Accessible experts

In a darkened office at one end of GTSI Corp.'s Chantilly, Va., headquarters, John McKeown is developing new features for the company's Web site, which federal workers can use to shop for computer equipment and software.

McKeown works like any other Web developer, tapping away on his keyboard. But there are some differences: A digitized voice reads back to him as he types and his monitor is sometimes blank.

McKeown, a 15-year veteran of GTSI, has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease of the retina that can cause blindness. That's why a monitor isn't very important to him. He knows when something is being displayed, but cannot discern what it is. The systems engineer's work on the Web site is helping federal agencies and vendors learn how to make government sites accessible to those with disabilities.

"As a Web user, there are things I'd like to see, and as a Web developer, I can help others," McKeown said. "We're seeing a lot of Web sites really struggling to understand what is accessible."

First-hand expertise like McKeown's can greatly influence how Web sites and assistive technologies are designed. As the June 21 deadline approaches for agencies to make their Web sites accessible to people with disabilities under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, companies such as GTSI are offering any help they can — reviewing federal Web sites, selling assistive technologies or making their own sites accessible so transactions with federal customers can continue.

If contractors want to sell technology and services to the government, those products must comply with Section 508, said Katherine Rhodes, manager of the 508 Project in the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

"The trick is how to make a site look good and be easy to use with speech tools," McKeown said. HTML already includes features such as alt-text tags, which display text captions for pictures and make it easier to use text-to-speech readers, he said.

"There's plenty of functionality built into Web software," McKeown said. "People just need to use it."

He cited an Internal Revenue Service text-only Web site as a good example. "They're either sensitive to people who are not graphically oriented or they are sensitive to people with slow modems," he said.

The IRS also happens to be where McKeown's brother, Bill McKeown, works with the aid of assistive technologies.

Bill, too, has retinitis pigmentosa, commonly known as tunnel vision or night blindness. As a lead tax examiner and customer service representative for the Automated Collection System in Denver, Bill assists taxpayers with problems and acts as a liaison between other IRS offices. He is also the coordinator for the 10 visually impaired employees at the Denver facility.

"The phone is my job," Bill said. But in order to respond to phone calls, he needs access to the IRS intranet, the Internet and various databases. "A lot of people don't realize how many visually impaired people there are that use electronic media to do their job," he said.

Bill uses a screen reader, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific, which he plugs into his telephone headset. In one ear, he can hear the caller, and in the other, he listens as the screen reader tells him what's being displayed on the computer. He also uses a tool called Power Braille 80 from Telesensory Corp., which transforms screen information into a Braille display.

Bill also uses a portable device that looks like a keyboard and can read back what is being typed. "I can create a file, give it a name, and when I get back to my desk, I can copy that information onto a disk. Then I insert the disk in my computer, save it to my hard drive and print it on a Braille embosser at my workstation," he said.

When there's a problem with the hardware or software, an information technology expert isn't always available to help. So when visually impaired employees have technology problems, the help desk often refers them to Bill, who contacts adaptive equipment suppliers. More and more, the person who answers the call is someone like John, who knows exactly what Bill is talking about.

"There are a lot of companies out there that manufacture this equipment. A lot of their tech support people are visually impaired, too. A bunch of these companies emerged in the last year or so," Bill said. "It's very expensive. However, people wouldn't be able to do their jobs without it."

Although making federal Web sites accessible is the law, companies are becoming involved in compliance because it also makes sites better overall, said Craig Warsaw, chief technology officer for Commerce One Inc.'s Global Services and E-government Solutions Business. It increases the user base and positions sites to accommodate new technology, such as wireless personal digital assistants, he said.

Commerce One has two Section 508 compliance service offerings: analyzing Web sites to estimate the cost of compliance and modifying sites to bring them into compliance. Commerce One redesigned GSA's Web presence and created the FirstGov Web portal with 508 compliance in mind.

Although Commerce One does usability testing, it does not use people with disabilities to test sites, Warsaw said. "We use the tools they use."

A few companies and Web developers at the IRS have asked Bill McKeown to help test their Web sites' accessibility to visually impaired users. When Bill noticed a local grocery store's Web site that was inaccessible, he contacted them and offered suggestions for improvement.

"The people that are making the attempt to keep up and keep us in the loop, those are the ones I've got to give a "thumbs up' to," he said.

But the McKeown brothers don't expect miracles. "I have to be pragmatic," John said. "There's not gazillions of blind people out there using the Web."

Luckily for John, he possesses one of the most valuable skills for accessing computers: touch typing.

"Wherever Mrs. Decker, my eighth-grade typing teacher is, she did me a lot of good," John said. "Here I am years later, and I have to know the keyboard by memory."


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