Does a photocopier control panel "speak" to blind users so they can operate it? Does a desktop computer program provide pop-up captions along with its "beeps" to let deaf users know when something important happens? Does a laptop PC require users to use two hands to open it, rather than one?
Starting today, the federal government will be asking such questions whenever it buys software and hardware, thanks to a new law designed to make technology accessible to disabled employees and citizens. The legislation requires more than 80 agencies and departments to purchase fax machines, cellular telephones, computers and software that meet the new standards.
The law also affects the way the government communicates via the World Wide Web. All new Web pages must be accessible to people who use text-to-speech screen readers or who require visual cues in addition to sound bites. Failure to comply could result in civil law suits, similar to those filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The impact of the law - known officially as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - will extend far beyond the government. Companies who want government business will have to upgrade their software and hardware to comply with the law - and most will build those changes into their consumer offerings because it doesn't make sense to provide two versions of their products.
"This is the ADA of the information age," with a sweeping potential for change that many people still haven't grasped, says Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America.
Advocates familiar with the rules agree that this is just the beginning of the process.
"We're happy there is a deadline for getting this going," says Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind. "We understand that this won't happen overnight. But if we stay on track, we could see significant improvements in access."
The government's Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board approved the complex standards in December, almost two years after Congress authorized them in amendments to the Rehabilitation Act. The original Section 508 dates back to 1986. The regulations are available online at www.section508.gov.
Officials estimate the cost of the changes at anywhere from $691 million to more than $1 billion annually - with the government's share dependent upon whether technology makers pass their development costs on to consumers.
The law doesn't require agencies to retrofit existing equipment or Web pages, but many are revamping their Web sites anyway.
While the changes in the law went into effect Thursday, today is the start date for enforcing federal purchasing rules. There are no figures yet to show how well the federal government is doing, although the Department of Justice by law is collecting self-evaluations from the agencies and departments affected.
The target audience of the law is huge. More than 54 million Americans have disabilities, and advocates say making technology accessible to them is critical. Think of it this way, says Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison: About 60 percent of us will acquire a disability if we live long enough.
While retrofitting hardware and software may be expensive, providing access up front to the disabled costs no more in the long run, says Vanderheiden, whose federally funded center focuses on making technology accessible. "Making some things accessible is really not more than making a key a different shape or different color," he said.
Nor are accessibility features useful only to the disabled, Vanderheiden said, citing a cellular telephone maker who increased the memory in its phones so they could "talk" to users.
"Now, you not only have something useful for people who are blind, but when I leave my glasses at home, I can still get information," he says.
Another example: Patrick Sheehan, a computer specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, says he likes Lexmark printers, which offer voice announcements through the computer's speakers when they're out of paper, need new ink or begin a print job. The feature predates the new regulations.
Office equipment companies don't need to reinvent the wheel - he adds, but can often look at existing technology.
"Take the Braille printer that plays the funeral dirge when there are problems with the printer," says Sheehan, who is visually impaired. "There is a whole area of technology that is easy to pass on to industry in general."
Industry should model its efforts to connect to the disabled on the efforts of federal agencies such as the Veterans Administration, says Ernesto Castro, the agency's director of technology integration.
The VA, which began working on Section 508 compliance nine months ago, put disabled veterans on its advisory committees and learned from them through focus groups.