INTERVIEW: Ophelia Y. Falls, federal accessibility specialist

IT accessibility hinges on cooperation

Ophelia Y. Falls

Ophelia Y. Falls is director of the Agriculture Department's Accessible Technology Program and its Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today Center, both of which she established in 1992.

In 1995, she implemented the Midwest TARGET Center in St. Louis.'The goal of the program and the centers is to assure all Agriculture employees access to information technology.

Falls says that one of her chief roles is to educate federal employees and managers on the Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 while promoting the USDA program and the centers.

This year, Falls is chairwoman of the Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase 2000 conference. She recently was named to Vice President Gore's U.S. Council on International Rehabilitation, is a technical assistant to the USDA Secretary's Advisory Committee for Employees with Disabilities and works on the conference planning committee of the President's Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities.

Falls has worked at USDA since 1990. Before that, she was an analyst for Syscon Corp. of Falls Church, Va. She did feasibility and requirements analyses for federal agencies while working for the systems consulting company, which is a subsidiary of Logicon Inc. of Herndon, Va.

GCN staff writer Tony Lee Orr interviewed Falls at her office at USDA headquarters.

GCN:'What are some common obstacles agencies must overcome to ensure compliance with the Section 508 rules requiring that government information technology be accessible to disabled users?

FALLS: When looking at old information systems, a department must incorporate accessibility with the design of procurement and system upgrades. If accessibility is not taken into account, then the agency has to backtrack, which can add cost.

Without standards in place, a department is best served by learning the concepts of accessibility, training their employees and preparing for more tools to be delivered by 508 technical assistance organizations.

GCN:'How is technology helping to allay some of the fears, for lack of a better word, that some managers had concerning hiring individuals with disabilities?

FALLS: Assistive technology increases the independence and productivity of people with disabilities. People with disabilities, as key players on the government's team, contribute toward the common mission like all other employees.

The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities has worked for years to highlight capabilities rather than disabilities. Assistive technology, and information technology in general, is removing a major barrier to having managers recruit, hire and retain individuals with disabilities.

The Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities has had student interns working across government this summer. All of these summer interns received accommodations at no charge to the sponsor agencies via the Defense Department Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program.

Through creative accommodation programs, and 508 training and implementation initiatives, the Information Age is becoming more accessible to people with disabilities.

There remains work to be done in regards to allaying fears.

In a recent report, Federal Policy Barriers to Assistive Technology, the National Council on Disability highlighted awareness, accessible product development, and the lack of comprehensive and coordinated funding as the significant barriers to increasing the availability of and access to assistive technology devices and services for individuals with disabilities.

GCN:'Does making government offices more user-friendly for those with disabilities help all federal workers become more productive?

FALLS: By hiring people with disabilities and having facilities with supporting accommodations, the government taps into a new resource for employment. Through universal design, a user-friendly office can accommodate employees with all types of abilities.

A common example of this is the curb cut. The curb cut was designed for wheelchair users to easily move from a sidewalk to a street. However, once curb cuts were installed, the public adapted many uses for it, including bicycles and strollers.

In regard to assistive technology, as more people learn of the capabilities of speech input and speech output, the marketplace continues to shift. Today, many people use speech recognition products as their interface with computers. A tool once used mainly by people with disabilities, it is now recognized for its merits in creating a hands-free interface.

GCN:'When buying technology, what are the things chief information officers should look for to avoid costly retrofits and make sure their systems are accessible by all users?

FALLS: Chief information officers need to ensure that procurement and solicitation documents contain accessibility requirements for people with disabilities. The best resources at this point are the Access Board's proposed standards [posted on the Web at].

As the Access Board moves forward with its final publication of the standards, the Federal Acquisition Regulation should shortly offer official regulations to utilize in the procurement process.

GCN:'What grade would you give government overall on its efforts to become compliant and why?

What's More

  • Age: 'Baby boomer'
  • Family: Married, one son
  • Last movie seen: 'The Hurricane'
  • Leisure activity: Travel to the Caribbean
  • 'Favorite Web site:
  • 'Motto: 'When in doubt, accommodate.'

FALLS: It is difficult to give a grade to the federal government's efforts because there is so much that needs to be accomplished. But we have come far.

A report from the attorney general, Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility, presented to the president in April, includes general findings and recommendations for improving the federal government's accessibility to those with disabilities.

It said, 'The most significant challenge posed by Section 508 is the need for coordination between those with technological expertise and those with knowledge of disability access issues.'

The federal government has made a conscious and positive effort to become compliant with Section 508 by implementing and supporting several programs and conferences.

An example of this is Ideas 2000, which is an interagency conference that focuses on employment of people with disabilities. The conference is co-sponsored by the Agriculture Department, General Services Administration and Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities. Plus, there is participation from an additional 15 federal agencies, all of which are working together to bring attention to the importance of 508 to the federal work force.

Another conference is FOSE, at which the government highlights the importance of Section 508 and the Federal Information Technology Accessibility Initiative. [Post-Newsweek Business Information Inc., GCN's parent company, owns the FOSE trade show.]

Web accessibility training, upcoming procurement forums and other training tools for government employees all are assisting the government's effort to become compliant with Section 508 and successfully comply with the proposed standards.

GCN:'What is the next step for federal managers?

FALLS: Training, training, training. To ensure all purchases comply with the Section 508 requirements, the IT community, procurement community and user community must work with the Federal IT Accessibility Initiative staff and their internal 508 IT coordinators to ensure awareness, take currently available training classes and implement internal training programs.

By communicating the requirements, federal employees will be enabled agents in the implementation process.

GCN:'Some CIOs have suggested that Section 508 could be the answer to the government's IT work force shortage because it will let managers tap into an underutilized group of workers [GCN, Aug. 21, Page 78]. Do you agree?

FALLS: Absolutely. This is common sense. You are tapping into an underutilized resource with skills and potential.

There are many talented individuals with disabilities who are unemployed and ready, willing and able to work. Section 508 will have succeeded when the government reports that more people with disabilities are working for the federal government.

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