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IDEAS Conference (Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase), Nov. 5, 2002

Remarks by
Stephen A. Perry
Administrator
U.s. General Services Administration

IDEAS Conference
(Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase)
Bethesda, Md. - NIH
Nov. 5, 2002

Thank you, Keith Thurston for that kind introduction. Also, thank you, Keith, for the very important work you do at GSA in providing technology guidance and policies in the Office of Electronic Government and Technology.

It's a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to welcome all of you to the National Institutes of Health - Natcher Center -  for this important conference. I'm sorry that NIH Director Zerhouni could not be with us. I'm sure he would want to welcome you personally.

I'm very proud to represent GSA in recognizing disability employment awareness month by co-sponsoring, along with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase 2002 Conference. I'd certainly want to thank and congratulate all of you here today for your work and your commitment to making the federal government equally accessible to all Americans.

Putting on a major conference like this one requires a lot of hard work by lots of people. I'd particularly like to recognize:

  •  The Honorable Margaret J. Giannini, Director of the HHS Office on Disability, and this year's IDEAS Honorary chair,
  •  Terry Weaver, Director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), for her contributions in advancing accessibility issues across the federal government,
  •  Dr. Billy Mea, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor,
  •  Troy Justesen, Associate Director for Domestic Policy at the White House,
  •  John Wodatch from the Department of Justice,
  •  Lesley Field from the Office of Management and Budget,
  •  Dinah Cohen from the Department of Defense,
  •  Rosemary Gibert from our own CITA office, who served as this year's Chair of the IDEAS Planning Committee, and, of course,
  •  All members of the interagency planning committee for bringing us together today with an outstanding program of events.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you certainly know, there are more than 54 million Americans with disabilities. That's a lot of people who are depending upon us for help. Each of you should feel very proud of the work you are doing that is beneficial to them. At the same time, I'm sure we all recognize that there is much more to be done. That is why this conference and the work you will do after this conference is so important.

President Bush and his Administration are firmly committed to making government facilities easily accessible to all federal employees and to all members of the public. One of the first issues President Bush addressed after taking office was how to make improvements in providing equal access to information about government programs and services and employment opportunities to people with disabilities. We understand that we must break down all barriers that prevent any Americans from contributing to and participating fully in our society. Barriers to inclusion may be structural, they may be attitudinal, or they may be technical.

This year's IDEAS Conference is dedicated to reducing and eliminating barriers to full access by people with disabilities. A great agenda that has been put in place for you, and you have the opportunity to exchange ideas with conference participants and make new contacts will help you to do just that. I urge you to take advantage of the opportunities to network and share ideas. We all know that budgets are tight, so we need to develop creative solutions, rather than simply counting too much on significant new funding to be the key to overcoming the barriers faced by people with disabilities. At this conference, Section 508 coordinators, vendors, advocates and others can learn from one another and develop specific action plans on how to speed the implementation of accessibility laws and directives. When this conference is over and you return to your agencies or companies, hopefully, you will take what you have learned here to make needed improvements right away.

During the plenary session, participants will discuss their agencies' work to implement the President's New Freedom Initiative, or NFI. The New Freedom Initiative is a comprehensive plan designed to build on efforts to increase access to employment, education, assistive technology and community living. President Bush rolled out the NFI in February 2001. This initiative is designed to improve some daunting statistics, such as the facts that:
 

  •  The unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is about 70 percent.
  •  Home ownership rates are in the single digits.
  •  And Internet access for Americans with disabilities is half that of people without disabilities.

Again, the New Freedom Initiative is a comprehensive plan designed to build on past efforts to assist Americans with disabilities by increasing access to assistive technologies, expanding educational opportunities, increasing the ability of American with disabilities to enter the workforce, and promoting increased access into daily community life. You may want to make a special effort to learn more about the New Freedom Initiative while you are here and see how it can apply to your agency.

The theme of this year's conference - Innovation in Implementation - is woven into its language of the NIF. For example, the New Freedom Initiative pledges:
 

  •  increased funding for assistive and universally designed technologies and funding for low-interest loan programs to purchase assistive technologies,
  •  grants for states that establish a comprehensive reading program for students, including those with disabilities, from pre-school through second grade,
  •  federal matching funds to states to guarantee low-interest loans for individuals with disabilities to purchase computers and other equipment necessary to telework from home, and
  •  funding for 10 pilot programs that use innovative approaches to developing transportation plans that serve people with disabilities.

Last April, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Center for Information Technology Accommodation's Assistive Technology Showcase grand opening. I mentioned at the time that GSA's mission is to help federal agencies better serve the public. We strive to provide our federal customer agencies with the resources they need to carry out their missions. We provide procurement assistance for a wide variety of goods and services, including goods and services to help agencies meet the legislative requirements under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

At this conference, workshops have been scheduled to provide real technical solutions to implementing Section 508 of the rehabilitation act in making information technology accessible for people with disabilities. Workshops also are available to provide proven approaches to meeting Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which addresses accommodation requirements. Other workshops will tackle workforce issues we face every day.

As well, exhibitors are here to offer a look at the solutions and resources they can provide to help us make the federal operating environment as accessible as possible for people with disabilities.

For our part, GSA, through the Office of Governmentwide Policy's Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), provides a wide range of technical assistance to help all federal offices achieve the goals and requirements of Section 508. CITA provides on-line training covering:
 

  •  designing accessible websites
  •  accessible conferences
  •  buying accessible electronic and information technology (EIT)
  •  electronic forms and e-mail, and
  •  accessible video and multimedia.

CITA also provides:

  •  accessibility forums bringing together industry, advocacy, academic, and government representatives to discuss accessibility issues and formulate solutions;
  •  outreach and education through a newly released Section 508 awareness CD available upon request at our Web site, located at: (http://www.section508.gov); and
  •  resources and links to extensive information regarding accessible issues and solutions, also available at (www.section508.gov).

In closing, I'd like to take a moment to thank you again for the noble work you are doing and to stress the importance of this issue. One further indication of its importance is the fact that as the workforce continues to change due to an aging population and attrition of the baby boomers, it is even more imperative that we create a work environment that is inclusive for people with disabilities.

Please take what you learn today and apply the knowledge at your respective agencies. Innovation in Implementation is not just the theme for this year's conference; it should be a principle that guides us as we try to tear down barriers that continue to affect a critical segment of our society.

If I may quote President Bush:
"Wherever a door is closed to anyone because of a disability, we must work to open it. Wherever any job or home or means of transportation is unfairly denied because of a disability, we must work to change it . Wherever any barrier stands between you and the full rights and dignity of citizenship, we must work to remove it, in the name of simple decency and simple justice."

Thank you very much, and have a wonderful conference.