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Section 508, Part I
Law Calls for Agencies To Ensure Equal Access

By Cynthia Delgado

(Part 1 of 2-part series)
Chances are, if you're a federal employee, you've heard about Section 508 and its implementation deadline. However, you may be confused about what it really is, and how it affects you. Section 508 refers to a set of standards, published last December, intended to ensure that disabled federal employees, potential employees, and the public are able to use electronic and information technology (EIT) to do their jobs, and have equal access to information from federal sources. Even if you are familiar with the law, some of the subtle components of accessibility may elude you. If you are an NIH employee, especially an events or program manager, then Section 508 is important to you. As NIH gears up for implementation, there is much to consider, and a lot of help available too.

Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, not the Americans With Disabilities Act as some have thought. Although the laws are similar, and parallel in many ways, the ADA applies not to the federal government, but to the private sector. The law binding upon NIH calls for development of accessibility standards for EIT, and assures access to technology procured, developed, used or maintained by the federal government. EIT is not limited to web-based information or applications; it also refers to telecommunications including video or multi-media products, software, hardware, printers, fax machines, copiers, telephones, databases, forms and information kiosks. The deadline for compliance is June 21.

Where does one get help interpreting Section 508? The law appoints the General Services Administration and the access board as providers of technical assistance. These agencies have developed training modules and other materials to meet the needs of various audiences.

Marcella Haynes and Gary Morin are OEO employees who are helping NIH comply with Section 508 requirements.

NIH'ers can get help at the Office of Equal Opportunity. Marcella Haynes of OEO chairs an agency-wide steering committee charged with defining offices and their roles for overseeing all aspects of implementation. Also, Gary Morin, OEO program analyst, has a wealth of information on accessibility issues. Originally an American Sign Language-English interpreter for NIH, he now acts as a consultant, coordinator and information resource for all of NIH. His office has instructional videos, printed materials and more to assist employees. He suggests other resources like the EEO offices of each institute; Medical Arts for captioning; the Office of Research Services for interpreting services (ASL-English, oral, or other) and communication access real-time translation (CART); and the Federal Relay Service, which acts as an intermediary for telecommunications between hearing individuals and those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind, or have speech disabilities.

ORS has progressed in making sign language interpretation services more accessible; its Worksite Enrichment Programs Branch has established a performance-based contract, currently with Sign Language Associates, Inc., and created a web-based, user-friendly system of service request. One branch member recalls her favorite comment from a hearing-impaired individual: "It was nice to be able to laugh when everybody else laughed."

Though NIH leads in accessibility initiatives, there are still areas for improvement. Acting deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox recently established a task force on disability issues. Morin expects the task force will recommend establishing a centralized office for handling disability matters, which he feels would facilitate consistency and better quality of service for all NIH employees.

Wendy Cheng moderates resource for those deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government (DHHIG) is an organization that sponsors a federal emailing list for hard-of-hearing and late-deafened adults who do not necessarily benefit from sign language interpretation. Wendy Cheng, the list's moderator, believes there are two major obstacles to quality accessing of public events — attitudinal barriers and funding. She finds that "many agencies are apathetic toward providing additional communication services" beyond sign interpretation. "I wish they wouldn't select which services to provide on the basis of cost, and instead, focus on what functional equivalence means," said Cheng. Functional equivalence is when "the individual with hearing loss is receiving and understanding the exact same information as the person with normal hearing," she explains.

Debby Hill, a social worker with the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who "has some peripheral vision," has an office equipped with such assistive technology as a computer with speech output and Braille display, a scanner and a Braille printer. Though well equipped, she believes a campus-wide Braille printing service would benefit both visually impaired employees and events managers. She also recommends having more handouts, more "descriptions of graphics" and "alternative formats of documents," such as CD-ROMs that she can download later. Because she must systematically scan new web sites, she prefers "well-organized, and uncluttered" pages without repetitive links throughout the site. Software that utilizes short-cut keystrokes is helpful, since she does not use a mouse.

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