Agriculture aims for a bull's-eye on 508

AN ASSIST: On any given day, USDA's assistive technology center'like its sister facilities across government'is teeming with activity as the staff tries out and demonstrates the latest products available for government users with disabilities.

'There's no one simple answer for every case. Everybody's hearing loss is different. Everybody's vision loss is different.'

' Bruce McFarlane, Acting Director of the TARGET Center

(GCN photo by Tom Fedor)

'Helping people is what we do'

About a year ago, a District of Columbia police officer happened to be on some business in the Agriculture Department South building in Washington.

Walking down a corridor, he noticed a buzz of activity in one suite, where the department's Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today Center was having an open house.

Intrigued, the officer poked his head in and asked, 'What's this?'

Bruce McFarlane, TARGET's acting director, was standing near the door. 'It's an assistive technology center for employees with disabilities,' he replied.

The officer perked up. 'Say, I've got a problem with my daughter,' he said. 'She has a lot of difficulty seeing the screen on her computer.'

With that, McFarlane swung into action. He went to a file, pulled out some information on screen magnification software and gave it to the officer.

'I had no idea this stuff was available,' the officer said. He was overjoyed.

For McFarlane and his staff at the TARGET Center, helping people deal with accessibility issues'even those who inadvertently stumble on the center'is all in a day's work.

'To see somebody leave with an ear-to-ear grin on their face charges my batteries up every day,' said McFarlane, the center's acting director since November 2000.

The TARGET Center's 10th anniversary this year coincides with the first anniversary of the implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

The center was founded in 1992 by director Ophelia Falls, currently on leave from USDA to lead outreach efforts for the General Services Administration's Center for IT Accommodation, and Mark Wilner, TARGET's program manager.

The goal was to ensure that all Agriculture employees have access to IT. Roughly 9,000 of the department's 105,000 employees across the country identify themselves as having disabilities, McFarlane said.

Expanded services

In 1995, the TARGET Center extended its operation to a satellite office in St. Louis.

And in the late 1990s, given a boost in funding, the center began to expand staff and services. It now has a staff of six federal workers and five contract employees from Cherry Engineering and Support Services Inc. of McLean, Va. Its annual budget is about $800,000.

The center has eight workstations that staff members use to evaluate and demonstrate assistive technologies. The workstations are equipped with a wide range of hardware and software that give accessibility to employees with visual, hearing, speech, mobility or dexterity impairments. One workstation, for instance, is designated to test Web sites for compliance.

'The key to assistive technology is to have multiple solutions,' McFarlane said. 'There's no one simple answer for every case. Everybody's hearing loss is different. Everybody's vision loss is different. People have different comfort zones and preferences with computer settings.'

Agriculture webmasters can drop by and try out competing brands of Web compliance software, such as PageScreamer from Crunchy Technologies of Arlington, Va., or Final Audit from SSB Technologies Inc. of San Francisco.

The center also is a hub of outreach activities.

On a recent day, TARGET and the Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) hosted an open house for the Work Force Recruitment Program.

WRP, run by the Labor and Defense departments, gives summer work experience in the federal government to college students with disabilities.

During the open house, TARGET and CAP staff members conducted assistive technology demonstrations and needs assessments for students.

McFarlane said that the center soon expects to sign a partnership agreement with CAP, the government's largest assistive program.

Under the partnership, CAP will provide technology and services at no cost to USDA employees with disabilities.

No strings attached

CAP has entered into similar partnerships, sanctioned by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, with 47 agencies, McFarlane said.

'There's no cost or strings attached,' he said. 'That would free the financial burden on the individual [USDA] programs and should open up employment opportunities.'

Although funding remains uncertain for agencies striving to comply with Section 508, supplying technology and services for disabled employees around the nation also is a problem.

'There are 12 centers for assistive technology in the federal government and 11 are located inside the Beltway,' McFarlane said. The one exception is the TARGET Center's outpost in St. Louis.

'If we have a dream, it is to set up federal'federal, not USDA, not DOD, not Energy or Interior'assistive technology centers in Atlanta, possibly Dallas, either Los Angeles or San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Boston,' McFarlane said.

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