By David Conner
The Bureau of Human Resources’ Office of Accessibility and Accommodations (HR/OAA) will soon open the Department of State’s new Access Center, a facility that provides cutting-edge, effective assistive technology solutions to Department employees with disabilities. The anticipated 2020 opening of the Access Center coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights act signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, July 26, 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.
Nearly 24 percent of the full-time American workforce has a disability. At the Department, individuals with disabilities make up 12.2 percent of the full-time permanent workforce. HR/OAA provides centralized disability services, including reasonable accommodations (RA) to Department employees with disabilities. RAs enable employees to perform the essential functions of their job; effective RAs can include adjustments to the work environment and assistive technology.
The Access Center, a 2,400-square-foot space in Columbia Plaza near the Department’s SA-1 Building in Washington, D.C., will serve as a model for the federal government and the diplomatic community creating a barrier-free environment for employees with disabilities to test, train, and provide feedback on assistive technology equipment and develop personalized solutions in an environment similar to their workspace. Employees’ ability to experiment with equipment prior to installation and use at their workstation reduces the risk of providing ineffective RAs that could potentially require revisions or replacements, saving both time and resources.
HR/OAA employs a wide array of innovative equipment to meet the needs of employees with disabilities. Computer users who are blind or have low vision may benefit from hardware- or software-based magnification systems or screen reader software. Employees who are deaf or hard of hearing can take advantage of a variety of assistive listening devices and deaf-to-hearing communication systems. Users with dexterity limitations can utilize ergonomic keyboards, mouse, or speech recognition software. Employees can test any of these tools at the new Access Center.
The Access Center is not the Department’s first accessibility center. Nearly a decade ago, in a small space called the Computer Accommodations Technology Center located in the basement of the Harry S. Truman Building, HR employees were able to conduct assistive technology assessments. The location and visibility of the space, however, added to client privacy concerns and made it an unsuitable locale.
HR/OAA’s new Access Center stands in sharp contrast to the old basement facility. Capitalizing on a strong partnership with the Bureau of Administration’s Office of Real Property Management, HR/OAA considered the needs of current and future clients when creating the facility. Specifically, the Access Center has ample space to store assistive technology equipment and perform assistive technology demonstrations and assessments, as well as a large conference room with state-of-the-art video conferencing and collaboration technology. The conference room accommodates multiple users, devices, and streams of information into a single, unified experience ideal for supporting clients around the globe. Combined with the Access Center’s telepresence robot, which can travel throughout the facility, reasonable accommodation analysts and assistive technology specialists can demonstrate solutions to clients anywhere in the world. The conference room supports the entire range of HR/OAA’s programs and activities, from training IT support staff on assistive technology to hosting information sessions on disability-related topics.
The Access Center also includes a smaller meeting room that allows for private reasonable accommodation consultations and a workspace for up to nine employees. In addition to HR/OAA’s assistive technology specialists, the Access Center will house two other major HR/OAA disability programs: the Department’s Section 508 program—which ensures that all information and communication technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Department is accessible to individuals with disabilities—and the Department’s award-winning Video Captioning @ State program—which captions unclassified video content for both live and recorded events at no cost to bureaus.
HR/OAA also plans to use the Access Center in the future to support the accessibility of the Department’s facilities and transportation activities, in collaboration with the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations and the Office of Facilities Management Services.
The Access Center builds on the success of similar assistive technology centers for federal employees, such as the Department of Defense’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program Technology & Evaluation Center (CAPTEC), established in 1994, and the Department of Agriculture’s Technology & Accessible Resources Give Employment Today (TARGET) Center, established in 1992. Colleagues at CAPTEC and TARGET have provided invaluable advice and best practices that will help to ensure the success of the Access Center.
While not the first federal assistive technology demonstration and assessment facility, the Department’s Access Center is likely the largest and most comprehensive. The Department’s unique status as the lead foreign affairs agency responsible for formulating and implementing U.S. foreign policy also distinguishes the Access Center among similar assistive technology demonstration centers in the federal government. The Access Center will serve as a showcase for disability best practices, not only for the federal government, but also for the diplomatic community and foreign missions in Washington, D.C. As a result, the Access Center will impact individuals with disabilities worldwide.
David Conner is the lead disability resources specialist in the Office of Accessibility and Accommodations.