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CSUN Assistive Tech Conference 2021 – Section 508 is More Interesting Than You Think

CSUN AT with Sign Language Interpreter
CSUN AT with Sign Language Interpreter

One of my favorite conferences of the year is the CSUN Assistive Tech Conference. Steve and I were really on the fence whether to attend last year in person, and pulled out at the last minute as all of our friends’ companies had canceled their trips. In retrospect of course, I’m very glad we didn’t go.

This is the first time CSUN has held the conference virtually and I think they did a really good job. The conference has a fairly standard format with some pre-conference workshops that you can pay extra for, tons of individual presentation sessions and an exhibit hall. The conference is only $425 for four days, which is really inexpensive. The exhibit hall is actually free.

In the past, Steve and I have just gone down for one day end covered the exhibit hall but this year I’ve been trying to attend some sessions as well. In a way, being virtual allows me to see many more sessions than I normally would. I have to confess that I didn’t figure that out right away.

Partway through the conference, I went back and looked at the sessions and realize that everything that had already been shown was available because they were all recorded ahead of time. Instead of having to choose between concurrent sessions and always feeling like I have missed the better one, potentially I could see all of them.

The other advantage of this is that I could start watching a session and if I realized it wasn’t of interest to me, I could bail without hurting the presenter’s feelings. I was also able to fast forward to where the good part started. In a few cases where the presentations were really good, I went back and watched the front material. The only downside of this is that now I have no excuse for not watching more presentations!

Today I’d like to tell you about two presentations about Section 508. I’ll explain what that is, and the two different angles to the same topic.

Accessibility in the Federal Workspace – Section 508 in 2021

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This is commonly referred to as Section 508.

I attended a panel presentation entitled Accessibility in the Federal Workspace in COVID times. They started out by explaining that the federal government is the largest employer in the United States with 9 million people currently working for the government.

Working from Home

They talked about the changes that took place for people who require assistive technology when they were sent home to work. They first explained that there are actually many benefits of telework for accessibility.

For example, not having to travel is a great benefit. It eliminates the need to make special requests for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. It means no navigation problems for the visually impaired.

In addition, if you work from your own home, you can personalize your own environment to fit your own needs. You can have your volume cranked up and not bother co-workers if you have hearing impairments. You have the flexibility to move your monitor super close if you’re low vision. If hosts of meetings send their presentations ahead of time, you can open them in your own accessible environment. With larger online meetings, people use the “raise your hand” function, which makes for a more orderly conversation for everyone, but also makes the sign language interpreter’s job much easier.

It wasn’t all roses for accessibility when workers in the Federal government started working from home. The government, like many companies, relies on Microsoft Teams. Kathy Eng explained that they have a 508 listserv (think discussion forum) and it lit up with issues when people began working from home.

Since the government is such a large employer, they had leverage to bring Microsoft in to start fixing the problems. Ms. Eng was very complimentary about Microsoft’s response, both in how rapidly they fixed things and also in how willing they were to work to get things working better from an accessibility standpoint. She didn’t give a lot of examples, but one she did highlight was that by default there was a video limitation that didn’t allow people to view the speaker presentation and the sign language interpreter at the same time. Microsoft immediately removed that restriction to fix the problem.

Section 508 Conformance Testing

The presenters then switched gears and started talking about Section 508, and how the government attacked the problem of ensuring that all of their own websites and mobile tools are fully accessible. I’ve worked to ensure podfeet.com is accessible, and even for a very simplistic blog-based site like mine, it took a lot of time.

Ms. Eng explained that manual testing for accessibility is a very slow process, while automated testing is fast, but limited in its success. A hybrid approach makes sense, but even then there are challenges because it’s difficult to understand exactly what is required.

In order to combat the ambiguity, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Testing Baseline. You’re going to love this part, the Section 508 ACT Testing Baseline is an open source Github project!

But just having the guidelines clarified wasn’t enough. They created a rigorous training program and if you pass the training you can get certified as a Trusted Tester. I’m just spitballing here but it sounds to me like that would be a highly-valued certification if someone out there listening is looking for a job. All of the training to become a Trusted Tester is available online, and it’s free.

Get ANDI showing to drag the icon to your bookmarks toolbar in any browser
Get ANDI Bookmarklet

The other piece of the puzzle was to create a tool to assist the trusted testers in evaluating websites. The tool they developed is called ANDI, which stands for Accessible Name & Description Inspector. It’s a web browser bookmarklet that runs on Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Firefox, Safari and even Internet Explorer.

You know I couldn’t resist the temptation to install ANDI myself and give it a go. I’m going to describe my experience in a separate article though, so let’s keep going with the CSUN presentations about Section 508.

I know talking about government regulations isn’t normally something to get excited about, but I sure find the subject fascinating and anything I can do to improve the accessibility of the web is going to be high on my list.

National Security and Accessibility

“Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities Associated with Information and Communication Technology in the Intelligence Community”

The second presentation I attended that focussed on Section 508 was even more interesting. It was given by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with representatives from the NSA (National Security Agency) and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

This presentation highlighted something that really surprised me. While Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forms the cornerstone of government information technology inclusion efforts, it turns out that the Rehabilitation Act provides a national security exemption from compliance for military command and control, weaponry, intelligence, and cytological information technology systems. In other words, they can simply say “this is national intelligence, so we don’t have to make our stuff be accessible.”

But here’s the cool part. Michael Waschull, Acting Intelligence Community Chief Information Officer/Deputy Intelligence Community Chief Information Officer, explained that they decided that wasn’t a strategy for success. I wish I had transcribed his words more carefully because he was eloquent and impassioned in his delivery. He said that if you’re not allowing a diverse workforce, you can easily get into groupthink, and groupthink leads to a reduction in knowledge. In the intelligence community, they simply can’t risk making those kinds of mistakes.

One of the biggest things I learned as head of our diversity council in my job was that diversity and inclusion are not about “being nice” and “helping people who are unfortunate”. It’s about strengthening your workforce and increasing your competitive advantage. Once you get that, you become an impassioned supporter of diversity of all kinds.

Mr. Waschull went on to explain that it is possible to exercise the exemption from Section 508, but you have to apply for it to the Director of National Intelligence. I interpreted that as, “You’d better have a really good case before you even think about trying to get an exemption.”

Next, Dr. Paula Briskoe, Senior Executive Management Officer, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) described her experience working in the intelligence community. She has been legally blind since birth and so came into the office knowing the accommodations she needed.

Back when she came in, the DNI assigned an individual to help her acquire and install her tools. Today she said they ask what tasks are you trying to accomplish, instead of what tools do you need to use, which she’s not certain is a better approach. It sounded a lot like, “What problem are you trying to solve?” so I was curious why that wasn’t the right approach.

She went on to explain that it’s important to listen to the person who is telling you what tech they think would be helpful because they are actually the subject matter expert. This is a good point because all types of vision impairments are not the same, all types of mobility issues are not the same, all types of cognitive issues are different and all types of hearing impairments are not identical.

Dr. Briskoe said that she wasn’t paid to say this, but that she has never once felt that her disability ever held her back working at the Agency. She started as a Junior GS (General Schedule) and is now a senior executive. Her enthusiasm for the work she’s able to do at the DNI was really infectious.

But her enthusiasm was nothing compared to that of Daniel Hetrick, NSA Information Communication Technology Accessibility Team Lead, Department of Chief Information Officer, National Security Agency. This guy was on fire about his job.

He explained that he started as a co-op at the NSA, and 20 years after he started he had a stroke that, as he described it, took out his left side. I knew about Section 508 before hearing him talk, but he talked about two executive orders that really drove change for accessibility in the government.

Exec Order 13163 by President Clinton in July 2000 was an order to promote an increase in the opportunities for individuals with disabilities, which from my reading had some cool stuff in it but not a lot of detail on how to achieve the lofty goal it described of hiring 100,000 qualified individuals with disabilities into the Federal government.

Executive Order 13548 by President Obama in July 2010 put some real teeth behind this goal. It called for (with delivery dates), model recruitment and hiring strategies, specific plans to follow those strategies, and that every agency would have to designate a senior-level executive to be accountable for meeting the goals of the order. Now we had some real teeth into the vision put forward by the Clinton administration.

The reason Mr. Hetrick brought up the 100,000 people goal for the government was that suddenly there was this massive influx of employees with accessible tech needs. He described the changes he saw in government as the entire strategy had to change. He also emphasized that these changes included holding contractors accountable for accessibility by putting language in their contracts that specifically said they will not accept deliverables that don’t meet their requirements for accessibility.

You can see how this top-down strategy caused real change across the government, and then across the technology landscape to all tools. If you made a tool, you certainly would want the largest employer in the United States to be able to buy it, wouldn’t you?

Mr. Hetrick spoke with noticeable glee about how it was “nothing short of a miracle” to get all of these organizations to understand why this is so critical. He said that he is thrilled to go to work every day to see the progress happening and that he feels like he’s watching the last piece of a giant puzzle finally falling into place.

I realized at the end, that for the community of people with assistive tech needs, this presentation was the best recruiting video I’ve ever seen.

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