Agencies keep assistive tech at forefront

Federal information Web site

Disabilities among workers are more prevalent than many people realize, suggesting a greater need for assistive technologies than many agency managers recognize, according to a study commissioned by Microsoft Corp.

The study, conducted by Forrester Research Inc., is in its second phase. The first phase showed that 57 percent of all federal computer users could benefit from speech-recognition software, text readers and other technologies, said Laura Ruby, manager of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft.

"We looked at computer users who were 18 to 64, so we were looking at the employable population," she said.

The research suggests that many people who do not call themselves disabled struggle with an impairment, Ruby said. One in four have some vision difficulty, one in four have dexterity impairments and one in five have trouble hearing, according to the report.

"We know now that there is a large pool of people who need to know" about technologies that can help them overcome their handicaps, she said. "One of the interesting things that we found was that the majority of people likely to benefit from using assistive technology were not using it."

The second phase of the study will dig deeper into the daily routines of people who have impairments to find out if they use technological aids, Ruby said. "We should have more information about that in a couple of months," she said.

Agency managers have been driven to make workplaces more accessible, first by the Americans with Disabilities Act and more recently by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 focuses on making technology accessible to users. For example, it calls for Web sites to include large written descriptions of images for people who can't see small pictures.

To ensure that employees are aware of available technologies, some agencies maintain technology centers at their headquarters. At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a small showcase at the help desk has special keyboards, mouse devices and other aids available for users to try.

"We first opened it up two or three years ago," said Vince Monico, the EEOC's chief computer training specialist. "Sometimes people aren't sure what they need. It's pretty obvious if you're blind, but if a person thinks they have carpal tunnel [syndrome], there are several different kinds of mouse devices" to try.

The center is in a high-traffic area, said consultant Terri Youngblood, president of Accessible Systems Inc. She works under contract at the EEOC and other agencies to guide Section 508 compliance and other efforts.

"One benefit of the center being there is it serves as an awareness tool," she said.

One employee manages the center, Monico said. As new technologies emerge, they are added to the center.

"Once a year, we look into it to make upgrades and make sure we have the latest and greatest," he said.

The center's reach is limited, however. Only about 600 of the EEOC's 2,500 employees work at the agency's headquarters, Monico said. The rest are scattered at field offices nationwide.

The Agriculture Department faces a similar limitation with the Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today (TARGET) program, said Bruce McFarlane, director of the program. However, the USDA maintains centers in Washington, D.C., and in St. Louis.

TARGET centers have Braille note takers, assistive listening devices, ergonomic aids, and other hardware and software solutions, he said. The agency launched the program in 1993.

But one difficulty McFarlane said he faces in getting information to employees is that the USDA employs many temporary workers.

"The USDA has between 90,000 and 100,000 employees at any one time," he said. The "USDA employs a lot of seasonal workers. Only roughly 10,000 of those employees are in the Washington, D.C., area. The rest are out in the field."

Only about half of the agency's employees are aware of the TARGET program, according to a 1998 survey, McFarlane said. Since then, he has tried to raise awareness through presentations at senior managers' staff meetings and other routes. He also has a public relations consultant under contract, "something you can't normally get in the government," he said.

McFarlane divides people who need assistive technologies into two groups, he said. People who have had disabilities for a long time generally come into the agency with an understanding of their conditions and the aid they need.

He calls the second group the latent disabled: people who have recently become disabled, permanently or temporarily, through an accident or surgery. He said they are not as aware of the available technologies.

"They're coming back to work, and they don't have the slightest idea" what they need, McFarlane said.

Outreach efforts are important because anyone can become disabled, he said, and people may recuperate at home longer than they need to because they are not aware of technologies that could help them return to work.

Workers often don't realize they have aids embedded in their desktop operating systems, Ruby said. It is usually a matter of enlarging screen fonts or making the display high contrast to aid readability, for example.

General Services Administration officials are providing information through Buy Accessible, a page on the agency's Section 508 Web site that offers vendor-provided product specifications and other information.

Companies can fill out a voluntary product accessibility template, which agency employees can view via the Buy Accessible Web page. The template details the accessibility features of companies' products, said Terry Weaver, director of GSA's Center for Information Technology

Accommodation.

The agency also takes the lead in presenting the annual Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase conference, which will take place in November, she added.

Weaver credits Section 508 with making the workday easier for federal employees with disabilities.

"The intent of the law is to take the government's technology and make it as accessible to people with disabilities as it is to people without disabilities," she said. In the past, "if I couldn't read a document on the Web site, the agency would send it to me via mail or some other way. [Section] 508 says I should be able to come with my technology and be able to get the same information."

Bush administration officials have placed greater emphasis on hiring people with disabilities, making access to information even more crucial, Weaver said.

"This administration is being pretty proactive in making the workplace safe for people with disabilities," she said.

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