Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, which took effect in June 2001, requires all agencies of the U.S. government to ensure that any electronic or information technology (EIT) they "develop, procure, maintain or use" is accessible to people with disabilities.
That one change in federal law promises unprecedented new opportunities in employment, education and independent living for more than 54 million Americans with disabilities. Whether that promise is fulfilled will depend largely on how effectively government and industry work together to achieve the goals of Section 508, and to make accessible technology an integral part of American society and our national economy.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (Census 2000), people with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States, accounting for approximately one-fifth of the entire U.S. population. That number is destined to grow as the population ages. Members of the baby boom generation--more than 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964--are now in their forties and fifties. In fact, more than 48 percent of the U.S. workforce is now age 40 or older. By 2005, baby boomers will be reaching age 60 at the rate of one every seven seconds, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2003), and more than half of the 1.8 million federal employees will be eligible for retirement. That figure includes 71 percent of Senior Executive Service employees, the government's highest-ranking career professionals.
Aging baby boomers in both the public and private sectors are beginning to experience age-related disabilities such as low vision, hearing loss and decreasing dexterity, which is transforming accessibility into a mainstream economic issue. Section 508 ensures aging federal employees will have the support they need to continue working with no loss in productivity, and simultaneously provides broader public access to government services and information.
As the members of this large population segment continue to age, they will face more serious and potentially debilitating issues such as arthritis, glaucoma and cataracts. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 70 percent of all Americans will experience some kind of disability before they reach age 75.
A National Eye Institute study (Friedman, 2002), for example, predicts that the aging baby boom generation could double the number of blind Americans, because growing older is a major factor in developing eye disease. Cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in the world, currently affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older. By age 80, more than half of all Americans develop cataracts. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report (CDC 2003) that the number of older adults in the United States with arthritis or chronic joint symptoms is expected to nearly double to 41.1 million by 2030.
These trends signal a growing need for accessible technology, and for both public and private sector policies to help ensure its widespread adoption and use. Anything less will limit career options for federal workers as they get older, and create unnecessary barriers to government services for members of the public with age-related disabilities. Section 508 is a good beginning, and a valuable model for others to follow.
COMPETITION AND INNOVATION
Virtually unique among federal regulations, Section 508 spurs industry competition and innovation by creating economic incentives for technology companies to build more and better accessibility features into their products. Section 508 does not attempt to regulate the technology industry, nor does it require companies to alter their products. Instead, it simply requires technology products to be measured against a set of accessibility standards that were developed by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, more commonly known as the Access Board, before federal agencies can consider purchasing them. …