Defense center helps disabled users find IT that fits

Defense center helps disabled users find IT that fits

BY DAWN S. ONLEY | GCN STAFF

Seville Allen uses a braille keyboard to check her whirlwind typing for accuracy, and she uses screen-reader software to read with her ears.

braille keyboard
Seville Allen's braille keyboard enables her to 'read' the screen; a computerized voice also can read the text to her.
The senior program analyst with the Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) is blind, and although 'a real typist never looks at the keys' anyway, she said, the software's monotone voice helps her navigate between applications.

At CAP, Allen has been using the software for more than a decade. And she's helped thousands of disabled Defense employees'and more recently, hundreds of other federal employees'find assistive technology, long before Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 required DOD and other agencies to do so.

'It's just the right thing to do,' said Michael Young, manager of the CAP Technology Evaluation Center, a facility in the Pentagon that lets workers try out technology before ordering it.

Established in 1990, CAP is the oldest federal program of its kind, Defense officials said. It provides assistive devices, software and training to employees with disabilities at no cost to the employees or their agencies. CAP operates with a budget of $4.6 million a year; $2.6 million is designated for DOD users, the other $2 million for non-Defense personnel, Young said.

The center'a small office in which monitors and other devices are set up under cardboard signs identifying a disability'houses technology designed to assist federal users with a range of disabilities, from visual and hearing impairments to dexterity, voice recognition and cognitive disorders.

CAP's mission is simple: Ensure that people with disabilities have the same access as everyone else to electronic information and job opportunities in the government.

Michael Young
CAPTEC manager Michael Young speaks into a microphone attached to a computer with voice recognition software, which puts his comments on the screen.
'One of the barriers to employing people with disabilities is perceived to be cost,' Allen said. 'It was generally known in the community that that was one of the main reasons people weren't getting hired. CAP was started to take that away.'

Last month, President Bush toured the center before addressing a Pentagon audience that included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, center director Dinah F.B. Cohen and a number of Defense employees, many of whom are disabled.

Bush said a lot has been accomplished since his father signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, but achieving accessibility still has a long way to go.

'The Internet brings a world of information into a computer screen, which has enriched the lives of many with disabilities,' Bush said. 'Yet technology creates challenges of its own.' He cited the barriers inherent in such things as elaborate graphics, audio transmissions and keyboard use.

As a result, Bush said, 'computer usage and Internet access for people with disabilities is half that of people without disabilities.'

Expanded beyond DOD

Section 508 is supposed to help government agencies overcome that disparity. The law requires federal agencies to ensure that the electronic and information technology they use is accessible for people with varying disabilities.

In October, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2001 granted CAP, which had been mandated to serve only DOD users, the authority to provide assistive devices and services to employees throughout the federal government.

To date, the program has filled more than 20,000 requests for accommodations for employees with visual, hearing, dexterity and cognitive disabilities.

Users can test software and devices at the evaluation center, where personnel will help them determine if a product meets a particular user's needs. If a user requires, say, software the center doesn't have, CAP will buy it after determining that the application will work with the user's systems.

Young said that although CAP gives employees devices, software and training free of charge, it's the agencies' job to provide the backbone systems infrastructure to ensure operation of the assistive technology.

'We're buying a person with a disability a toaster, and once you get your toaster, it's their job to make sure it works,' Young said.

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