Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is an often overlooked and underutilized law. Basically, the law requires that the agencies of the federal executive branch ensure that tax dollars are only spent on electronic information technology (“EIT”) that can be used by disabled people. Accessible EIT, such as software and websites, can open up doors for people with disabilities who cannot use computers or mobile devices in a traditional manner. For example, a blind person can use a screen reader program to translate text displayed on a website into audible synthesized speech or refreshable braille. Likewise, someone with a motor impairment can use their voice to dictate web navigation commands to the computer instead of using a mouse or touchscreen to click on links.
The goal of Section 508 was to guarantee that technology would open up doors for disabled individuals, not shut them out. The federal government should be the model of an inclusive program. Its massive spending power can create a large market for more accessible technology, which spills over to the private sector, and thus increases integration of disabled people into more aspects of social life.
Unfortunately, the federal government, as a whole, has not fulfilled the promise of Section 508. Some federal agencies have model compliance programs and serve their disabled employees and constituents well. But as a recent survey by the Department of Justice makes clear, many federal agencies do not comply with Section 508. Technology vendors are allowed to obtain federal contracts for major procurement projects while the procuring agency ignores this longstanding civil rights requirement. Meanwhile, a tidal wave of online-only government services and information is being posted on websites, mobile apps and other information platforms that do not allow disabled people using assistive technology to obtain the same information as their non-disabled neighbors. Similarly, federal employees and applicants are being screened out of their jobs because of a virtual work environment that is being built without regard to how disabled employees might use it.
Accessible EIT just makes sense. Build a government 2.0 that ensures disabled people, who were historically excluded from their representative government, receive an equal opportunity to participate. Harness technology to promote the access that it offers. With a little bit of thoughtfulness at the design and procurement stage, accessible technology can unleash valuable disabled human capital that would otherwise be lost.
Besides being the “right” thing to do, it is also the law.
The settlement agreement as referenced in the press release here involved the accessibility of a federal agency’s public website. The agency agreed to make substantial changes to its website design and procurement policies and pay attorney’s fees for counsel to the complainant National Federation of the Blind and one of its members.
Other federal, state and local agencies should be on notice. Use accessible technology because it is the sensible and practical thing to do for your constituents and employees. And if you won’t do it now for the right reasons at a minimal cost, you’ll be forced to do it later for the legal reasons at a maximum cost.