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A generation ago, not much thought was given by designers of public buildings and transportation to the needs of people who use wheelchairs. But after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, past foresight was rewarded. In the rare cases where accessibility was built in from the start, the facilities did not require expensive revamping and retrofitting. A similar opportunity for wise planning is emerging in the digital architecture of the Internet age. On Dec. 21, an independent federal agency, the Access Board, issued Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility standards. At first, as occurred with buildings, the access rules will only apply to federal employees and contracts. But in the long run, the goal is to create software and hardware with standard alternative methods to “read” information. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including larger type, greater contrast, or by providing sound instead of images for those with impaired vision. For example, newer versions of the Windows operating system already include optional features to make keyboards and screens easier for people with partial vision or limited dexterity. The new rules cover Web pages, software applications, and stand-alone devices like calculators, fax machines and copiers. The rules become enforceable on June 21, 2001, giving federal agencies six months to upgrade their Web pages for greater accessibility. The new specifications are incorporated into federal procurement standards, but make exceptions for military and intelligence devices. Manufacturers are not required to redesign or retrofit products currently in existence. Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal electronic and information technology to be accessible, a person with a disability can file an administrative complaint against an agency that is not in compliance. The procedure allows attorneys’ fees and corrective orders for the winning party, but does not provide for compensatory or punitive damages. The key test of whether a technological feature must be included is whether doing so creates an “undue burden.” As in the ADA, that’s defined as a “significant difficulty or expense.” New Haven, Conn., lawyer Gary E. Phelan, who writes and speaks extensively about ADA issues, says he does not predict an effort to retreat from the accessibility goals under the incoming administration of President-elect George W. Bush. “I don’t think the Bush administration is going to be aggressively opposed — I think they’ll let the courts decide. It’s antiquated to see the ADA as focused primarily on buildings,” says Phelan, a partner in Garrison, Phelan, Levin-Epstein, Chimes & Richardson. A more likely target, he says, are ergonomic regulations for the workplace promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Industry leaders seem to embrace the idea of building in broad accessibility to electronic and information technology. The leading computer technology companies have pledged their support, with the CEOs of Microsoft, AT&T, Compaq, eBay, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems signing on to a pro-accessibility policy. President Bill Clinton cited that pact in a speech last fall, and said that bridging the “digital divide” was not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Phelan acknowledged that the multi-media features of modern computers are potentially suited to communication through more than one sense, but a dream of removing the barriers of disabilities is not yet a reality. In fact, he says, with more workplace activity centered on reading computer monitors, unemployment among the blind is on the rise.

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