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State IT Accessibility Is Improving, But Here’s How It Can Get Even Better

Google's self-driving Lexus

Google's self-driving Lexus Tony Avelar / AP Photo

BALTIMORE — Information technology accessibility is improving at the state level, but underscoring its importance among smaller vendors continues to prove challenging.

Larger vendors understand what’s expected of them but might not always have accessible products because of hurdles like legacy systems, Jeff Kline, the state of Texas’ Electronic and Information Resources Accessibility program director, said on Thursday during the Inclusion and Equal Opportunity in the Digital Age session at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers2016 midyear conference.

Texas relies on cooperative contract procurements, where vendors’ commitments to accessibility are scored but not factored into their bids. A vendor’s score is revisited the next time it submits a proposal, and a lack of improvement could disqualify it from consideration.

“Stuff that we develop, we’re making better progress,” Kline said.

A growing segment of the population—one in five people—has a disability, said panelist Bill Oates, a former Massachusetts chief information officer. Oates is now vice president at Perkins Solutions, which innovates tools for people who are blind or have other visual impairments.

In 2001, Arkansas was hit with a $42 million lawsuit because employees with visual impairments couldn’t process payroll for their agency. The system was inaccessible to them.

“This can cost more than that one person,” said panelist Mark Myers, Arkansas’ chief technology officer.

Myers’ advice: Don’t go beyond the federal General Service Administration’s Section 508 accessibility guidelines because enterprise vendors might not be willing to do business in your state if there are extra standards. States are better off choosing the more accessible vendor between bids—generally the “difference maker” with products Arkansas selects.

Arkansas’ cybersecurity team has a visually impaired member, so a product that’s 90 percent accessible will get the nod over one that isn’t at all.

When accessibility lawsuits are settled, inevitably states must ensure proper policies, skills and training, reporting, and process requirements. Fear or getting sued can be an accessibility enabler for some states, Kline said.

Creating state innovation teams can be one way to extend access, Oates said, but they need to be actively brainstorming tools promoting inclusivity.

In 2011, the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics launched Street Bump, a mobile app that proactively detects potholes using a smartphone’s GPS and accelerometer to gauge slowdown in vehicles. The city was later approached by wheelchair accessibility activists who wanted to use the app to identify where sidewalks that lacked curb cuts or were too bumpy.

Perkins Solutions recently received a grant from Google to develop a mobile micronavigation app that crowdsources clues helping those with blindness know where to stand to wait for a public bus and avoid obstacles. Smart sensors could make the app even more precise and change the way people with impairments travel, Oates said.

The Perkins School for the Blind, located in Watertown, Massachusetts, will soon have a connected autonomous vehicle on campus, courtesy of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff company, Optimus Ride. Officials might not be worried about the disruptive tech coming to their state anytime soon, but the accessibility benefits for people with impairments should have them thinking about policies for testing self-driving vehicles, Oates said.

“As fast as the technology is being developed, there’s just a lot of artificial intelligence stuff that needs to get figured out,” he said.

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Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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