(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the Access Board was created. The Access Board was created under Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.)
Most people take for granted the ability to blow up type on a computer so it’s easier to read. Or they don’t really notice the ubiquity of street corners with ramped sidewalks. Or that some fixtures in restrooms are set lower than the others.
Yet none of these accessibility aids for people with handicaps just happened. They represent decades of work not only to establish legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, but to make sure organizations comply and people with disabilities really do have access to what they need to live and move about independently and work productively.
And it takes ever-vigilant cops to push for compliance and to find new ways to better accommodate people with sight, hearing, motor or cognitive issues. One of those cops is David Capozzi, the executive director of the U.S. Access Board. The board is an independent agency. It collects information on, and helps set standards for, what it calls the built environment – buildings and other facilities, and public transportation vehicles originally. And later, information technology and telecommunications. Capozzi has been with the board for 20 years. He has participated in the adoption of electronic communications along with transportation and architectural accommodation as a major agency priority.
He said people who work at the Board “have a strong affinity for the mission.” Paralyzed since an automobile accident while in his late teens, Capozzi says, “Attitudes towards disabilities have changed.” Back in 1977 “I’d call a restaurant before going to make sure I could get in with my wheelchair. Not anymore, I can assume it now” that there will be accommodation.
A lawyer by background, Capozzi earlier worked for the Easter Seals and as National Advocacy Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
The Access Board dates to 1973, created by the Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act, and staffed in 1975. But some of its powers come from an even earlier law, the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. It’s small – only 29 employees and a budget of $7.4 million. The Board itself consists of 25 people, 13 appointed by the president and 12 agency executives.
A third law, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, gave the Access Board another responsibility to add to architectural and transit barriers. Section 508 of the Telecommunications Act charges the agency with ensuring that people with disabilities in the federal government have access to online technology, and that reasonable efforts are made to accommodate them. Capozzi explained, the Board provides training and guidelines to agencies on 508 compliance – which themselves are mostly conducted online.
It took until 2000 for the first 508 rules to come into place, and the law required periodic updates. A committee of people from 41 private sector organizations such as Adobe, Apple, IBM and Microsoft form the Telecom and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC, pronounced tie-tack) first advised 508 updates in 2008. The Board issued its first notice of advanced rulemaking in 2010, and a second one last December. Now the Board has retained a company called Econometrica to conduct the cost model for proposed changes to current 508 Standards.
Capozzi said comments received on the proposals cover, among other things, the Web. Commenters said, “Web accessibility guidelines are not identical with guidelines of the Worldwide Web Consortium, so we need to harmonize so our rules can just direct reference them.” Other comments concerned the need to improve accessibility to software interfaces that are not Web-based.
Still other comments, Capozzi said, concern electronic documents, particularly e-mail and e-mail attachments.
A vote occurs in March 2013, then the rules move to the Office of Management and Budget before publication as final.
Capozzi said a major challenge is posed by the convergence of technologies into smartphones and tablets, which people use for computing, telephony and web access. Sometimes even smart companies need a reminder.
“The first iPhone was not accessible, while Apple was on the (TEITAC) committee,” Capozzi said. Now it has voice-over functionality and is generally praised by advocates for people with disabilities.
You just go into settings/general/accessibility and there they are. I enlarged the type a bit, something I didn’t know you could do on the iPhone. Wow, it’s a lot easier to read e-mail now with my okay but 57-year-old eyes. Which means Section 508 and accessibility in general is good for all of us.