This blog post was written by Alex Li, Senior Accessibility Policy and Standards Strategist at Microsoft. Alex works with national and international standards organizations to improve the level of accessibility for people with disabilities.

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Public procurement policies have been powerful tools in efforts to make information technology more accessible, helping to leverage the tremendous purchasing power of governments to encourage accessibility development.

For more than a decade Section 508, a policy that requires the U.S. government to consider accessibility when buying any information technology, has been the de facto accessibility standard around the world. 

While Section 508 has been responsible for a lot of progress, the twelve-year-old standard has become hopelessly outdated in the digital age. To address this, the U.S. Access Board created the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) in 2006 and charged it with developing ways to update the policy.  Two years later, TEITAC issued its recommendations and the federal government followed with two proposed rules, or advance notices of proposed rulemaking. But, we are still waiting for a new standard.

Meanwhile, Europeans made great progress by launching a parallel effort called Mandate 376 (M376). European Standards Organizations used TEITAC’s recommendations and the two proposed U.S. rules as sources, refining these materials based on public comments. Now, the standard is finalized and key stakeholders in Europe are slated to vote on the standard later this year. 

Microsoft helped shape M376 and we look forward to its final approval in Europe as a long overdue and new standard for accessibility procurement. Europe’s progress presents an opportunity for the U.S. Access Board to speed up its Section 508 rule-making process. With the M376 standard now finalized, we urge the U.S. Access Board to expedite the Section 508 update by mirroring the European standard as soon as possible. Today, information and communications technology is a global market and any material differences between European and U.S. procurement standards could lead to unintended trade disruptions and diminish accessibility.  We caution the Access Board to refrain from deviating from the M376 standard in any substantive manner.

If the U.S. and Europe could share an updated and uniform public procurement accessibility standard, it would bring about greater economies of scale and more incentives for the development of accessible information and communications technology. That would be good for consumers, businesses, and governments.