DOD widens assistive tech

Advanced Technology Institute: Accessibility Forum

Whether they work inside the Beltway, in Baltimore, Bahrain or Bangkok, federal employees with disabilities now can get the special computer hardware, software and other electronic technology they need to do their jobs through a program run by the Defense Department.

After a decade of serving defense workers with disabilities, the Computer/ Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) has added 43 other federal agencies as recipients of its services.

Now, agencies from the State Department to the Institute of Museums and Library Services can turn to experts at the Pentagon for help.

"If a person with a disability knows what they need, we'll get it for them. If they don't know what they need, we'll work with them to identify what they need, and when we find the technology that works for them, we'll buy it," said Seville Allen, a CAP specialist in services for those with blindness or low vision and cognitive disabilities. "We send stuff all over the world."

CAP recently shipped equipment to State Department employees in Paris and South Africa. But the program also provided software and technical support for a tiny federal agency in nearby Arlington, Va.—the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled.

The committee had hired a blind employee, and "we were concerned about finding financial and technical resources to provide the necessary accommodations," said Sheryl Kennerly, the committee's information management and technology director.

CAP provided screen-reader software, which the committee's "technical person" installed. It caused "intermittent, inexplicable system crashes" when used with e-mail, Kennerly said. Hours spent on the phone with software manufacturers failed to solve the problem, so the committee again called on CAP.

"CAP funded a technical expert" who solved the problem, she said, all at no cost to the committee.

In October 2000, Congress increased CAP's budget from $2.5 million a year to $4.5 million and instructed the program to provide its assistive technology services to any federal agency upon request from the agency head.

Equipment and expertise come at no cost to the requesting agency, Allen emphasized.

Expansion of the program outside the Defense Department has been widely applauded by workers with disabilities because federal agencies have been notably reluctant to spend their own money on assistive technology, she said.

Some pieces of assistive equipment, such as refreshable Braille displays, cost $9,000 to $10,000 apiece. Software such as screen readers costs $500 to $700, Allen said.

Increasing the availability of assistive technology should make disabled workers more productive, thus increasing opportunities for promotion, she said.

CAP officials say their program will even provide computers, printers, fax machines and other assistive technology to those who participate in federal "Flexiplace" work plans that permit them to work from home.

MORE INFO

CAP Facts

The Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program:

* Was founded in 1990 by the Defense Department.

* Has filled more than 20,000 requests for accommodations.

* Provides assistive technology hardware, software and technology support

at no cost to partner agencies.

* Evaluates needs of individuals with vision, hearing, dexterity and

cognitive disabilities.

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