Assistive tech could aid aging fed workers

Federal agencies will rely on assistive technologies to accommodate the needs of an aging federal workforce, according to policy experts who say that more government employees will soon be working beyond the age of 65.

Information technology companies developed assistive technologies partly in response to the passage of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make their IT systems accessible to people with significant disabilities.

But faced with an aging workforce, federal agencies will soon rely on those technologies to keep older employees working longer, said W. Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of disability employment policy at the Labor Department.

"Access technologies that are available today and those that will be invented in the future will assist a great deal in accommodating older workers as they continue in the workforce," Grizzard said.

Most older workers don't develop significant disabilities, he said, "but you can still have some debilitating conditions."

IBM is one of several companies whose leaders predict a big market for assistive technologies. Federal legislation might have created a market for assistive technologies, but those same tools have a business value that could help federal agencies meet new workforce challenges, said David McQueeney, vice president of technology and strategy and chief technology officer for IBM's U.S. Federal Government unit.

McQueeney, who is well-versed in federal employment trends, said more than 50 percent of government employees will become eligible for retirement in less than five years. Among senior executives, the number is even higher: Nearly 70 percent of them will be eligible to retire by 2009. "And there's not a demographic tail of young people at the right level to replace them," McQueeney said.

But several assistive technologies could help federal employees stay on the job. For example, IBM is developing mouse-smoother technology to accommodate people with tremors or more serious muscle spasms in their hands.

"It's a small box that you plug your mouse in to, and then you plug the box in to your PC," said John Evans, leader of IBM's business development group for the Americas. It essentially learns about the tremor or involuntary movement and responds only to the user's intended motion.

Besides compensating for minor losses of motor control, other technologies can help employees who have diminished eyesight.

IBM programmers use a design tool, aDesigner, to simulate the visual losses from macular degeneration, for example. With aDesigner, McQueeney said, 20-year-old programmers can check to see whether they are building user interfaces that a 70-year-old person with macular degeneration would be able to use.

IBM's developers say assistive technologies could also help businesses retain older workers. "Government policies really were out in front," McQueeney said.

Those policies -- and related technologies -- have influenced employers who want a diverse workforce, he added. "If you assume that skills and creativity and drive are distributed uniformly across a population, you want to make sure your workplace allows folks with specific disabilities to come in and contribute fully," he said.

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