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Sometime within the past two decades, the world entered the Information Age. Now people have open access to more information than at any other time in history. Much of that information is delivered via the World Wide Web and other forms of computer technology. To ensure that all people, including people with disabilities or age-related limitations, or people with low bandwidth computer connections, have full access to electronic and information technology (E&IT), many standards development organizations (SDOs) have set "accessibility" guidelines and standards for how information can be accessed using computer technology.
The United States government adopted E&IT accessibility standards for federal agencies in 1998. While these standards are enormously beneficial for people who interact with federal agencies, they stop short of covering the usage of E&IT at the state and local levels.
The process of developing and passing state legislation to codify the requirement for accessible E&IT can be slow and cumbersome. In the state of Oklahoma, for example, it took seven years to garner the support necessary for passage of HB 2197.
Why do it then? Why undertake the daunting task of passing state legislation when there is already a federal law that covers states that receive funding under the federal act? After all, many state and local government agencies have already adopted the accessibility guidelines of Section 508 of the federal Reauthorized Rehabilitation Act (or Workforce Investment Act).
Frankly, adoption of the federal law at the state and local levels has created a patchwork of compliance. This has left those in need of accessible government services without recourse when encountering inaccessible services. In addition, the states have not gotten clear communication from the federal government regarding the states' obligations for meeting the needs of people with disabilities. Often, states are leery about potential legal issues based on this lack of knowledge and guidance to the states. Therefore, many states have developed or are currently developing legislation designed to close the gaps and to promote consistent accessible services throughout each state.
More details about the applicability of Section 508: From about 1997 to 2003, clear communication did not exist regarding the applicability of Section 508 to States. The U.S. Department of Education did not indicate a clear opinion nor a mechanism for enforcement to apply Section 508 to the States. Furthermore, the amount of grant money tied to state AT programs was not a motivator for states to comply. Oklahoma ABLE Tech realized that this lack of interpretation of applicability to the states left Oklahoma open for legal consequences, and also did not provide clear direction for agencies to begin an implementation plan for accessible IT programs and services. The best approach was to investigate legislation based on research and a state assessment possibly resulting in an executive, recognizable and authoritative decision.
The benefits of having state legislation abound, including:
Experts have identified Oklahoma as a "model state" for the process of developing and implementing state accessibility legislation. Members of Oklahoma ABLE Tech and the regional office of the Disability Law Resource Project (DLRP) worked together to ensure the passage of the Oklahoma bill HB 2197, passed in April 2004 to cover the accessibility of E&IT. This document outlines the steps taken to develop and pass the legislation. Hopefully it will serve as a blueprint for other states that are working on their own legislation.
Millions of Americans with disabilities depend on assistive technology (AT) such as wheelchairs, communication tools, and other resources that help accommodate the challenges of living with a disability. Federal funding provided under the Technology-Related Assistance Act of 1988 has helped states establish systems to help individuals with disabilities gain access to assistive technology. Every state and U.S. territory has an Assistive Technology Act Program (AT program) funded under the provisions of the law. In the 18 years since the inception of these programs, states have established the needed infrastructure to effectively administer assistive technology resources.
The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 was passed by the U.S. federal government to continue to provide support for the state AT programs. The intent is to ensure that individuals with disabilities throughout the U.S. and its territories have access to the technology they need to help them be independent in school, at home, in the workplace and in the community. The AT Act of 2004 redefines the primary purpose of this program from establishing systems to directly helping the individuals with disabilities that need assistive technology devices. More details about the Assistive Technologies Act of 2004
In 1992, the state of Oklahoma established its assistive technology program, called Oklahoma ABLE Tech. OK ABLE Tech's mission is to help individuals with disabilities gain access to assistive technology so that they can achieve their greatest potential. The services provided by this organization today include:
In its early years, OK ABLE Tech also had "legislative development" as part of its mission. It was this assignment that led members from the agency on the legislative odyssey that culminated in the passage of HB 2197 in 2004.
In 1997, OK ABLE Tech Program Director Linda Jaco met with the state Office of Personnel Management and the state Department of Central Services to discuss the federal law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and its application to states. Every state that received funding due to the Assistive Technology Act had to assure compliance with Section 508.
Assisting Linda Jaco in these early efforts was Brenda Dawes, AT Programs Specialist and Web Coordinator at OK ABLE Tech. Jaco and Dawes felt it was best to investigate a state legislative approach based on research and a state assessment possibly resulting in an executive, recognizable and authoritative decision.
As a result of this early meeting in 1997, Oklahoma undertook a number of actions, including the following:
In addition, Governor Keating signed an assurance that the State of Oklahoma would comply with Section 508. This was necessary in order to apply for continued grants under the 1988 federal Assistive Technology Act.
During the same time frame of 1996-1997, OK ABLE Tech staffers were doing a variety of activities to reach out to educators, Web managers, state agency staff, and business people to get them to support the accessibility effort. Despite these efforts being well received and quite successful, the state of Oklahoma's conversion to accessible IT was not moving at a sufficiently rapid pace. ABLE Tech realized authority from the top down in the form of legislation would be the best way to assure that the state met its obligation to Section 508 compliance and to create system wide change that would result in a more accessible state government and educational system.
"We knew we would never get to statewide implementation without a state government mandate," says Linda Jaco. "We knew we had to pursue legislation if we wanted to see accessibility catch on within all state agencies and educational institutions."
In other states, efforts were being made to implement accessibility laws, with varying degrees of success and/or effectiveness. Jaco believed that the state legislative route would be the best approach for Oklahoma. The main problem: a lack of funds to support the effort. Jaco knew that the pursuit of legislation would require a concentrated amount of staff time over a fairly long period of time, and OK ABLE Tech did not have the funds to sustain the long-term work.
In 2002, a funding opportunity became available when the nation's ten regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTACs) -- of which the Disability Law Resource Project (DLRP) is one -- received a new priority from its funding agency, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The DBTACS were now required to promote accessible information technology (IT) among states in their federal region. The DLRP serves the Southwest region VI, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
As DLRP and ABLE Tech have similar missions, collaboration between the two organizations made sense. Wendy Wilkinson, director of the DLRP, and Linda Jaco of OK ABLE Tech agreed on a long-range plan utilizing DLRP funds to spearhead a legislative effort to pass an accessible IT law in Oklahoma that mirrored the federal law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Successful passage of such legislation would create a top-down mechanism that would provide enhanced assurance for the development, procurement and maintenance of electronic and information technology that is accessible to persons with disabilities.
Once the issue of resource funding was resolved, the activities to develop and pass the state legislation moved quickly.
In the spring of 2003, Linda Jaco approached the chairmen of the technology committees in the Oklahoma State Senate and House of Representatives and explained the critical importance of such a law for persons with disabilities. Not only would individuals benefit from legislation; the state would, too.
Jaco explained the cost savings associated with a proactive approach to plan for accessible products rather than retrofitting at increased costs to the state. Jaco also pointed out the possibility of an eventual lawsuit. The legislators were told that states receiving AT funding from the federal government -- as Oklahoma did -- must assure compliance to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. What's more, compliance with Section 508 would help the state meet its obligations to the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Jaco secured their buy-in and support to create a task force comprised of state agencies, advocates, consumers and private business. State legislation passed in March 2003 established the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Task Force to study and prepare recommendations concerning the accessibility for the disabled to publicly produced and provided electronic and information technology. (HB1342)
The March 2003 legislation identified who, specifically, would be on the task force. Thus, the task force members were quickly appointed by the Governor by July 1, 2003 and met for the first time in August 2003. Every member received a comprehensive binder with all kinds of pertinent information about accessibility. "We gave them all the resources they needed so they would understand the issues as well as what was happening nationwide," says Jaco.
Perhaps most importantly, the task force members heard from two very prominent national speakers who told them what needed to happen for Oklahoma to fully embrace accessibility. Deborah Buck, Director of the State IT Accessibility Initiative with the Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center (ITTATC), presented the national perspective on accessibility. Diane Golden, Project Director of Missouri Assistive Technology, gave an overview of what was happening in Missouri, a state with similar demographics to Oklahoma's. "I fully credit these two powerful speakers with instilling a sense of urgency in our task force members," says Jaco.
Within three weeks, the task force held another meeting. Jaco arranged for an assistive technology vendor to demonstrate how such technology interacts with accessible and inaccessible information technology, and what it means to people with disabilities. This helped educate the task force members on the benefits of AT, and the need to make IT accessible and available to all. Following the demonstration, Jaco talked about all the state successes to date with regards to accessibility, and highlighted a new state employee portal that is accessible to all. Again, the task force members could see the benefits to the users of the portal, as well as to the state.
In addition, the ABLE Tech staff discussed the risk of a potential lawsuit if the state did not comply with the federal mandate for accessibility. This risk was made real as the staffers discussed a recent lawsuit in the state of Arkansas, which had defined "accessibility" too narrowly and found itself in court.
"The Task Force approach was very smart," says consultant Deborah Buck. "By convening a Task Force, the state of Oklahoma brought all of the stakeholders around the table to discuss the issues, the opportunities, the risks and the challenges. And because the members represented a real cross section of people, advocacy groups for people with disabilities, agency CIOs and IT workers, AT vendors, and so on, the group brought many perspectives to the table."
Read more of Deborah Buck's comments about the Oklahoma process
With a better understanding of the benefits of accessibility, as well as the risks of not mandating accessibility for all state government entities, the task force was better prepared to make decisions about legislation. This 20 member group continued to study the issues at hand over a six month period as well as develop an information technology accessibility statewide survey sent to all state agencies. The task force unanimously recommended introduction of a bill to create an accessible information technology law for Oklahoma. Jaco and Dawes worked with House staff members to draft this legislation, which was modeled after the federal Section 508 legislation as well as Missouri's state law. The EITA task force reviewed and approved it to go forward to the full legislature.
During the 2004 Oklahoma legislative session, Jaco and Dawes presented members of the House and Senate Technology Committees with pertinent information on the importance of accessible electronic and information technology (E&IT) for persons with disabilities. They provided additional information on issues related to compliance, cost savings and fiscal impact. Two legislators in particular, Representative Abe Deutschendorf and Senator Gilmer Capps, took great interest in stewarding the passage of the bill. With the backing from the accessibility task force as well as Deutschendorf and Capps, HB 2197 unanimously passed in both state houses and was signed into law in April 2004 by Governor Brad Henry.
"I was pleased to take an active role with the passage of Oklahoma's Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility law," says Senator Capps. "This law is very important to the citizens of Oklahoma because it levels the playing field for persons with disabilities, making it possible for them to access electronic and information technology just like everyone else."
Representative Deutschendorf mirrors those sentiments, saying "This law makes accessible electronic and information technology a standard practice for how we do business for all our citizens in Oklahoma. I feel privileged to be part of the team that made this a reality."
Jaco stated, "the two year process was arduous; however, passage of a comprehensive law requiring state agencies and post secondary institutions to develop, procure, and maintain E&IT that is accessible to persons with disabilities made the investment in time and manpower worthwhile."
Looking back, Jaco and Dawes cite several factors that were key to their success in getting the bill developed and passed:
Gerry Ann Smedley is the Administrative Rules Liaison with the OK Department of Central Services. She was a member of the Task Force and now serves on the Advisory Council. She cites the critical role of the ABLE Tech leaders in the development and passage of the legislation. "I commend the leadership and dedication of ABLE Tech throughout the project, from introduction of the legislation to where we are now. I don't think the Legislature would have been as successful without the expertise and effort they provided us. I've never served on a harder working advisory council or one that produced the quality of work product for the benefit of state agencies."
HB 2197 names the Department of Central Services (DCS) and the Office of State Finance (OSF) as the two agencies to implement the law and assure compliance to accessibility standards. The new law also converts the task force to an ongoing Advisory Council.
The Advisory Council now consists of five subcommittees:
The EITA Advisory Council and its subcommittees spent much time developing the information technology accessibility standards document. Oklahoma modeled its standards document from the Missouri document as well as the federal Section 508 standards. OSF issued the standards and placed the document on the Office of State Finance IT Division website in July 2005. The standards did not become effective until the rule documents were approved, making September 8, 2005 as the effective date.
Other activities that have taken place include:
Creating awareness is a continual process. Since the law passed in 2004, there have been numerous efforts to create awareness and to educate people in the state agencies on what it means to them. Examples of just a few of the activities include:
The EITA Advisory Council discussed originally to include K-12 in the drafted legislation, but it was decided that since there are 540 local school districts with local control, that this issue alone would defeat the bill. It was best to move forward with the bill asking for top level of state agencies, postsecondary, and Career Tech to assure compliance to IT accessibility standards.
So, while school districts and other educational institutions aren't specifically included in the law, they and their students can benefit from following the law and using the resources the state makes available to them. There have been numerous efforts to reach out to the schools throughout Oklahoma, including:
"This law has been tremendous for the State of Oklahoma," says Jason Price, SSA VR Coordinator with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. "It provides substance to the statement that Oklahoma is committed to serving Oklahomans with disabilities. With all of the struggles and adversity facing our citizens with disabilities, it's comforting to know that any information received electronically from the state will be accessible to everyone. My hat is off to everyone who worked on this project. It was truly an honor serving on the council."
Kevin Sesock is an assistive technology specialist with Oklahoma State University. He is already seeing progress since the law's passage. "The true goal of HB2197 is to increase awareness and get the ball rolling. Thanks to HB 2197, I am hearing more and more success stories, including departments at Oklahoma State University asking vendors to certify that their technology is accessible, new websites being created with accessibility in mind, and computer labs that are being designed for wheelchair access and assistive technology. We have countless new goals and projects on our scope that are designed to provide an even playing field for our students and employees with disabilities."
"Accessibility is now on many individuals' radar, thanks in part to HB2197," adds Sesock. "Many of our web developers across the campus are starting to look at website accessibility requirements the same way that physical ADA regulations dictate what an architect must do to a building to accommodate persons with disabilities. We've nicknamed it 'Curbcuts for Technology'."
The following documents can all be found at http://www.accessibility.ok.gov
For additional resource information about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act or any of the projects named in this article, please visit www.dlrp.org for the complete list.