By Rich McCarthy
When the Department of State moved to maximum telework, many employees faced a new challenge: figuring out how to complete their tasks while working remotely. The Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Accessibility and Accommodations (OAA) quickly worked with the people they serve—employees with disabilities—to assist with the shift to telework. OAA is the Department of State’s primary resource for providing reasonable accommodation (RA) solutions for employees with disabilities. Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities—either employees or applicants for employment—unless doing so would cause undue hardship. As defined by the ADA, “A reasonable accommodation is any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities.” With more than 80 percent of the Department workforce working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak, many employees have questions about accessibility as they navigate the Department’s systems remotely. Through teamwork and technology, OAA has provided answers.
OAA’s Disability and Reasonable Accommodation Division (DRAD) continues to work with employees to ensure RA is available to enable them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. DRAD analysts team up with their colleagues in OAA’s Accessibility Division to help employees acquire appropriate technology-based accommodations—both software and equipment. OAA procures items that can safely and easily be transported and used by employees at their homes, including braille displays, larger monitors, large print keyboards, and desktop magnification devices. To decrease the need for employees to pick up these items at the workplace, the procured items are shipped directly to the employee’s residence when possible.
The current telework posture has not changed the needs of employees who require interpreting services. Sign language is a visual language, and while the use of technology has historically opened the door for many deaf or hard-of-hearing employees to enable sign language as a reasonable accommodation, the current pandemic has uncovered many obstacles to ensuring seamless and effective services. With employee feedback, OAA has used different approaches to address the challenge of employees not being in the same space as the interpreter. Employees can download video conferencing apps on their personal device to connect with remote sign language interpreters who can then call into virtual meetings. Deaf employees have used Google Hangouts, WebEx, and Adobe Connect to join with success. These small adjustments ensure that everyone has equal access to all aspects of the communication in real time. OAA continues not only to respond to emergency contingencies, but also advocates for increased access when Department employees return to the workplace.
Federal employees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also request real-time relay conference captioning through Federal Relay (with 12 hours advance notice). Additionally, OAA’s Video Captioning @ State program can live-caption webinars in Adobe Connect, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Google Meet, and Zoom. The program has seen a 95 percent increase in webinar requests since February and has captioned 102 events since March 16, when many employees began full-time telework. The video captioning team is also available to caption pre-produced video content. Turnaround times are typically within a week, but high-priority requests can be completed with little wait time.
External to OAA, the Bureau of Information Resource Management’s Mobile Remote Access (IRM/MSO/MRA) team has been a major contributor in supporting employees who require assistive technology while working from home. Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that increases, maintains, or improves the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. MRA knew of the timely need to tailor the Department’s remote access options for the employees that OAA serves. Once OAA procured laptops, MRA’s GO Desktop team converted them into a device similar to an employee’s desktop computer at the office and installed the needed assistive technology, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking voice-to-text software. The MRA GO Desktop team’s work has increased the Department’s ability to offer equal and full access to all teleworking employees, including those with disabilities.
“In this regard, DRAD’s accommodations (an iPhone and GO Desktop) have exceeded my expectations,” said Rajiv Shah, public affairs specialist and DRAD client. “Not only do I have an accessible environment to perform my core duties, but I am also able to assist my colleagues in tasks that they otherwise would not be able to perform.”
OAA continues to work with MRA to create alternative methods and resources for individuals to access Department systems remotely.
While OAA has worked to provide RA solutions to the employees it serves, OAA’s team members have adapted their internal processes as well. Like many offices across the Department, OAA has dramatically increased its use of online collaborative tools during the COVID-19 outbreak. IRM’s “Teams Emergency Telework Suite Pilot” has supported their efforts to create an inclusive environment. The suite allows participants to connect to a Microsoft Teams meeting using an auto-generated dial-in number. Unlike other conference call options, the call audio integrates seamlessly with the Teams meeting audio. This helps a wide range of users, including those who do not have a computer equipped with a microphone. It also provides a welcome amount of flexibility for employees who use sign language since an employee can connect to Teams for chat, video, and other collaboration methods while simultaneously receiving sign language interpreting via the hardware and software of their choice. The interpreter needs only the dial-in number, and does not have to use the Teams application. The Teams Emergency Telework Suite Pilot is an excellent example of how increased accessibility for individuals with disabilities can benefit everyone.
As the workforce navigates the pandemic together, OAA continues to explore new ways to make the telework environment accessible for all. Employees wishing to request a reasonable accommodation should contact DRAD. More information on OAA’s services can be found by visiting the Disability Dashboard (intranet only). OAA aims to provide the tools employees need, whether working at home or in the office, in order to do their work and help to fulfill the Department’s mission.
Rich McCarthy is an assistive technology specialist in the Office of Accessibility and Accommodations.