IT has role in supporting people with disabilities

* October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

It’s October, and that means it’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S. It’s also time for my annual dissertation about what this means to an IT department. Today we’ll talk about the role of IT and Web accessibility, employee accommodations, procurement laws and a few other things.

First, some background information. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 54 million Americans (18.1% of the population) have some type of disability. The number of people with a disability is increasing due to an aging population and the number of people experiencing accidents or injuries. Disabilities become more prevalent as we age. According to the University of Wisconsin Trace Center, by the time a person reaches age 65, they have close to a 45% chance of having a functional limitation that will make it difficult for them to perform routine tasks.

Assistive technology: Why and where to buy

With people staying in the workforce longer than ever, aging employees (as well as younger people who have a physical or cognitive disability) are quite likely to need some sort of accommodation to do their jobs. Accommodation might come in the form of a wheelchair ramp or an adjustable work surface, or it could be some form of assistive technology like an alternative input device or a screen magnifier that complements the computer on a worker’s desk. By federal law, employers must provide reasonable accommodation for employees who have a disability. In most cases, accommodation costs $500 or less (sometimes free) and it keeps a valued employee on the job.

Accommodations regarding computers and information technology are plentiful. Hundreds of innovative assistive technology products are available today to address a wide range of disabilities and limitations. Here are some helpful links to help you select and purchase accessible computers or assistive technology solutions. These Web sites have plenty of links to products and solutions designed for people with visual, hearing, dexterity, speech and cognitive impairments or other limitations.

* EnablemartEVASMicrosoft accessibilityHP accessibilityIBM accessibilityApple accessibility






Web accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that public places and places of commerce be accessible to people with disabilities. We usually think about physical places, such as office buildings, stores or restaurants. But what about the World Wide Web? It is now a “place” of commerce on a grand scale.

It may be up to the courts to decide whether or not Web sites must be accessible. At this writing, all eyes are on the lawsuit filed against Target by people who are blind, saying they cannot access everything on the Target Web site that a sighted person can access. (See why I think Target is short-sighted on fighting the lawsuit.)

No matter what the outcome of the Target suit is, Web accessibility is just good business. And, it’s a requirement for most federal and state agencies and educational institutions.

One of the best resources for information about Web accessibility is the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as the W3C. This organization has established standards and guidelines for Web accessibility that are accepted around the world. The standards are in constant review, considering the rapid pace of innovation involving Web technologies.

Read the online brochure “Access All WWW Areas: What web designers should know about web accessibility” for more information.

If you’re looking to get involved with a terrific Web accessibility project that will teach you lots of new skills and techniques, check out the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) program sponsored by Knowbility.

Federal and state procurement laws

The U.S. Federal government as well as numerous state governments has adopted laws that require government entities to procure electronic and information technology (E&IT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. The federal law is known as “Section 508” and it is the model for accessibility procurement laws all around the world.

Under Section 508, the onus is on the government agency to ensure that any E&IT purchases meet the minimum standards for being accessible to people with disabilities. The standards are set by the Federal government. Although corporations and private businesses are not required by law to procure accessible E&IT, it is a good business practice to do so. This helps to ensure that the products purchased are designed for use by all.

How do you know if an IT product is accessible? Ask your vendor to provide you with a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT. This document tells you how well a product meets the Section 508 accessibility standards. For a sample of what you can learn from a VPAT, take a look at one posted on HP’s Web site.

Federal agencies can use the Buy Accessible Web site to help select accessible products that meet the federal standards. The Buy Accessible Wizard guides procurement agents through the steps necessary to stay within the law when buying E&IT products.

If E&IT accessibility doesn’t interest you today, hang on to this article because statistics say that someday, you or a family member will have a disability or limitation. Then it becomes personal.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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