As educational entities purchase information technology (IT) products, it is critical that they consider the accessibility of these products for their students and employees with disabilities. At present, only a small number of educational entities have begun to systematically address accessibility within their IT procurement processes. However, the federal government of the United States has worked diligently to address its IT accessibility since the passage of 1998 Amendments to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. In doing so, the federal government serves as a promising practice for state governments and nongovernmental organizations, including educational entities, who seek to purchase accessible IT.
Section 508 as amended requires that federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology that is accessible. In order to facilitate compliance with this law, the government has created a variety of support mechanisms. Without such support, procurement officials would be challenged to identify whether products are accessible.
The federal agency that was charged with developing standards for Section 508 was the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board). Their Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards were published in the Federal Register on December 21, 2000. A key part of the Access Board's mission is providing training and technical assistance on the standards it develops and maintains. In addition to offering a variety of online resources and tutorials, the Access Board travels extensively to train organizations and groups throughout the country. According to the Access Board Training website, the Board in a typical year "conducts over 75 training sessions across the country, usually traveling to almost half the states and reaching a cumulative audience of over 9,000 people."
In addition to the work of the Access Board, other federal agencies have contributed toward providing support for Section 508 compliance. The Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) partnered with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to create a Section 508 compliance checklist called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template™ (VPAT™). Many software companies have completed VPATs and have made them available on their company websites. GSA has also created a central database called Buy Accessible, where many vendors have posted their VPATs. The database serves to assist purchasers in making informed decisions about products' accessibility.
For educational entities, the primary lesson learned from the federal government's example is that in order to successfully implement an accessibility standard for IT, support must be provided for those who are purchasing and/or developing IT. Guidelines and standards are important for clearly documenting and defining the details of the entity's commitment, and training and technical assistance are important for ensuring that IT decision makers have the knowledge and resources they need to make decisions related to IT accessibility.