An Interview with Dinah F. B. Cohen, Director, Department of Defense, Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program. As a speaker at Connecting Technology Spring 2001, Ms. Cohen spoke passionately about accessibility issues regarding Section 508 compliance. She is such an informed, inspired speaker on this subject that CHIPS asked her to talk especially to our readers.
On August 7, 1998, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which includes the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, was signed into law. Section 508 requires that when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, Federal employees and the general public with disabilities have access to and use of information that is comparable to access to and use of information by people without disabilities. Federal agencies must be in compliance by June 21, 2001.
CHIPS: Is there an agency(s) leading the effort to ensure Federal compliance? What are their responsibilities? Also many have expressed that they don't know where to start to ensure their Web sites are compliant. Is help available to activity Webmasters?
Ms. Cohen: There are many agencies involved in this effort. The Access Board is providing technical assistance and training on these guidelines, and standards enforcing accessibility standards for federally funded facilities. They also act as a technical adviser for electronic and information technology questions. GSA [General Services Administration] provides training and technical assistance.
Each federal agency and each of the Services under the Department of Defense (DoD) designated an advisory body to provide advice and ensure compliance. The responsible Department of the Navy (DON) office is the DON CIO [Chief Information Officer at http://www.doncio.navy.mil]. CAP can also help DoD activities with 508 compliance issues.
CHIPS: What is CAP? How can they help in this effort?
Ms. Cohen: CAP is the centrally funded program that provides assistive technology and accommodation services to individuals with disabilities in the Department of Defense. We also provide assistive technologies to increase access to DoD programs such as our hospitals, schools and training centers. Via the National Defense Authorization Act, CAP was granted the authority to provide assistive technology to non-DoD agencies upon the request of the head of the agency. CAP is currently providing accommodations to over 40 Federal agencies.
CHIPS: What specific information technology is included in Section 508?
Ms. Cohen: The Access Board Standards include: software applications and operating systems; Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications; telecommunications products; video or multimedia products; self-contained, closed products and desktop and portable computers. To be compliant with 508 is saying that whenever I buy anything under one of these provisions, whether it is buying a new software application or a new printer, I must make sure the Access Board standard of the provision of 508 is met.
CHIPS: Isn't it going to be very expensive for activities to ensure compliance?
Ms. Cohen: It shouldn't be because it isn't asking us to go back and address legacy systems. It is talking about procurement of new electronic information technologies. It is talking about the next time we buy a new copier that we make sure that copier complies with the provisions of Section 508. It is not asking people to throw out all their copiers and buy new ones.
CHIPS: Why did you say in your presentation at Connecting Technology that Section 508 is good for business?
Ms. Cohen: It really reminds me of the days when we had the same argument or concern about making our buildings accessible. A lot of people were concerned that this was going to cost us too much money to go back and design building so that people in wheelchairs can gain access. What we found is that if you design a building well and you make it accessible for people with disabilities—everyone can benefit from it—people with children in strollers, people with elderly parents and people who might have played too hard over the weekend and as a result hurt their backs. It is the same thing with an accessible information structure.
If we have an accessible information infrastructure and we comply with Section 508, I think it will give everyone so much more flexibility in how they use the technology and when they use it. The new technology allows someone to respond to e-mail over the telephone. If I have a hand injury or I choose not to use my hands because I am busy doing something else—I can talk to my computer instead of using a mouse or keyboard. That is why I think it is good for businesses because it allows companies and new innovations to be much more flexible. It builds on the concept of multi-modality. Maybe we are building it right now for people with disabilities but just like the accessible building a lot more people are going to use it and benefit from it.
CHIPS: I remember in your presentation when you talked about the closed-caption devices on televisions and the resistance people had for paying for something on a television that they didn't want or need. But now captioning is used in ways that hadn't even been thought of.
Ms. Cohen: Exactly and that is what I think is going to happen again with this accessible information infrastructure. It is just like the captioning where people were concerned about the extra cost of having television sets developed and manufactured with the internal chip that allows people to view television programs that have been captioned. We found that not only does it benefit people who are deaf and hard of hearing but it also benefits people who are functionally illiterate, people who do not use English as their primary language and people with learning disabilities.
You also see it used quite a bit in sports bars because it is too noisy to hear the game! It has what we consider universal design application. Once again, I think that even though Section 508 is focusing on the benefits for people with disabilities, I would not be surprised if a couple years down the line someone is using (whether they know it or not) a piece of assistive technology or they are using their information tool better because Section 508 was part of the design phase.
CHIPS: Let's talk about accessible Federal Web sites—this seems to be a matter of worry to managers, who are concerned with the number of man-hours involved in ensuring that their Web sites are accessible for all. Who do you see as benefiting from making Federal Web sites accessible?
Ms. Cohen: Accessible Web sites are just like accessible buildings—they follow the elements of good design. It is a design for how you set up your Web site in such a way that it makes it easier for people who may not be able to use their mouse or be able to use their keyboard. When you think about people on travel using laptops—using a different type of tool, then the concept of being able to use or navigate through a Web site without a mouse is a nice benefit. The better and more flexible design again goes back to Section 508.
We all know that there are a ton of Web sites, many of them are accessible and many more are not. To address managers' concerns, we are looking at this from both a Section 508 and a disability point of view. We can be smart about this. There are obviously some Web sites that are going to need to be accessible first because of the potential usability of the population and there are some Web sites that are not. We need to make our best effort to make as many if not all Web sites accessible, but we need to approach it in a very smart, business-like manner. It is not going to happen overnight.
Many Federal agencies, including DoD looked at the top 20 Web sites to see which ones are visited the most and made sure they were accessible first, and then they just kept going down to the next 20 and the next 20. We should look at the largest internal and external population who may want to visit that site and make it accessible to anyone—those with or without assistive technology.
CHIPS: Let's talk about your definition of who may be impaired and in need of assistive technology. One of the very good points that you made is that any one of us may at any time become impaired due to an accident or just by the effects of aging—even Superman, the actor Christopher Reeve, unfortunately. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Ms. Cohen: We always look at the Department of Census numbers on how many people with disabilities there are in the United States. The latest Census revealed there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. As recent as that Census may be, I am sure there are people who do not and did not identify himself or herself as someone with a disability. This is because they probably think of certain people as disabled and they are not. I always look at those numbers and think that is a soft number.
So the numbers we toss around are not totally inclusive of everyone who has a disabling condition, but those who have identified themselves, as having a disability—there is a difference. At the same time on any given day new people join the disabled community, whether due to an accident or having been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, etc. Just by the natural aging process we are going to develop disabling conditions. Some of us will not see as well, some of us won't hear as well, we may find that some of us will start to walk a little slower, and many of us will have dexterity disabilities—that is becoming one of the biggest problems in the United States today.
With the use of computers, many of us are developing repetitive stress injuries. With the implementation of Section 508, not only does it allow people who develop disabling conditions to stay productive in the workforce but it also helps relieve some of those work-related injuries. We can help eliminate some of the repetitive stress injuries because we can either use a mouse or keyboard because our software, Web sites and technology have that dual-modality. Now we have just addressed some of the work-related injuries that we created. To me Section 508 is just another way of saying flexibility. It is developing an information environment that allows accessibility in whatever mode that suits any one of us in whatever mode that anyone may need to use.
CHIPS: Is the Access Board a permanent agency or just temporary to assist in the Section 508 compliance effort?
Ms. Cohen: The Access Board was developed as a result of Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to specifically address accessibility issues across the board. Basically, they began dealing mainly with physical accessibility—building structure and transportation issues. Section 508 is just one of the many things they deal with. The Access Board is better known as the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which is a mouthful. That's why they are now known as the Access Board. Their formation is a result of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. They are definitely a permanent Federal agency.
CHIPS: What is their relationship to GSA (General Services Administration)?
Ms. Cohen: The Access Board is the Federal agency that actually developed the standards for Section 508 compliance. In the legislation, the Access Board and GSA were asked to provide technical assistance to the Federal government regarding Section 508. The Access Board provides guidance on the standards, for example, if you have a question about a specific design, you would go to the Access Board. The Access Board Web site is www.access-board.gov.
The GSA is managing a lot of the training on how to make sure your agency is in compliance. The GSA Section 508 Web site provides lot of free training, that is their role and responsibility to provide the on-going training. Last summer, they offered free training for Webmasters on developing accessible Web sites. They are offering this training again this year. [Go to http://www.section508.gov/.] GSA is also developing training for procurement officers on Section 508 compliance in conjunction with the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulations). The FAR is really the enforcement link because whatever you buy after June 25, 2001, must be in compliance with Section 508.
CHIPS: In your brief you used a quote from the Department of Justice (DoJ) April 2000 Report, which stated, "The most significant challenge posed by Section 508 is the need for coordination between those with technological expertise and those with knowledge of disability access issues." How did these groups come together?
Ms. Cohen: They really came together from the very beginning. Immediately after the Workforce Investment Act was signed in 1998, the Access Board called together a short-term type of organization called the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee. It brought together people from the advocacy and grass roots organizations dealing with disability policy and private industry. They actually put together draft standards for the Access Board for review and comment by all the Federal groups involved in this effort, before final legislation was issued. We wanted to really make sure as we developed these standards that industry understood what was needed to address the needs of the disabled community, and address the needs that would support disability employment and policy.
We are hoping that one of the outcomes of a successful Section 508 implementation is that more people with disabilities will be hired and can be successfully employed in today's electronic and information technology environment. This can happen not only by having the assistive technology tools available via a CAP like program but that once they have that tool that all information will be readily available [to them] because it will be developed, designed, procured and maintained in compliance with Section 508.
CHIPS: As an advocate for disability issues, do you see a more positive attitude and sensitivity toward disability issues from the days when there was so much resistance to making buildings accessible?
Ms. Cohen: I see a lot of changes. I think more and more people are starting to see that when things are designed well—everyone benefits from it. I don't know too many people who haven't "cheated" and used the bigger stalls in restrooms because they are nicer, or used the ramp instead of the stairs, and appreciated it when they have a child in a stroller. These examples are just good design features. In the early stages of Section 508 compliance, people may say, "I have so much to do! How am I going to tackle this elephant!" But later they'll say, "This is good. I like it too."
Earlier this year I attended a conference and the Former Attorney General, Janet Reno was a speaker. Ms. Reno commented that when she first began her position as Attorney General, the Americans with Disabilities Act had just been signed and it was one of the pieces of legislation that fell under her purview. She called her first meeting on the ADA and everyone was extremely concerned on how they were going to implement it, enforce it, how it was going to impact the economy—there were many issues. She said about a year later the same group reconvened and the comment this time was that it was no big deal—this is because the ADA makes sense, is smart business and everyone can benefit from it. It is just the concept of change that makes us anxious. We aren't sure how to do it and so we are a little bit anxious.
So I think the attitude [toward Section 508 compliance] is more positive because people remember they had to make changes on behalf of people with disabilities and they now realize how many people have truly benefited from those changes, either directly or indirectly. Increasingly, many of us in the baby boomer generation have elderly parents, and we also see the benefits of accessible buildings, close-captioning and amplifier handsets on telephones for public/private access. We see how much easier it is to obtain these devices and other devices for people with vision difficulties. Having your parents able to continue to surf the Web and send e-mail even when they are starting to have vision difficulties gives us so much more freedom. I think we see that this is really a smart business move that will impact many people in a very positive way.
CHIPS: Do you see any other big hurdles that need to be overcome?
Ms. Cohen: I think the biggest hurdle is that whenever you have change you have to help people understand what the change really means and how to manage it. I don't think technically it is difficult. I just came from a conference where making charts accessible to the blind was demonstrated. Many thought this was going to be very difficult. But a very small company developed a way to make charts very accessible, very easily. The biggest challenge we have is to get correct, accurate information out so people are comfortable and excited about the change vice fearful of the change.
CHIPS: Do you have any other information to share regarding CAP or Section 508?
Ms. Cohen: Did you know that President Bush came to the Pentagon to see the program on June 19, 2001? President Bush had a tour of the CAP Technology Evaluation Center (CAPTEC) to see the technologies that are available to people with disabilities. He spoke passionately about Section 508 implementation. President Bush stressed his continued support for employment and accessibility for persons with disabilities. He spoke in the Pentagon auditorium to members of Congress, the Service Secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a DoD and non-DoD audience. It was truly an honor for CAP!
CAP Web site at: www.cap.mil
General Services Administration Web site: www.section508.gov
Access Board Web site: www.access-board.gov
Ms. Cohen received the DoD Exceptional Civilian Service Award in October 1998 for her leadership and management of the CAP program. She received the 1991 Special Emphasis Program Award from OASD. She was also awarded the Department of Commerce, 1992 Distinguished Federal Manager Award and the "1995 Federal 100" Award sponsored by Federal Computer Week for her impact on the development, acquisition and management of information technology in the Federal government. She serves as the DoD representation and the past Vice President of the U.S. Council on International Rehabilitation. She became a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, C.R.C. in October 1980. She received a Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in rehabilitation counseling from the State University of Buffalo. She holds a bachelor of science degree in Social Science/Elementary Education from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York.