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Computer accessibility for federal workers with disabilities: it's the law

By Richard E. Ladner

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 32 No. 8, Pages 952-956

In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-506, the "Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986." This law, amending the famous Rehabilitation Act of 1973, contains a small section, titled "Electronic Equipment Accessibility," Section 508, which may have significant impact on the design of computer systems and their accessibility by workers with disabilities. The bill became law when it was signed by former President Reagan on October 21, 1986. The purpose of this article is to inform concerned computer professionals of Section 508, outline the guidelines and regulations pursuant to the law, describe some of the reaction to the guidelines and regulations, and describe some of the challenges for the future in meeting the computer accessibility needs of users with disabilities. Section 508 was developed because it was realized that government offices were rapidly changing into electronic offices with microcomputers on every desk. In order for persons with disabilities to keep their jobs or gain new employment in the government, Congress decided it was necessary to make provisions to guarantee accessibility to microcomputers and other electronic office equipment. The driving principle behind Section 508 can be found in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which states: No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. It should be stated off the top that the scope of Section 508 is not as broad as Section 504. In particular, Section 508 only applies to direct purchases by the federal government and not to purchases made by all programs receiving government funding. Section 508 does not specify what the guidelines should be nor does it delineate a philosophy on which to base the guidelines. A committee established by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) and the General Services, Administration (GSA), in consultation with the electronics industry, rehabilitation engineers, and disabled computer professionals worked for a year developing the philosophy and guidelines which will significantly affect the purchase of electronic office equipment, including computers and software, by the federal government, the largest computer customer in the world.

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