Agriculture takes aim at Section 508 with TARGET Center

Agriculture takes aim at Section 508 with TARGET Center

Ophelia Falls is helping the Agriculture Department comply with Section 508 by using commercial products for some users.

Department addresses lack of information technology workers as it complies with accessibility mandate

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

At the Agriculture Department, making information technology accessible to people with disabilities is a two-way street, providing disabled workers with career opportunities that might otherwise be limited.

IT should be a load-bearing bridge, said Ophelia Falls, director of Agriculture's Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today (TARGET) Center.

Through the center, Falls has helped guide Agriculture toward Section 508 compliance. She also oversees the department's Accessible Technology Program.

'It is not a barrier to hire a person with disabilities, because we will take care of the accommodation and circumvent that problem before it happens,' Falls said. 'We help them identify what they can use to make a win-win situation.'

Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 require agencies to make IT accessible to disabled users [GCN, June 5, Page 1].

Added bonus

Increasing accessibility could also help alleviate the federal government's work force shortage, an advocate for the disabled said.

The National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and Energy, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development departments also use Agriculture's TARGET Center.

USDA set up central funding to pay for accommodations, so funds are not charged against managers' budgets, she said.

Tom Valluzzi, national program manager for persons with disabilities for the Forest Service, said he believes in the center's mission. It is helping him prepare for the day when multiple sclerosis steals the use of his hands, he said.

He is working with Dragon Naturally-Speaking Professional 4.0 from Dragon Systems Inc. of Newton, Mass.

'It has a really neat capacity,' said Valluzzi, a former firefighter. 'You say what you want it to type. Then you can go back through and edit it.'

And the voice recognition software learns his speech patterns, he said. 'The more you use it, the better it works,' Valluzzi said.

Once mastered, the program can be loaded onto other machines so the user can access more than one computer, Falls said.

'That software is designed so that now they have a teen-age version, because they have a different language than we do,' she said, laughing. 'And it comes in several foreign languages. They also have a medical version and an attorney version.'

Useful features

Dragon products' hardware specifications call for Pentium computers running Micro-soft Windows, she said. The software is compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel, Corel WordPerfect, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, a company representative said.

Users can operate the mouse with Dragon's MouseGrid.

Another Dragon product has helped a client who couldn't use his hands and who had a slight speech impediment, Falls said.

'He would talk into a digital recorder, then go back to his office and bring up Dragon on his desktop, connect the recorder and hit play, and the words would go right into the word processor without his ever having to type,' Falls said.

Staff members have gone on road trips to take the technology to employees who have needed it, including a summer worker who was blind, she said.

'He knew what technology he needed, and we were able to take the technology, a screen reader, over to his office location and work with their tech support on doing the installation, integration and customization of the package,' Falls said.

One screen reader and magnifier the center employs is ZoomText Xtra Level 2 Version 7.0 from AI Squared of Manchester Center, Vt.

Minimum system requirements for ZoomText Xtra are 32M of RAM, Windows and a sound card. The software reads documents using a component called DocReader.

The TARGET Center is full of gadgets. Even the sofas accommodate persons with disabilities, Falls said.

Doing their homework

Before the center opened, Falls and her staff went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington to learn about disabilities.

'We designed the center so that any person with any type of disability can come in here and work or use the center,' Falls said.

Then she began evaluating available accessible technology.

'Blind employees would come in to try out screen readers,' she said. 'Employees with low vision evaluated three or four low-vision software packages. Then we had stuff for people who were hard of hearing or deaf.'

In the past, Falls has worked with the procurement office to ensure accessibility was addressed.

'If they want to issue a contract to IBM Corp. to do systems integration for them, that proposal has to have accessibility information in it,' she said. 'We work on putting accessibility in [the agreement] so the contractor has something to work from.'

That goes for everything, she said.

'If we put a Web page out there, to get to as many people as possible, you've got to make it accessible,' Falls said.

The center's site is at www.usda.gov/oo/target.htm.

The center also uses Jaws 3.3 from Henter-Joyce Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla. That screen reader operates with all versions of Windows 9x, NT and Windows 2000.

The software requires 32M of RAM for all Windows versions except Win 2000, which calls for 64M. The software specifications also call for a 16-bit or higher sound card and SuperVGA video.

The center continually updates its products, Falls said.

Accessible IT makes working easier for the disabled, Valluzzi said. Those accommodations can also help other users, he said.

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