June 21, 2021
The Honorable Patty Murray Chairperson
US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions
154 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Chairperson Murray:
The National Federation of the Blind, the nation’s transformative civil rights organization of the blind, requests that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hold a hearing on the current implementation and enforcement of, and opportunities to improve, legislation regarding Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
When Congress enacted Section 508 in 1986 and then in 1998 revised the legislation as a part of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments, including the Amendments under what is now the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the law was lauded as progressive and inclusive. In requiring that electronic and information technology that is developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to public and federal employees with disabilities, Congress recognized the budding role that technology had in our daily lives.
Since 1998 (and even since the 2017 Revised Section 508 Standards), Americans’ use of technology, particularly web-based services, continues to increase at remarkable rates: more than 313 million Americans now use the internet,1 and 81 percent of Americans say that they access the internet at least once each day.2 Federal agencies rely on information and communication technology (ICT) as a part of daily operation. The circumstances surrounding the need for Section 508 when it was introduced in 19973by Representative Anna Eshoo remain true today, particularly for federal employees and prospective employees:
- Information technology has played a large role in opening jobs in the Federal Government and elsewhere to people with disabilities. . . However, information technology can also shut the door to employment for people with disabilities if [it] isn't accessible to them. Web sites with heavy graphics content, for instance, may not be designed to be compatible with software commonly used by people who are blind or visually impaired to read the information on computer screens.
- It is imperative to Federal employees with disabilities for Federal agencies to purchase information technology that gives them a chance to do their jobs instead of cutting them off from full participation in the workforce.4
One glaring shortcoming in Section 508’s implementation has been enforcement of agency compliance. Please consider the following experiences: they are representative of the complaints the National Federation of the Blind receives annually from blind, federal employees:
- A blind Tennessee resident, Carlos Montas, desired to complete the US Department of State’s Consular Fellows Program Test (CFPT) as a requirement for employment he was pursuing with the Department of State. Mr. Montas uses screen access software to access electronic information. His request for screen access software was denied as a testing accommodation by the Department of State because the test was purportedly not compatible with his screen access software. Mr. Montas filed a 508 complaint with the Department of State in February 2021 and is still waiting for the Department’s investigation results.
- A blind Ohio resident, Alexis Tyson, who works for the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a public contact representative is unable to complete critical functions of her job expeditiously because the Unified Desktop Optimum software used by her department is inaccessible with screen access software. Though she met with her department’s Section 508 Coordinator about the access barriers, her inability to meet the established quota for answered/resolved calls resulted in a verbal warning from her supervisor and failure to receive the General Schedule grade promotion which she had qualified for, otherwise.
- A blind Maryland resident, Michelle Clark, is employed as an IT Specialist and Section 508 Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Production and Conservation. In 2015,Ms. Clark filed a 508 discrimination complaint with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) because department software that she was supposed to use in her role as Section508 Coordinator was inaccessible. Ms. Clark waited over 1,400 days for OASCR to investigate her complaint before filing a federal lawsuit. In June 2021, a judge found that as a federal employee, Ms. Clark does not have a private right of action to pursue accessible workplace software.
All three examples highlight the need for revised legislation that bolster Section 508 enforcement requirements and underscore an individual’s private right of action to pursue accessible federal ICT. A House Committee on Education and Labor hearing will bring light to these perpetuating federal agency accessibility barriers and will open dialogue on how these serious gaps in implementation can be remedied and how, twenty-four years after introducing this critical legislation, Representative Eshoo’s goal can be realized. Thank you for considering this important action.
Mark A. Riccobono
President National Federation of the Blind