Braille Monitor                                                May 2013

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Section 508 and the Blind: One More Battle in the Fight for Equality in the Workplace

by Gary Wunder

Susie Stanzel discussing Section 508 at the 2013 NFB of Missouri convention.Like many other blind people of my generation, I grew up with a fascination for radio. Before the days when satellites, fiber optics, and the Internet made a call across the world as easy as a call across the street, people were fascinated by distance. The idea that we could listen to music while driving down the road without one single wire connecting us to a radio station some twenty miles distant gave the mind pause. We were amazed that at night a young lad could sneak a handheld radio under his covers and listen to stations it would take hours or even days to reach by car.

In looking for far away stations I would sometimes come across familiar voices—late-night talk show hosts, popular disc jockeys, and occasionally a blind man with a very professional-sounding voice delivering a commercial about the National Federation of the Blind. It was inspiring to hear a pleasant and authoritative voice and to know it came from a blind man, but equally impressive was his message, heard again and again: “We are blind, but we are just like you.” That line was most certainly intended for the sighted, and I appreciated its being sent to the nation, but it also had a special place in my heart because it affirmed for me that I wasn't so very different from the people who made up the world where I hoped I would soon be taking my place.

When we think about meaningful statements that sum up who blind people are and why we have organized for action--“We are blind, but we are just like you”--doesn't usually make the list of statements that encapsulate our philosophy. But to me that statement has always been magical in its ability to communicate in a brief, clear, and memorable phrase what it is that brings us together and what we hope to help the rest of the world to understand.

Being just like you says that we have the same needs, desires, and dreams as everyone else; we want to be loved, respected, and needed. We want to provide for ourselves and our families, give to our neighbors and our communities, and be seen first and foremost as human beings with talents and thoughts and emotions that together make us an asset in the world.

To become what we want requires some effort on our part and some effort on the part of the society in which we live. We have to be willing to dream and to work to make our dreams come true. Society has to acknowledge that blindness presents some very concrete challenges, but that meeting them can help make blindness one of many characteristics, rather than the most predominant; it can help in determining whether in America blindness will be a tragedy or an inconvenience that can be handled without much bother.

One challenge facing blind people today is access to the technology used at home and in the workplace. Government and industry have been slow to acknowledge the technological challenges the blind are beginning to face as we perform the routine duties of keeping a house and cooking our meals, but as early as 1998 the federal government acknowledged the need for technology usable by the blind in places of employment by adopting Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. In a nutshell the law says that anything built or purchased by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, including the blind. The law covers everything from office computers to the copy machine, but the reality of federal compliance falls far short of the promises so eloquently proclaimed in the statutes of our land.

Many of us have learned from bitter experience that the government continues to buy whatever it wants and assumes that some kind of adaptive technology will be created to work with whatever it purchases. The federal government buys most items only after an agency issues what is called a request for proposal (RFP). In theory this document does not specify a brand or even a specific device but outlines the need that the product or service must meet. An agency would not ask for a Hoover vacuum cleaner but would specify that it needed a device capable of removing dirt, lint, and dust from surfaces. It would then specify: wood, carpet, and tile, to name a few. Not all of the items the government wants and lists in an RFP carry equal weight. Some are requirements and are mandatory, some are highly desirable, and others fall under lesser categories which indicate they would be nice to have but not essential. A requirement for a vacuum cleaner might stipulate that any device purchased must remove 98 percent of the debris from a carpet and must hold that debris in a reusable canister for later disposal. Other features might be less rigid and reflect desirable characteristics such as how much dust the device should remove from the air, how much the machine should weigh, how much noise it could make while in operation, and how far it could be moved from a power source and still be operational. I used to write these proposals for the University of Missouri, and you can see how carried away by abstraction one can get when using complicated language to avoid saying how long the power cord must be.

When agencies receive responses to their request for proposal documents, a system for evaluation is employed to determine who will be the supplier or vendor. Failure to meet anything appearing under the requirements section is in theory removed from consideration. Then come the desirables, and each desirable is assigned a point value. Generally, accessibility is listed in this section, and its point value is often so low that purchases can be made even when the item sought is clearly not usable without vision. When accessibility is actually given a weight that means it might matter in a purchase, bidders may initially claim features they don't have in the hope that the agency has no intent to evaluate or way of assessing their statements. Alternatively they may claim that their current product falls short of the specifications in the RFP, but in their next release the product they are selling will be fully compliant.

This is my understanding of the way federal agencies procure inaccessible hardware and software. There are probably variations I'm not aware of or ones I've heard about but forgotten. It offends my optimistic point of view to admit that perhaps sometimes it is as simple as the government deciding beforehand what it wants and then just making the purchase, but this is a view all-too-often echoed by the section 508 coordinators, one for each agency in the federal government. From discussions held on Section 508 listservs and other forums, it is clear that at best coordinators are asked after the fact how to make a purchased item compliant, more commonly than they wish they are asked how to make it minimally accessible, and all too frequently they are asked to sign-off on items they know are not at all usable, their endorsement intended to cover for higher-ups who want to say that the person responsible for assuring accessibility signed off on the acquisition.

However the inaccessible technology finds its way into the federal government, the consequences for the blind person are consistently negative. At a minimum, blind employees must work harder to accomplish tasks that have been created to be performed visually, and at worst the systems the blind are required to use won't work at all with any assistive technology existing today.

Signing on to government systems may be as simple as entering one’s user identification code and a password of one’s choosing or as complicated as allowing the machine to attempt a retinal scan to determine if one is authorized to access the system. Recording work activity may be as straightforward as completing a simple document containing the date, the hours worked, and the tasks accomplished or as difficult as accessing a system that provides no auditory or Braille response to presses of the tab key, arrow keys, or specially assigned screen reader keys created to extract information and present it to a blind person. Sometimes buttons on a screen used to initiate functions are clearly labeled, sometimes they appear without labels but can be identified by their position on the screen if one can tab or arrow to them, and sometimes they register not at all and are completely invisible to the blind person and the screen-access program he or she is using.

In today’s work environment it is common to get one’s assignments by signing on to a system containing work lists, current projects, their due dates, and a place to record progress. These systems also provide for assigning parts of a project to other work teams, following their progress, and escalating critical problems to management.

Before the days of the ever-present computer, meetings were scheduled by conversations in the coffee room, by walking from office to office to invite meeting participants, or by using the telephone to bring people from distant locations together. Now scheduling meetings is computerized and involves looking at the calendars of meeting participants and then requesting their presence at a time when all of them are available. When such systems make no provision for alerting a blind employee that he is adding a participant to a meeting who is already booked for the proposed time, the result is irritation by all involved because all of their calendars must be changed to accommodate the now rescheduled gathering. Though these auxiliary systems are likely not the ones used to do the real work one has been assigned, cumulatively the inability to use them interferes substantially with the ability to do the essential functions of one’s job, interrupts the flow of work in the office, and puts the blind employee in a position of having to ask for help in doing tasks that fellow employees consider routine.

For the office worker, training is becoming an annual part of the performance appraisal. Almost everyone in government must take classes prior to each evaluation on sexual harassment, cultural diversity, and quality customer service. Training once accomplished by sending workers to seminars and short courses or by bringing in outside experts is now done through computer instruction. More often than not this instruction is also inaccessible. Some systems are so inaccessible that they offer screens which appear to be blank to screen-reading programs; some programs allow signing in but do not allow sequential reading of training texts, and still others allow reading of the text but will not allow the trainee to take the exam or acknowledge with a push of a button that they have read the required material.

Not only are computer workstations sometimes inaccessible, devices as seemingly simple as the telephone can offer functions that exclude the blind. Some phones in government offices use a flashing light or a special icon on their screens to indicate a waiting voicemail; the stutter dial tone commonly found on home voicemail systems is not incorporated into these business phones. The audible caller ID often found on the least expensive cordless telephones is similarly absent, and nonvisual ways to program frequently called numbers to the many onscreen buttons that make up the business handset simply don’t exist. Audible alerts signaling that the photocopier or printer is out of paper or needs ink or toner are also too often absent, and the question one must ask in these days when even a birthday card can talk and sing is why we would waste the potential of productive employees with disabilities when our technology clearly provides a way for them to thrive and make significant contributions to America’s economy and her government.

Reasonable accommodation may be made for the blind employee by having someone take on parts of the job he or she cannot do because of the shortcomings in purchased technology. This is called job restructuring. The concept is appealing in theory but is quite difficult to implement in practice. Occasionally a coworker will be asked to help a blind worker by filling out a printed time sheet, solving a visual captcha, or pressing a button that appears on a screen but is not detectable by a screen reader because the program displaying the button has not followed standard conventions for displaying this visual item. Occasionally the blind employee can offer something of equal value to the helpful coworker by freely giving advice in his or her area of expertise, but the effectiveness of asking for this help and being able to offer similarly beneficial help depends on how often one encounters a task that requires vision and for which no other alternative technique is available.

In the workplace the experience of many blind people and those who work with them is that the brainpower needed to do the job is abundantly present, the attitude to perform the job is clearly above average, and the gratitude for having the job often exceeds that of the coworker who believes, rightly or wrongly, that there are a hundred other places she could use her talent if she tires of this job. But though brains, attitude, persistence, and flexibility are essential, they cannot compensate for equipment that fails to present needed information in Braille or audio. When no alternative techniques exist and when the employer will not follow the law and expects that somehow the blind person will come up with another solution, discord, tension, and unhappiness are bound to occur on both sides. When work assignments are given, the blind worker’s supervisor must take into account what part of the job to be done will require access to equipment the blind employee cannot use. The blind worker who is told about new and improved software that will help him and his colleagues do their jobs with less effort and greater efficiency on the one hand is excited at the possibilities the new systems will bring, and on the other hand almost immediately wonders whether the features that sound so helpful and liberating will be accessible or will place yet another obstacle in his path.

If her job is encumbered only slightly by the need to ask for help and if she is well liked, fellow employees and her supervisor may be glad to help and feel good about the kindness they have done. If the requests are frequent, the assignments that can be given are limited, and the time to complete them exceeds what is considered reasonable, those good feelings soon turn to resentment, and the consequences are felt by everyone, most especially the blind employee.

Not only is Section 508 skirted, ignored, or relegated to relative insignificance by too many agencies in the federal government, but its effectiveness is hampered by one other factor. If discussions with superiors and their management fail to bring about accommodations that will let the blind employee be the productive worker he or she can be by virtue of God-given and cultivated talent, the only avenue open to him or her is to sue the employer for violations of federal law. Consider the stress caused by filing a lawsuit against people who have been your colleagues for years and trying to convince them that fighting for the right to do your job requires that you file a complaint or even sue them. Try sending this message while striving to keep uppermost in their minds that you are still, first and foremost, a team player who is dedicated to the goal of making your team, your office, and your department the best they can be. Consider the tension this creates between the blind worker, the supervisor, and the layers of management with whom he must work. People recognize that they may be defendants in a suit that will call them to testify, not only about any involvement they have had with this blind employee in the past, but on every action they take between the time the suit is filed and is settled.

For many blind employees the cost of testing the law and making it deliver what it was designed to provide in the way of equal treatment and workplace equality is just too much. The blind worker often decides to settle for lower evaluations, management settles for less productivity than it wants and deserves, and all parties consciously or unconsciously start thinking about the countdown clock ticking toward the time when early retirement or the choice to take disability is exercised. This is not what anyone envisioned with the passage of Section 508, and it certainly isn't the vision that the blind student had when she moved into the work-a-day world with visions of climbing the ladder of success.

Occasionally circumstance and character intersect, and someone who has given his or her best concludes that, for the law to mean anything, it must be enforced. This convergence is the subject of the article you are reading, and in future articles the Braille Monitor will highlight federal workers who have given their best and tried to be team players but who have reluctantly concluded that going along to get along doesn’t solve the problems that stand between giving the most they can to their agencies and maximizing their productive capacity. Neither does going along to get along further the promise we have made to future generations, a central one being that they will find greater opportunities to thrive, live on their own, and have a better than equal chance of becoming a part of loving and enriching marriages, making enough money to support their children and sometimes their grandchildren, and being the role models on which others pattern their lives and judge their success.

One federal employee seriously contemplating the filing of a complaint is Susie Stanzel, a blind information technology specialist employed by the Department of Agriculture, the sixth largest government agency in the country. She is not by nature a complainer. Her thirty-nine-year career with the USDA, complete with numerous promotions, raises, and awards, is a testament to her tenacious work ethic and whatever-it-takes attitude. Never has she been a forty-hour-a-week clock-watcher. Instead, one of the more significant stresses in her life has focused on balancing being a wife and mother of three and working many weekends and holidays to meet department goals and honor her personal commitment to her coworkers, direct supervisors, and managers. It would not be an overstatement to say that she has regarded as false any prioritization between her work and her family, knowing that without her successful career she could not have given to those she loves the resources to succeed and the example to follow that makes them what they are today.

Susie has not encountered all of the technological barriers elaborated here, but her case is one of several the National Federation of the Blind may pursue in an effort to make the promises of Section 508 a reality for blind employees. As events proceed, the Braille Monitor will have much more to say about this case and others like it in which blind employees find themselves confronting attitudes and technology that hinder them as much as help in attempting to fulfill the expectations of their employers and themselves as highly productive workers. Section 508 must make real in the federal workplace the promises it boldly proclaims as the law of the land. Current federal workers must benefit from its protection, and future employees must know that their education and training can reasonably be expected to lead to opportunities for success that only usable technology can ensure. Only one organization has the commitment, the technical expertise, and the legal knowhow to make this happen. The National Federation of the Blind championed the rights of blind people long before the days of digital domination in the workplace, and no matter the technical or legal complexity, we will stand strong to see that the blind can work alongside the sighted and share in the opportunity of what it means to be a citizen of our great land.

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