"procurement" of EIT products. Members of the public and employees with
disabilities cannot sue pursuant to section 508 for agencies' development,
maintenance, or use of EIT products unless these products were procured on or
after August 7, 2000. Agencies continue to have long-standing obligations under
sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide reasonable
accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities upon request. See
"Other Requirements of the Rehabilitation Act," below.
- Private use of EIT products is unaffected. While manufacturers and designers of
EIT products generally will not be able to sell or lease inaccessible products to
federal agencies and departments for procurements after August 7, 2000, section
508 does not extend to these companies' own use of EIT products. For instance,
if a manufacturer wishes to sell desktop computers to federal agencies, it must
ensure that these computers comply with the Access Board's Section 508
Standards or agencies will be unable to purchase them. It does not, however,
affect the company's own computers (used by its own employees), those offered
for sale to the public, nor does it affect the company's Internet site or other uses
Other Requirements of the Rehabilitation Act
Section 508 cannot be fully grasped without a basic understanding of sections 501 and
504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These sections contain general prohibitions of disability-based
discrimination and generally require federal agencies and departments to provide reasonable
accommodations to qualified persons with disabilities, including employees and members of the
public, upon request. "Reasonable accommodations" are not one-size-fits-all responses to
disability access issues. Instead, they are measures carefully tailored to meet the needs of an
individual with a disability to enable him or her to accomplish a particular job or participate in a
specific program. What is a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability in one
position may not be adequate or appropriate for another person with a disability in the same
- Section 508 is "technology-centered" and focuses on whether mainstream EIT
products meet the Access Board's Section 508 Standards, whether or not an
agency has employees with disabilities or serves members of the public with
- The reasonable accommodation provisions of sections 501 and 504 are "person-centered" and focus on how an individual's disability should be accommodated in
a particular setting.
As the Access Board's Section 508 Standards cannot -- and do not pretend to -- ensure
that all EIT will be universally accessible to all people with disabilities, reasonable
accommodations will always be required in some instances. However, as agencies pay more
attention to accessibility when procuring or developing their EIT, they will find it easier and
easier to provide reasonable accommodations when requested to do so. In some instances,
people with disabilities may not need accommodations at all, as the underlying technology will
be fully accessible to them.
Example: When an agency is choosing among e-mail systems to buy for its
employees, section 508 requires the agency to consider whether the
systems will be accessible for people who are blind and who use screen
readers (regardless of whether the agency has any current employees with
disabilities). Sections 501 and 504 would require the agency to provide
screen reading software to a specific individual who is blind, upon request,
as a reasonable accommodation that would enable the person to perform
his or her job functions. On the other hand, if the agency ignores section
508 and purchases an e-mail system that cannot be used with screen
readers, it may not be able provide a reasonable accommodation to future
blind employees to enable them to use the shared e-mail system.
The Department of Justice's Section 508 Self-Evaluation Guidance to Agencies
Section 508 requires the Attorney General to lead all executive agencies and departments,
including the United States Postal Service, conducting self-evaluations to determine the extent to
which their EIT is accessible to persons with disabilities. This Report reflects the results of these
evaluations and provides a baseline against which progress can be measured. It is based on
information from 81 agencies, including over 250 components.
The information gathered during the self-evaluation process and, consequently, the
conclusions drawn by the Department of Justice in this Report have some inherent limitations.
The Department found that it was difficult to guide agencies to conduct meaningful evaluations
of the degree of accessibility of their EIT because there were no settled criteria against which
such measurements could be taken. The Access Board's final Section 508 Standards will not be
published until August 7, 2000. Indeed, the term "electronic and information technology"
upon which the very scope of section 508 depends will not be clearly defined until the
Standards are published. The Department, therefore, had to determine the best sources of
information available in the public and private sectors and create its evaluation tools accordingly.
The resulting Component Questionnaire, which formed the basis for all of the self-evaluations,
reflects the Department's best initial view as to what types of technology would be covered by
section 508 and what factors would enhance the degree to which these technologies are
accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. While many elements of the Department's
evaluation tools may correspond well to those of the Access Board's final rule defining EIT and
implementing Section 508 Standards, there will, no doubt, be some differences. Readers should
keep these limitations in mind.
Coordination of this effort posed a daunting challenge. The Federal Government is by far
the single largest employer and service provider in the country. There is no uniformity among
agency administrative models: Small agencies tend to have a single centralized procurement and
information technology (IT) infrastructure, while larger and cabinet-level agencies tend to be
more complex and broken into sub-units, often called "components."(2) For instance, the Marine
Mammal Commission with 10 employees has a single, unified, hierarchical structure. In
contrast, the Department of Justice, with approximately 96,000 employees, is divided into many
components with decentralized and widely varying procurement policies and technological
needs: the degree to which technology is used and the types of technology employed by the
Federal Bureau of Prisons is vastly different from that of the Civil Rights Division. Still other
large agencies are decentralized to the point that their many individual components are almost
entirely autonomous with respect to their procurement policies and their choice of information
technology systems. For these agencies, simply identifying all of the components of the agency
posed a formidable challenge for those (i.e., "Designated Agency Officials") who were
responsible for coordinating their agencies' self-evaluation efforts.
When creating the evaluation tools, the Department decided that a multi-faceted approach
made the most sense: Agencies would be asked to consult with their employees with disabilities,
test certain products using common assistive technologies, answer objective "checklist-style"
reports for some types of technology, and provide a subjective evaluation of their findings. This
combination of approaches was used to evaluate the most commonly-used federal agency
Internet and intranet sites, software applications, kiosks and other information transaction
machines, and printers, copiers, fax machines, and other office EIT.
Another portion of the Component Questionnaire asks about components'
telecommunications products and services. These questions focus not only on accessibility of
the telecommunication products and services themselves, but also whether components have
properly trained their personnel to make the most of free, easy-to-use telecommunication services
designed to enable those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have speech disabilities to
communicate by telephone with others. Many of these questions relate to agencies' compliance
with sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The Department also instructed each component to look at its procurement practices and
policies to determine whether they were appropriately incorporating accessibility into their
solicitation and evaluation of procured mainstream technology products and services.
Because this Report is intended to provide a baseline for later comparison, not a
comprehensive evaluation of every technology product used by every federal agency, the
Department determined that the most useful evaluations would be those that focused on the most
widely-used technology products in each component. For instance, as explained in greater detail
below, components were instructed to evaluate the 10 software applications that were used most
widely within each component; the 20 component Web sites with the greatest traffic volume (or
number of "hits") on a weekly basis; the 10 most widely-used information transaction machines;
and the 10 most widely-used fax machines, printers, copiers, or other office machines.
Finally, the Department asked each agency to review the data provided by its
components, summarize its accessibility strengths and weaknesses, outline any plans it has for
improving the degree of accessibility of its EIT, and provide to the Department recommendations
for better implementation of section 508 throughout the federal executive branch.
This Report and the data on which it is based reflects a "snapshot" of the Federal
Government's degree of EIT accessibility prior to full implementation of section 508. At the
time agencies completed their self-evaluations and when this Report was written, no generally
accepted standards existed to guide agencies in their acquisition, development, maintenance, or
use of accessible EIT. The Report and the self-evaluation materials provided by the Attorney
General to all agencies establish a baseline against which future progress may be measured.
The analysis in the Telecommunications and Procurement Policies and Practices sections
is based upon weighted data. The Department divided agencies into relevant size categories:
cabinet level and large agencies, mid-sized agencies, small agencies, and very small agencies.
See General Appendix A (Categories of Agencies). Within each category, the Department
divided the number of employees for whom a component provided telecommunications or
procurement data by the total number of employees in that category for whom
telecommunications or procurement data was provided. Within each size category, responses on
behalf of a greater number of employees were assigned more weight than responses given on
behalf of fewer employees. Specific workforce statistics and weighting factors for each
component providing telecommunications or procurement data are found at Telecommunications
Appendix A and Procurement Appendix A.
The analysis in the Web, Software, ITMs, and Other IT Equipment sections is based upon
raw data. The Department requested components to provide statistics by which weights could be
calculated (e.g., the average number of employees or members of the public to use a software
application on a weekly basis). The Department did not have confidence in the accuracy of the
data provided with respect to these sections, unfortunately, and could not perform meaningful
calculations. For instance, some components provided an estimate of the average number of
persons world-wide who used a particular software application on a weekly basis, rather than the
number of people who used copies of the application licensed to the component.
In the Report, the Department of Justice does not endorse any particular EIT product,
system, designer, or manufacturer.
In all, the self-evaluation of all federal agencies required more time, effort, and
coordination than had initially been expected, both by the Department of Justice and all
participating agencies. All agency personnel, especially the Designated Agency Officials,
deserve recognition, as their diligent efforts have made it possible to create a Report that will
help ensure that persons with disabilities will not be left behind in this information age.
General Findings and Recommendations
The single largest barrier to the successful implementation of section 508 is that one
needs to understand information technology as well as the disability accessibility issues.
Accessibility issues have largely been the purview of equal employment opportunity offices.
Most government IT officials believe that disability accessibility issues are outside their domain.
This perspective revealed itself in many ways throughout the self-evaluation process.
The Department of Justice's initial contact with agencies came in the form of a letter and
package of information dated April 2, 1999, from the Attorney General to the head of each
agency. Because section 508 represented new territory for most agencies, the Department could
not draw upon existing points of contact within each agency. Accordingly, each agency was
directed to designate a point person -- or "Designated Agency Official" (DAO) -- with whom
the Department could correspond throughout the self-evaluation process. Agencies were given
ten days to fax the DAO's contact information to the Department (name, title, address, telephone
and fax numbers, and e-mail address), using a standard form provided for their use. Very few
agencies met this initial deadline. The Department later discovered that most packages had
traveled in a routine pattern: The staff of many agency heads (commonly called the "front
office") -- upon reading words like "Rehabilitation Act" and "disability" -- initially sent them
to their equal employment opportunity offices (EEO offices). The EEO offices -- upon seeing
words like "gifs" and "applets" -- usually sent them back. The front offices then often sent the
packages to the Information Resource Management (IRM) offices, or their equivalent. The IRM
staff, upon reading the words "screen readers" and "refreshable Braille displays," decided that
there must have been some mistake and usually sent the packages back to the EEO office . . . and
so on. The April 12, 1999 deadline for designating agency officials passed with few agencies
providing their contact information in a timely manner.
Data provided by the agencies suggest that the majority of agencies that continue to
handle IT accessibility issues exclusively on an "ad hoc" or "as needed" basis, instead of
integrating accessibility into the development and procurement of their mainstream IT products.
Many IT officials hold the mistaken belief that persons with disabilities can always be
accommodated upon request by using widely available assistive technology devices (e.g., screen
readers, screen enlargers, volume control apparatuses, pointing devices that serve as alternatives
to a computer mouse, voice recognition software, etc.) in conjunction with mainstream
technology applications. Indeed, the goal of section 508 is to ensure that the agency will always
be able to provide reasonable accommodations. Without adequate planning, however, the
possibility of providing an accommodation to person with a disability may be foreclosed. See,
e.g., the discussions of accessibility barriers created by certain uses of Adobe Acrobat's Portable
Document Format, in section III, n. 19. Use of an "ad hoc" or "as needed" approach to IT
accessibility will result in barriers for persons with disabilities. A much better approach is to
integrate accessibility reviews into the earliest stages of design, development, and procurement
of IT. Once an accessible IT architecture is established, then and only then can persons with
disabilities be successfully accommodated on an "as needed" basis.
While it is clear that most agencies would benefit from increased communication among
their IT personnel, EEO staff, and employees and members of the public with disabilities, it
would be a poor use of scarce government resources to require each agency to set up isolated
mechanisms for determining the extent of accessibility for IT products and services. A more
successful approach would be to create a means or multiple means for agencies to share
information as it is developed. Many of the recommendations included in this Report are
designed to facilitate effective coordination among agencies.
The Report is organized into the same subject areas that formed the core of the
- Federal Agencies' Web Pages
- Information Transaction Machines and Kiosks
- Fax Machines, Copiers, Printers, and Other IT Office Equipment
- Procurement Policies and Practices
In addition to the summaries and analyses of the survey data, the Department has included some
anecdotal information gathered from persons with disabilities and some agencies. Several of
these anecdotes are real-life examples of barriers encountered by persons with disabilities
(members of the public and federal employees). Others single out "Promising Practices" of
several agencies which have shown leadership or innovation in addressing disability accessibility
1. This document is available on the Department of Justice's section 508 Web site
(www.usdoj.gov/crt/508). People with disabilities may request copies in Braille, large print, or
on computer disk by calling 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY).
2. It is difficult to draw generalizations, however. For instance, the extremely large United
States Postal Service with 800,000 employees has a centralized procurement and IT
infrastructure, making it more like the Marine Mammal Commission than the Department of
Justice in this regard. Other cabinet-level agencies with single components reporting on section
508 issues include the Executive Office of the President and the Departments of Education,
Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans' Affairs.
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