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The Search for 508 Utopia

In a perfect world, blanket Section 508 certifications wouldn't need to exist and, vendors would make accessibility a standard feature of their equipment.


The Federal Acquisition Regulation's micropurchase exception to Section 508 expired April 1.

So what does that mean to the typical government office? When you place an order worth $2,500 or less for IT products, you must ensure that what you buy complies with federal accessibility standards.

Before getting into the details of the micropurchase change, here's a quick Section 508 refresher. This portion of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that agencies provide disabled employees with the same access to government systems and information as they do for any other worker; the same rule applies to citizens using any system or information the government makes available to the public.

For help with the specifications, visit the Web site of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, at www.access-board.gov. The board is a small, independent agency that developed the standards that define what makes systems and information accessible.

The government makes several thousand micropurchases each week—for notebook and desktop PCs, printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners and telephones. With the expiration of the micropurchase exception, agencies must consider a whole new round of 508 scenarios.

Some examples include:

  • requiring contractors—both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and vendors who sell other vendors' products—to provide blanket 508 compliance certifications for IT equipment if that equipment has not already been certified by the government as 508-compliant;
  • asking a vendor to provide 508 information on an $800 procurement in the afternoon even if that morning that vendor supplied the same information to that contracting officer for $5,000 worth of the same hardware or software, because that earlier buy was not a micropurchase;
  • explaining to a vendor why its product failed to comply while a competitor's similar product—say a laser printer—was fully 508-compliant and the competitor got the agency's business.

It might seem hard to believe that a laser printer can possibly comply with all of 508's accessibility standards, or that a vendor would make such a blanket certification and that your contracting officers would accept it—but it happens every day. There is an upside: Once an agency understands that 508 documentation is a specification and not a certification, is satisfied the printer meets the applicable standards and properly documents this finding, the agency can buy that same make of printer from any seller without further documentation.

An Extra Step or Two

Purchasing IT in a 508 environment adds a few steps to the procurement process. The first step is to determine whether the section is relevant and applicable. If it is relevant, the next step is to identify the specific 508 standards that apply.

The General Services Administration has created an online help tool, the Buy Accessible Wizard, to help agencies make these determinations. The wizard, at www.buyaccessible.gov, takes the guesswork out of how to apply the Section 508 standards. It can help you determine if 508 is applicable and the specific standards that apply, and compile a running summary to document the process and its results.

By using the GSA wizard, agencies and vendors can eliminate the confusion of trying to apply the standards to micropurchases. But how can an agency find out if certain IT equipment supports a specific standard?

The Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington association of IT companies, worked with GSA to create a common form that OEMs can use to provide detailed information about their products' accessibility criteria. This Voluntary Product Accessibility Template can be found on GSA's Buy Accessible site and on the council's site, at www.itic.org.

Many companies now create and post VPATs on their Web sites. OEMs can also link their templates to BuyAccessible.gov, but the most reliable and complete VPATs generally can be found on vendors' own sites.

When requesting bids, agencies should ask vendors to take the extra step of including any applicable VPATs with their responses. If a VPAT is unavailable or other documentation for 508 standards for specific equipment is missing, an agency does not necessarily need to put its procurement on hold.

Not for Every Buy

The FAR lets agencies make the case for not meeting 508. To do so, an agency must do two things:

  • identify which standards, if any, would not apply because the information is unavailable or obtaining it would be an undue burden;
  • document that the information is unavailable or why obtaining it would be an undue burden.

In a perfect world, OEMs would include relevant 508 details as an integral part of all IT specifications so the information would be readily available; vendors other than OEMs would stop giving, and the government would stop accepting, blanket 508 certifications; and agencies' procurement officials would embrace GSA's Buy Accessible Wizard.

If these three things occur, the government could create a central database of product information. Then, procurement officials doing market research could search against part numbers to check a product's accessibility. But for now, agencies and vendors must still take a step-by-step approach to assuring 508 compliance.

Dec 31 2009

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