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Interim Report from Arkansas
From the Editor: In 1999 Arkansas was one of the first states to enact legislation requiring state government to purchase only computer hardware and software that could be made accessible to disabled users if needed. The law passed was a version of the NFB's model technology act, legislation that Federationists across the country are encouraging their state legislatures to enact. Everyone cheered the action of the Arkansas legislature and praised their willingness to take the lead.
Almost immediately Arkansas hit rough water. It's just plain hard for some people to understand that such legislation has implications for them. Among these were the Arkansas officials in charge of implementing a statewide accounting system for state government. Blind people could not use it efficiently, so the fat was in the fire. The National Federation of the Blind brought suit, recognizing that unless a flagrantly illegal program like this one could be fixed or removed, such legislative protections as the Arkansas technology-access law would be worthless. Nothing has yet been resolved, but on April 1, 2002, the following story appeared in the Paragould Daily Press. It accurately describes the current situation and the magnitude of the problem. Here it is:
System Doesn't Provide Needed Access
by Gail Jackson
Arkansas's new accounting system, called AASIS, was supposed to streamline record processing, but difficulties in working with the system drove employees in the state's Agency for the Blind to sue to have it improved or removed. "It should never have been put online. It is not accessible to the blind, and it keeps blind people from doing their jobs," said Agency for the Blind Supervisor Larry Wayland, who along with co-worker Donna Hartsell initiated the legal action.
The basis for the lawsuit is a 1999 Arkansas law that prohibits the state from purchasing any software or hardware that is not accessible to the blind or the visually impaired. "Shane Broadaway sponsored the 1999 bill, and Arkansas legislators seemed to be very proud of the fact that they passed it," Wayland said, also pointing out that there are federal laws that prohibit having a system that prevents blind employees from doing their jobs and--according to the Americans with Disabilities Act--if it's not accessible, that law needs to be changed.
The AASIS system tracks inventory, employee records, timesheets, and processes checks. Wayland's department uses it to access employee files. It's supposed to have a keystroke echo feature and a speech feature that allows blind employees to command the system to read back information, but it doesn't. Another feature that poses problems is that some of the data is arranged in cells of dynamic rows and columns. The only way to go from cell to cell is to use the tab feature. "In order to do their jobs, employees have to hit the tab key four, five, six, seven hundred times to get to a particular cell to change a file," Wayland said.
The system was supposed to be designed so that everybody could do their own work, but it could cause visually impaired employees to need assistance. Because of that, Wayland foresees that the AASIS system, as is, could cost a lot of people their jobs. He said, "It's not just us, but it's the possibility that other people would apply for a job that would be required to use the system. Look, if you want blind people to work, you've got to make it possible for blind people to work--that's what this agency is all about."
Wayland knew in advance the Department of Finance and Administration planned to supplant old accounting procedures with the Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System. Since it's his responsibility to assess the technical aspects of the jobs within his department and make recommendations on equipment that best suits the needs of the blind and visually impaired, he asked if AASIS would be accessible to the visually impaired. He said he was told it would be and that it would be more accurate than the previous record-keeping system, but it hasn't panned out.
The system was blamed for child support checks not going out, but Dan McDonal, administrator for the Office of Child Support Enforcement, said that had nothing to do with AASIS. He said child support payments are handled through ARCSIS, the Arkansas Child Support Information System, and that the two systems are not connected whatsoever.
H.C. Lemmons, administrator at the Greene County Department of Human Services, said AASIS has streamlined some procedures, as intended, and is a big improvement over the old system, but Wayland said other departments have complained about problems.
Wayland said the state had already tested the program and knew when it went online July 1 that it wasn't working. Arkansas purchased AASIS for $19 million in 2000, from SAP, a German company. Ron Hopper, who was in charge of the system at first, was replaced, and the state has spent additional millions (the estimate is more than $50 million including the purchase price) making adjustments to the system. There's no time limit on getting the bugs out, and the end is not in sight.
"I know I'm seeing an awful lot of timesheets that I didn't have to sign before. I was under the impression that this was supposed to eliminate all this paperwork," Wayland said.
"They're not even saying it can be done. And as the bugs are all worked out, it could cause more work. The people working on this just got raises while agencies are having to cut their budgets a lot, including the Agency for the Blind," he added.
Arkansas legislators recently criticized spending so much money on the system and questioned spending more to contract with outside sources to study the system.
Wayland and Hartsell acted to require the state to make the AASIS software system accessible to the blind in a suit filed by the National Federation of the Blind, after the system went online. An attempt was made to contact the Little Rock attorney and the head of the Federation of the Blind at the national headquarters about the suit, but neither responded. The state appealed the lawsuit, but the appeal was thrown out of court.
Wayland hopes that if they win, AASIS will be made accessible within a specific time frame. "If it can be made accessible, it could open doors," he said.
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