Richmond employees participates in assistive technology conference

By Bonnie Koenig, DLA Aviation Public Affairs

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Two members of the Defense Logistics Agency’s Information Operations attended the 32nd California State University, Northridge Assistive Technology Conference, March 1 – 3, in San Diego. Employees Noel Romey, information technology specialist and Christina Larsen, DLA 508 program manager, on Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia, attended to learn about the latest assistive technology available for handicap employees.

Larsen said the conference included industry leaders and vendors who gave presentations on assistive technology, law, and other disability issues. The CSUN Center on Disabilities website states they are committed to the vision of an inclusive society where people of all abilities have the chance to achieve their goals and experience success. Through training and research, they nurture learning and innovation to improve the world for people with disabilities.

“The sheer amount of information presented at the conference was staggering,” said Larsen. “At any given hour, there were 15-20 sessions covering a wide variety of topics. It was interesting to see how private industry is meeting challenges related to accessibility. Airlines, financial institutions, retail establishments, e-commerce websites and educational institutions are making changes and making sure that facilities and information technologies are accessible to people with disabilities is an area of increased legal action.” 

According to Law360’s website, a legal research firm, over 240 lawsuits, most of them class action suits, were filed in 2016.  These lawsuits were filed against companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to maintain websites that are accessible to the blind and visually impaired. 

At the conference, Larsen and Romey had an opportunity to interview with a leading podcast developer in the blindness field, Blind Bargains, who produce a weekly podcast on assistive technology news, special interests, of attendees comments on the conference.

The podcast topic was “How the U.S. military and DLA benefit from CSUN.” The podcast is currently accessible on a public facing network at Blindbargains.com.

In the interview Larsen said DLA is progressive in employing people with disabilities. The 508 Compliance Office serves as a focal point for information and best practices in accessibility. She said they attend the CSUN conference to learn about the newest technology available to support their users and to resolve technology issues.

When asked how their office supports a new employee, Larsen said, first, the employee lets the supervisor know what accommodations they need and the supervisor puts in reasonable accommodations request to the Information Technology 508 Compliance Office. A representative will conduct an evaluation to determine the appropriate accommodation.

“We try to accommodate with products the employee is already familiar with first,” said Larsen.

“We want to test non-visual desktop access software (NVDA) to assist employees but it must first be approved through IT security services,” said Romey. “Windows 10 is coming soon to the agency which has the built in narrator software which is a screen reader and this will help employees.”

“We have a dedicated team who works full time on accessibility and fulltime support users to help employees be productive,” said Larsen.

Romey said accessing software and getting approval is a sometimes a lengthy process, so employees have to work on a stand-alone computer. Sometimes they need special accommodations and special programs that help the employee’s ability to work.

Larsen said the current view among blind employees is government agencies don’t always consider accessibility which makes it difficult for potential disabled employees to accept a federal position.

When asked about employment processes for an employee, Romey said one of the reasons he was selected for his current position was for his expert knowledge base in the Job Access with Speech, or JAWS software, which provides speech and Braille output for the most popular computer applications on a personal computer.

“We work with Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program office, who are centrally funded by the Pentagon and will provide funding for the speech and Braille equipment, after approval by your agency,” said Larsen.

Romey has a master’s in chemical engineering and is currently working on his second master’s in business administration. As part of his capstone, or thesis, Romey presented Robert Foster, DLA’s Information Operations deputy director a topic idea for approval and Foster agreed to sponsor Romey’s efforts in filling the mission gaps in 508 compliance. Romey said the 508 Compliance Office will identify user and program gaps, teach employees how to use applications with audio technology in the form of podcasts, and follow established podcast structures, which will help employees be more efficient, effective and independent.

Looking forward, since this type of podcast training has not been done before, in the Department of Defense, Romey is requesting approval for the development of the podcast training and access to existing podcasts in support of 508 compliance as well as access to the assisted technology software.

Larsen said DLA’s 508 program is unique and at the forefront within the Department of Defense. The work DLA is doing is groundbreaking positive work and demonstrates there is an agency who takes accessibility seriously.

“When you buy or build accessible information technology, you are making a difference in the lives of the people with disabilities,” said Larsen. “When accessibility is included in IT products and websites, you are ensuring people with disabilities can perform their jobs independently, increase their skills and advance their careers, just like everyone else. Accessibility is not just the law, it's the right thing to do.”

She said the 508 office has a centralized help desk group for assisted technology issues and has increased awareness around the agency with plans to develop podcast of tutorials and technology user training. Larsen said the office provides screen readers, magnifiers and tests upcoming technology to determine network efficiency.

“Here at DLA, having desktop collaboration tools such as Skype is very helpful. DLA will also be deploying a suite of automated 508 compliance checker tools,” said Larsen. “One of these tools is called FireEyes, and it is a tool developers can use to check code for 508 compliance.”

“The other tool is called Comply and it scans websites and applications, generating an accessibility score, and providing recommendations for remediation,” she said. “DLA is in the pilot phase of this software program but already there is a lot of interest in this tool, and they are working hard to roll it out.”

She said growing a mature and healthy 508 program requires multi-functional participation from the entire enterprise and it's not just a 508 office initiative or an Equal Employment Office initiative, it requires everyone's involvement, and accessibility needs to be "baked into” the products and software at the beginning of its life cycle. 

She said content creators, program managers, developers and testers, contracting and human resources offices all need to be aware of 508 requirements for DLA to be successful. 

Employees can access jobs through USAJOBS.gov.website. Romey suggests that handicap employees can also go to the local EEO office and tell them of their special skills and ask to apply through the Schedule A Hiring Authority. Employees can apply noncompetitively. “You can do that and it’s there for people with disabilities,” said Romey. 

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, applies to electronic and information technology procured by the federal government, and it requires equal access to EIT for people with disabilities.