CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

Accessibility in the Evolving Information Environment

I. Accessibility in the Evolving Information Environment

A. Federal Requirements for Accessibility

When information environments accommodate people with limitations of vision,
hearing, or mobility they are afforded equal opportunities to become
proficient users of information resources.  Federal agencies are responding
to their mission level responsibility to ensure that evolving information
environments are accessible to current and prospective employees with
disabilities and citizens with disabilities who need to access Federal
offices and public information services.  By establishing accessible
information environments, agencies also promote productivity, job retention
of employees who develop disabilities, and the introduction of innovative
interfaces to enhance access to information by all users.

This accessibility policy is based on two laws, the 1986 Reauthorization of
the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Pub.L. 99-506, Section 508) and the
Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act of 1988 (Pub.L. 100-542).
These statutes have been implemented in the Federal Information Resources
Management Regulation (FIRMR) promulgated by GSA.  The FIRMR requires that
agencies identify computer and telecommunications accessibility requirements
for current and prospective employees and public information services and
address the functional aspects of these requirements in solicitation
documents and when subscribing to telecommunications services. (See
Appendices F, G, H, and I for text of the laws, regulations, and bulletins).
    
These laws do not represent a radical new direction for agencies, but serve
to reinforce through a strong IRM focus, the existing mission requirements
under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  This Act requires federally conducted
or federally sponsored programs to be accessible to persons with disabilities
and mandates that management policies must not discriminate in the hiring,
placement, and advancement of persons with disabilities.  In 1986, Congress
amended this legislation and added Section 508 on electronic equipment to
make more explicit the importance of information technology to meet mission
responsibilities for accessibility to Federal programs and facilities.  The
second statute, the Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act,
mandates a proactive approach within the government to advancing
accessibility to the Federal telecommunications system by hearing impaired
and speech impaired individuals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has adapted and extended
many of the existing responsibilities of the Rehabilitation Act for
implementation outside the Federal government.  The law requires barrier-free
access to places that serve the public, such as theaters, restaurants, and
museums.  State and local government services, transportation, and
telecommunications services must also be accessible.  Discrimination on the
basis of disability in private sector employment is also prohibited.  As
implementation of ADA begins, accessibility to information resources
represents just one important area where Federal departments can demonstrate
to the private sector successful implementation strategies and the benefits
of accessibility policies.


B. How People with Disabilities Access Information Resources

People with limitations of vision, hearing, or mobility are ensured full
access and integration to information resources at a level equivalent to
people without disabilities when automated information environments offer the
flexibility they need.  This flexibility can be achieved in most information
environments through off the shelf "drop in" or "add on" hardware and
software enhancements that modify the common keyboard input and monitor
output interactions familiar to most computer users.  When a common keyboard
requires too much dexterity, coordination or effort from an individual it can
be replaced or enhanced so that less effort is required.  In addition to
being more user responsive, this input capability may also offer portability,
speech input, or a wireless connection to the computer.  If a person can not
use a monitor without undue effort and visual strain, the display contents
are magnified or replaced with synthesized speech.

Organizations already expect this kind of flexibility as they routinely add
firmware boards with specialized modems, terminal emulation, memory, or fax
capabilities to personal computers.  Having become aware of the need to
accommodate people with disabilities and the availability of flexible "drop
in" or "add on" products to do so, agency acquisitions are now being planned
to ensure continued integration of the access capabilities needed in the
information systems purchased.  Many of these access products represent
maturing technologies that are beneficial to all users such as speech
input/output and enhanced monitor and keyboard capabilities.  Braille
displays and printers are an exception, being used almost exclusively by
blind individuals.  The following examples highlight how people with specific
requirements for accessing and using information technology are readily
accommodated in evolving information environments.

The primary limitation experienced by a blind individual using a computer is
the inability to benefit from the visual feedback presented on the screen.
This access limitation is overcome by adding software and a peripheral device
to provide usable feedback in the form of synthesized speech or refreshable
braille.  Many blind individuals have a strong preference to receive memos,
correspondence, and reports electronically by disk, electronic mail (E-mail),
or LAN service.  Optical character readers configured to support speech would
typically be used when documents are received in printed form only.  An
inexpensive pocket computer consisting of a 7-key braille input keypad and
synthesized speech output is frequently used by braille users at meetings to
take notes, prepare summary documents, and complement the office-based
computer.  Because there is no monitor requirement, true portability has been
readily achieved.

Many blind individuals are also early and avid users of CD-ROM technology.
As more and more volumes of documentation and reference material become
available on CD-ROM disks, this technology represents a cost and availability
breakthrough to the print barrier experienced by blind people.  Using CD-ROM
technology, documents can be searched efficiently.  When a desired section is
located, it can be skimmed at a fast rate of speech output or reviewed at a
slower rate for thorough analysis.
    
Blind individuals may also be eager to adopt voice mail into their office
routines.  Messages can then be retrieved independently instead of relying
upon others.  Bulletin boards, on-line services, and telephone-based
information services are also highly valued and utilized.  These information
services provide ease of access to desired information that is complete,
concise, and available independently.

Individuals with limitations of hand strength or the ability to execute the
fine movements necessary for writing or manipulating printed documents also
experience unnecessary constraints when material is not available in
electronic form.  Accessing documentation for computer application programs
on screen via diskette can be much easier and efficient than manipulating
manuals and turning pages.

Many keyboard enhancement packages such as keyboard macros and word
prediction are used extensively by persons with mobility limitations.
Although these techniques offer benefit to almost all users, people with
mobility impairments have become early adopters and avid users of these
technologies.  The appropriate alternative keyboard can compensate for the
limited usefulness of more common keyboards.  Miniature and expanded
keyboards represent two examples of alternative keyboards.  In many instances
combining several input strategies yields the greatest returns.  An
alternative keyboard coupled with the use of keyboard macros or word
prediction software can result in a significant productivity increase for
many people with mobility impairments affecting their arms or hands.

Because individuals with severe mobility impairments are also early users of
speech recognition, one solution approach might combine speech recognition
with keyboard macros and related keyboard enhancements.  The success of this
approach depends on the ability to emulate through speech and macros any
keystroke, keystroke combination, or mouse control available to other
individuals in the same environment.  When keyboard commands are executed
using speech input, users can access bulletin board systems and other
information networks, in addition to controlling their local computer.

Deaf individuals experience few difficulties with printed documents, but are
at a disadvantage if information is only presented auditorily, either through
live presentation or voice-only telecommunications.  Deaf individuals are
adversely impacted when organizations fail to provide available alternatives
to standard telephones, such as Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf
(TDDs).  A TDD is a telecommunications device that has a typewriter style
keyboard, a readout display, and a phone line connector or an acoustic
coupler for a standard telephone handset.  TDD users type and read messages
over the telephone lines rather than talk and listen like hearing telephone
users.  TDD compatible modems can also be added to personal computers to
enable them to send and receive TDD calls.

Many hard of hearing individuals are able to use a standard telephone set if
it has been equipped with a device to provide amplification.  Handsets with
amplification devices built in can be used to replace the standard handset.
Individuals with a speech impairment that permits clear speech, but at a
greatly reduced volume, may also benefit from an adapted telephone set.  A
telephone handset that amplifies the speaker's voice can be added to many
phones to replace the standard handset.

Some deaf individuals may also be non-vocal or not have clearly
understandable speech.  Communication needs within an office can be addressed
through a variety of means including handwritten communications, typing to
each other using a computer, E-mail, sign language interpreters, and
co-workers use of American Sign Language.  Communication with other offices
may require use of TDDs, E-mail, and fax.  Offices equipped with TDDs could
be called directly and the exchange would resemble the interactive chat mode
of E-mail as the two parties take turns typing their messages.  Offices
without TDDs could be reached through TDD relay services.  Relay operators
equipped with TDDs or TDD-compatible computers, relay the typed and spoken
messages in the appropriate mode to the sending and receiving parties (see
Appendix D for information on the Federal Information Relay Service).  A deaf
individual could also call a TDD-compatible bulletin board or an automated
information service that supports both voice and text output.

This is just a small sampling of information system capabilities employed by
people with disabilities today.

As the examples have demonstrated, essential job functions can be readily
performed when access to needed information resources and telecommunication
services is provided.  Many of the previous difficulties associated with the
physical aspects of handwriting or turning pages are also eliminated with
electronic-based information.  In addition, electronic information exchange
provides a "disability transparent" means of communication.  E-mail messages
do not reveal, nor does it matter, whether the sender happens to have a
disability in one or more areas such as hearing, speech, vision, or mobility.
Identifying and providing the appropriate tools to accommodate people's needs
is fundamental to achieving accessibility.  More information on the full
range of accommodation solutions possible may be found in Section III:
Overview of Accommodation Solutions.

C. How Organizations Benefit from Accessible Information Environments

As implementation of the accessibility statutes proceeds, agencies are
discovering that effective utilization of accommodation tools promotes
productivity and ensures access to work-related and public information.
Organizations benefit significantly from the ability to recruit and retain
quality employees and the ability to effectively interact with all clients,
including those with disabilities.

Agency experiences with accommodation solutions that incorporate maturing
technologies such as speech synthesis, speech recognition, or document
scanning, also provide an effective means for evaluating near-term
applications with potential benefit to all users.  Many employees in hands
busy, eyes busy, or noisy environments can benefit today from flexible
interface alternatives that have already been adopted by people with
disabilities.  Accommodation tools and practices are also being employed to
minimize or prevent the visual fatigue and repetitive motion injuries
associated with keyboard-intensive environments.  As the workforce ages,
accessible information environments will support the requirements of people
who develop age-related limitations of vision, hearing, or mobility.  As
planning by Federal agencies increasingly reflects the total information
environment, including electronic interfaces with the public and other
agencies, accessibility represents a solid foundation to maximizing the value
of the evolving information systems.

As a major buyer of information technology, the Federal government is
stimulating industry to respond to its accessibility requirement.  It is
anticipated that the marketplace pull to readily accessible information
systems will become even stronger as businesses and state governments
implement plans for accessible environments in response to the Americans with
Disabilities Act.