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Prelude to Drafting the Original ADA Bill - Part 8

Other Council Responsibilities

As if getting the report out by the February 1, 1986, statutory deadline was not enough, the Council and its staff had, and would continue to have, a full itinerary of other work to do. In fact, even as Toward Independence was being printed, the Council was at work on a cutting-edge initiative on technology accessibility that would prove very fruitful. The Council developed testimony for a hearing on the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 conducted by the House Subcommittee on Select Education. Since the hearing was scheduled for January 29, the first day of the Council’s January meeting, the Council opted to present its recommendations to the subcommittee by written submission. Significantly, among a long inventory of recommendations, the Council proposed that a new section be added to the Rehabilitation Act to require that technological office equipment obtained by the federal government or used in programs and activities conducted by recipients of federal financial assistance be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. The Council reasoned that since Congress had already required buildings owned or leased by federal agencies, or in which federally funded programs and activities were located, to be accessible for people with disabilities, it did not make sense not to provide that the equipment in these buildings and in such programs and activities had to be accessible to such individuals.[1] Congress, responding in part to this recommendation, added a new Section 508, titled "Electronic Equipment Accessibility," to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[2] It directed the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the General Services Administration, after consulting with representatives of the electronics industry, to establish "guidelines for electronic equipment accessibility designed to insure that [individuals with disabilities] may use electronic office equipment with or without special peripherals." After these guidelines were adopted by the Administrator of General Services, they became binding on government agency purchases or leases of electronic office equipment as of September 30, 1988.[3] Section 508 represents a partial but highly important realization of the Council's recommendation that I had included in Toward Independence providing that services, goods, and facilities purchased or leased by the government be required to be accessible to persons with disabilities.

The Council remained mindful of its other ongoing statutory obligations, including monitoring the activities of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and the Special Education Program of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS). At hearings of the Subcommittee on the Handicapped of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources on the reauthorization of discretionary programs under the Education of the Handicapped Act, the Council prepared and delivered testimony, including recommendations focusing on comprehensive intervention services for pre-school-aged children with disabilities and their families. The Council’s input, consistent with a recommendation in Toward Independence,[4] influenced the establishment in the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986 of an early intervention program to serve infants with disabilities from birth to two years of age. The Council also began a collaborative effort with OSERS and the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped regarding the transition of youths with disabilities from school to work settings, which would culminate in co-sponsorship of a conference where young people with disabilities, parents, employers, and rehabilitation professionals discussed problems faced by Americans with disabilities as they leave school and begin seeking jobs. In conjunction with the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the Council convened an ad hoc group on coordination of efforts to prevent disabilities, comprised of fifteen Federal agencies, that met on a bimonthly basis; its objectives were to exchange information and coordinate efforts on disability prevention, and to develop a national plan on the prevention of both primary and secondary disabilities. At its May 1986 meeting, the Council hosted a Communications Barrier Forum, co-sponsored by the National Association of the Deaf, the American Council of the Blind, and other organizations, at which speakers led discussions of communication needs and accommodations in such contexts as interpreters and readers, employment, medical care, transportation, and legal proceedings. The forum kicked off a year-long focus on communications policy sponsored by the Council.

Two of the Council’s official responsibilities – monitoring the activities of the National Institute for Handicapped Research (NIHR), and the Interagency Committee on Handicapped Research (ICHR) – fell within the jurisdiction of the Research Committee of the Council and, accordingly, within my bailiwick as the Research Specialist. In addition to duties of staffing the Research Committee, meeting with staff of NIHR and ICHR to keep the council members apprised of their activities, and my ongoing work trying to get the Bureau of the Census to include better questions about disability on the upcoming 1990 Census, other substantive projects not infrequently made their way onto my to-do list. For example, I was appointed to an ad hoc work group on audiovisual materials and hearing impairments of ICHR’s Subcommittee on Hearing Impaired Persons, which led to my reviewing draft recommendations of the subcommittee to ICHR. In May, I wrote a memo to the subcommittee chair in which, drawing upon my legal background, I suggested that the draft recommendations greatly understated legal requirements regarding captioning, and proposed the addition of new recommendations that all films, videotapes, and other audiovisual materials to be presented at meetings of the ICHR or its subcommittees be required to be captioned; and that ICHR should formally recommend to its member agencies and to all other federal agencies that all audiovisual materials that they or their grantees and contractors or grantees produced with federal funds should be available in a captioned version. Subsequently, I was asked to participate in an ICHR “Working Group on Visual Impairments” and agreed to produce a draft report to the ICHR chairperson, Dr. David Gray, on access to meeting and written materials. I completed the draft report in August of 1986. It included recommendations regarding general accessibility of meetings, and requirements for providing access to meetings people with visual impairments, including readers, and brailled and indexed tape versions of written materials. Earlier, I had done some background research and analysis of communication issues in preparing a paper titled “Communication Technology, People with Disabilities, and the Law” that I delivered at a February 20-21, 1986, forum on “Marketplace Problems in Communication Technology for Disabled People” sponsored by the Washington Program of the Annenberg School of Communications and the Gallaudet Research Institute.[5] In the paper, I concluded that legal mandates of equal employment opportunity and equal access to programs and services entail a requirement of equal access to communications technology.

Continue to Part 9: Memorandum Explaining and Defending the Equal Opportunity Law Proposal

[1] The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Select Education, H. Comm. on Education and Labor, 99th Cong., 70 (written statement of Sandra S. Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on the Handicapped).

[2] Section 603 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, Pub. Law No. 99-506, 100 Stat. 1803.

[3] In 1997, a Federal Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility and Compliance Act bill was introduced in Congress to correct inadequacies of the original section 508, particularly the absence of effective enforcement mechanisms. The gist of the 1997 bill was enacted in the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-220, 112 Stat. 93. Section 408(b) of that Act substituted a new and improved Section 508 imposing a strict mandate on federal agencies to ensure that electronic and information technology they develop, procure, maintain, or use is accessible both to federal employees with disabilities and individuals with disabilities outside the government who need government information, unless doing so would impose an undue burden; it also established substantial enforcement provisions, including an administrative complaints process and the right to file a civil court action.

[4] National Council on Disability, Toward Independence (1986) at p. 48 (Educating Children with Disabilities, Recommendation 1).

[5] Communication Technology, People with Disabilities, and the Law, Paper No. 13, Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies (1986).