The Department received and considered comments from nine entities concerned with access for individuals with disabilities. Suggestions regarding the use of the preferred terminology to refer to individuals with certain disabilities were generally accepted as were clarifications regarding aspects of the use of various auxiliary aids and services. Certain substantive comments were submitted that the Section 504 subcommittee considered valuable but not appropriate for inclusion in the Report, primarily because the subcommittee determined that more study in these areas is necessary. Therefore, this section contains a discussion of those substantive comments and a recommendation that the Department's proposed Section 504 Coordinator and the Disability Work Group consider the issues raised as the implementation of the recommendations contained in the Report proceeds.
Although the Department recognizes that it is required to make its programs and activities accessible to any person with a disability as it is defined in 34 CFR 105.3 to include mental as well as physical impairments, one commenter pointed out that the Self-Evaluation protocol distributed to the Principal Offices did not inquire specifically about how the Office's policies and practices affect individuals with mental or cognitive impairments and about what the Office does and can do to make its programs and activities accessible to individuals with those disabilities. The commenter stated that persons with cognitive disabilities may have impaired skills in manipulation, speech, or learning and may have difficulties interpreting information, and suggested that the Department further evaluate the access of its programs and activities for persons with these disabilities. The Section 504 Coordinator will work with persons knowledgeable about cognitive disabilities in order to ensure that individuals with cognitive or mental impairments have effective access to the Department's programs and activities.
Several comments were received regarding the duties and required skills of the Section 504 Coordinator. Commenters suggested that the Section 504 Coordinator be a separately designated position so that the Coordinator's only responsibilities would revolve around accessibility concerns. It was recommended that the Coordinator be skilled in analytical problem-solving and negotiation as accessibility issues may have several alternative solutions, some of which may not involve a costly or high-tech response. Commenters also suggested that the Coordinator be knowledgeable about the needs of individuals with various disabilities and the technology available to meet those needs. In that regard, some comments were received recommending the use of certain technologies, primarily for people with hearing impairments to improve communication access. It is anticipated that the Coordinator will examine available technologies to determine the feasibility of and provide for the maintenance and training necessary for their use.
Several comments were made concerning access to electronic information and the provision of documents in alternative formats for people with visual impairments. Commenters suggested that under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, the Department should ensure that it follows any guidelines governing the Department's electronic and information technology so that individuals with disabilities can produce information and data, and have access to information and data, comparable to that used by individuals without disabilities. Part of the Section 504 Coordinator's duties would be to cooperate with the Department's designated 508 Official to ensure that people with visual impairments have access to the Department's computer hardware and software.
Commenters stated that the use of computer software to create documents presents unique challenges to people with visual impairments when they need access to a document. Some software and types of formatting are not convertible to Braille or computers with voice synthesizing software. Providing a computer diskette as an alternate format for a hard copy document is not effective access if the requester cannot read the information contained on the disk because of improper formatting, lack of the necessary equipment, or other reason. Commenters suggested that the Department develop a uniform approach to creating a standard format for documents. The use of graphics also presents problems for people with visual impairments because graphics are not convertible to Braille or voice-synthesizer computers. Commenters noted that access to the Internet for people with visual impairments is limited if the information is graphic-, rather than text-based. Commenters recommended that the Department limit its use of graphics or provide text description in addition to the graphics and that for the Internet, the Department use a text-based bulletin board system as well as a text-based gopher, home page, and World Wide Web Internet site.
As to the Department's survey of the physical accessibility of its facilities, certain commenters suggested that the Department also examine the accessibility to individuals with visual impairments of interactive transactions that are becoming increasingly common in the workplace, such as Automatic Teller Machines, information kiosks with touch screens, and vending machines.