Feb 15 2008

508 Redux

With a revived focus on accessibility rules by GSA, what can agencies do to assure they comply?

The idea of the Section 508 rules has become so accepted, according to the General Service’s Administration’s Terry Weaver, that feds often overlook them altogether when buying information technology — in large sweeping implementations and in simple purchases of commodity products, too.

To reinvigorate compliance, GSA has launched a campaign to help agencies better meet the accessibility rules, and it also has adopted the Office of Management and Budget’s oversight approach by grading how well agencies meet the requirement by randomly scanning purchases in seven to nine agencies each quarter. The first sample review done late last year found fewer than 20 percent of purchases met accessibility requirements, says Weaver, director of the IT Accessibility and Workplace Division at GSA.

So what can agencies do to make sure that all their workers have IT tools that they can use? Weaver recommends that agencies:

  • emphasize technology over policy;
  • make sure all IT gear and applications can be used by all users — even off-the-shelf items bought without the involvement of acquisition staff;
  • ensure that all employees in the acquisition and IT organizations understand the compliance requirements and adhere to them;
  • use the Buy Accessible wizard to check accessibility specifications and create solicitation documents.

New Mind-Set

Stop thinking of 508 compliance as a policy objective, says Weaver. Instead, focus on technology and the agency’s end users, she says. Buying assistive technology is the first step, but “it’s accessible design that allows the use of assistive technology,” Weaver says.

It’s also important to remember that 508 applies to every piece of technology, both hardware and software, whether bought or developed in-house. To use the 508 term, that’s E&IT — electronic and information technology. The rules cover all E&IT in the government, no matter how an agency buys it, whether through an open procurement, an existing contract or even a micro-purchase (a purchase of less that $2,500 using a government purchase card).

From the management and acquisition perspective, Weaver recommends that agencies extend their training programs to make sure that staff across the buying process understand 508 compliance.

Noncompliance Widespread

A random survey by GSA of nine agencies’ IT buys found that 7% met the 508 accessibility standards for users with disabilities. Fully 80% did not comply, and the remainder fell somewhere between.

The “who” of the acquisition workforce is not just the contracting officer, she says. The new buying framework established by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy extends to program and project managers, too, as well as others in the process, Weaver notes. That means you need to spread the word far and wide and get more training, she adds.

To help agencies, GSA has revamped its online Buy Accessible wizard. According to Helen Chamberlain, the wizard program director, the wizard is now much easier to use and contains more extensive information. The spiffy new site lets agencies spec out procurements and gauge whether products they want to buy comply with 508. Vendors provide information about their products to the listings database, which currently lists information on more than 1,000 products.

Metrics by the Buy

Agencies can test-drive the wizard and use some top-level services as guest users. But to store buying information and share it with other organizations, agencies must register their users.

By the Numbers

There are 54 million people in the United States with disabilities, and more than 7 million of them work for the federal government. SOURCE: GSA

The wizard now will help IT organizations track their 508 metrics, Chamberlain says. Agencies can set the reporting details so the wizard will track their desired metrics. The wizard can also aggregate acquisition reports to gather information across the organization, she notes.

Beyond helping IT staffs better serve users, Chamberlain says complying with 508 “promotes a positive public image” of government. Because the rules extend to making Web sites and other systems used by the public accessible, agencies will find it also improves access to federal information.

On Alert

Agencies need to improve their 508 compliance, say OMB officials in a memo issued following GSA’s initial review. “These results demonstrate we are not adequately incorporating applicable Section 508 standards when acquiring E&IT,” notes the memo from Paul Denett, administrator for federal procurement policy, and Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and IT. They point out that CIOs have “specific obligations” to make technology accessible, which “reduces barriers to job success and mobility.”