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US-EU standards must be harmonized to advance accessibility

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GUEST COMMENTARY 
By Julie Anderson

Making technology accessible to persons with disabilities is a critical issue to which we need to play closer attention. Within the government, the issue often falls on a federal chief information officers' long list of to-dos, rather than being a central focus. While recognizing that federal CIOs have a broad set of responsibilities and that there are many critical issues that they manage, we must place a focused eye on whether the issue of accessibility is getting the attention it should.

The federal government has the power to help tech companies innovate to better serve people with disabilities. This can be achieved by harmonizing U.S. and international technology accessibility standards. Enacting a global accessibility standard will free up financial resources, pave the way for innovation and, overall, create a clearer path to accessibility in the U.S. and abroad.

A tale of two standards

Passed over 40 years ago, the U.S. Rehabilitation Act is a far-reaching law that expanded federal responsibilities in assisting individuals with disabilities. A decade after its enactment, an update to the Act known as Section 508, was implemented to make technology accessible to employees and citizens with disabilities who use government services. To comply with Section 508, agencies must purchase technology that best meets certain accessibility standards determined as applicable to the procurement.

Similarly, the European Standard, adopted in January 2014, addresses accessibility requirements for the public procurement of ICT products and services. The U.S. government supported the development of the European Standard, which reflects the convergence of needs and sharing of best practices across jurisdictions. The growing connection of governments, companies and individuals through information-sharing has also created opportunities for people with disabilities to benefit from new technologies. 

Consistent standards enable R&D and innovation

The private sector plays a necessary role in making technology accessible to all users. This makes the intersection between governments' and tech companies' actions even more important. Consistency in government policies provides certainty for private markets, spurring investment and innovation. For example, the fear that certain corporate R&D tax credits will expire has caused some companies to hold off on future research. In short, companies will direct their R&D dollars to areas where they have identified profitable business opportunities, and market uncertainty can make it difficult for companies to do so.    

Benefits of a unified accessibility standard

For tech companies and small businesses alike, an important part of evaluating profitable business opportunities is the cost equation of new technology. The significant cost U.S. companies incur to customize a U.S.-based platform for use in the EU, and vice versa, is too high. Consistent global standards would decrease these development and manufacturing costs by reducing the number of variations across the products, thus freeing up additional resources for R&D and, ultimately, innovation.  

Using the same standards will also speed up the adoption of innovative technologies. The knowledge that different jurisdictions have the same standards will allow companies to get new products and services to markets more efficiently. They will no longer need to waste time tailoring their offerings' assistive technologies to each geography. New technology, such as phonetic spelling software for people with learning disabilities, or eye-controlled pointing devices for people with limited movement, will get into the hands of those who need it more quickly and cost-efficiently.  The needs of users with disabilities are the same regardless of location; disabilities do not have a national boundary.

The time to harmonize is now

The U.S. Access Board, the entity charged by Congress to create the standards or technical requirements for Section 508 implementation in the U.S., is currently in the process of evaluating public input and responses concerning a proposed rule change following a 90-day public comment period. During this time, the Access Board should strongly consider harmonizing the Section 508 standards with the corresponding European Standard. The differences that currently exist between the American and European standards are enough to slow down technological innovation for people with the greatest needs. For the benefit of innovation and the experiences of users with disabilities, the time to harmonize these standards is now.    

A conscious decision by the U.S. federal government to harmonize the standards for ICT products and services will help technology companies innovate and serve those who can benefit the most from accessible and assistive technologies.

Julie M. Anderson is an expert in the management of government and organizational transformation. Prior to forming AG Strategy Group, she was Managing Director of the Civitas Group. Before that, she served as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama Administration. Prior to her appointment, she worked for IBM Public Sector Global Business Services as an associate partner focusing on strategy for health care, homeland security, and cyber security markets. 

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