An Optelec Traveler HD Electronic Video Magnifier displayed at the Access Center allows users to comfortably read magnified text via its unique slide and read mechanism. Photo by Ron Przysucha
By Heidi Howland
“[T]o have a genuinely inclusive workplace, diverse workplace, equitable workplace—that doesn’t happen without accessibility,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to the Department of State’s Access Center in July.
Blinken’s statement highlights the importance of creating an accessible Department. Accessibility is important not only because it’s the law, but also because it is necessary for inclusion.
Globally, more than one billion people, or about 15% of the global population, live with some form of disability. In the United States, millions of Americans with disabilities are vital members of the nation’s society, sharing their talents and reminding the world that persons with disabilities contribute to global progress.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), held each October, celebrates the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy. The theme for NDEAM 2022, “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” recognizes the vital role people with disabilities play in making the nation’s workforce more diverse and inclusive. At the Department, however, “we do not limit our recognition to October or NDEAM,” said Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley.
The talents and contributions of employees with disabilities should be valued every day. This cannot happen without accessibility in all areas of the workplace.
Imagine not having access to information on a website or not having a way to enter a building because the designers of each did not consider accessibility. Every person, every Department employee—with or without a disability—is entitled to equal access to information and opportunities, and the tools needed to perform the essential functions of their job.
The Office of Accessibility and Accommodations (OAA) in the Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) is committed to helping create an accessible Department. They develop policies, programs, training, and resources to foster inclusivity and support Department employees by promoting equal access to physical and digital environments, implementing reasonable accommodation solutions, and supporting equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. An accessible and inclusive Department enables all employees and job applicants to have equal access to information, facilities, and opportunities.
“Whether you’re posting to social media or planning a large event, accessibility is vital to ensuring all our colleagues have equal access,” said OAA Director Jameela Raja Akbari. “And OAA works to reduce and remove barriers at the Department.”
But OAA cannot do it alone. Helping to create a more accessible and inclusive workplace for all Department colleagues is everyone’s responsibility. Accessibility should be at the forefront of planning, and employees should build accessibility into everyday processes. Accessible design includes the needs of individuals with disabilities during the design process, so everyone can participate in the workforce independently.
By doing so, accessibility is considered from the start of and throughout planning processes. For example, when planning a live event, building a website, or creating documents, having a plan to ensure the event or resources are accessible to all can make or break the final product.
At the inaugural Sign@State Symposium in April, accessibility was at the forefront of the planning process. With one panel discussion conducted entirely in American Sign Language (ASL), the planning team considered accommodations and accessibility for both the panelists and audience members.
“By creating universal access, everyone has an equal footing in diplomacy,” said Roberta Mather, senior advisor for employee communications in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs and moderator of one of the Sign@State Symposium panels. “In turn, our U.S. foreign policy becomes more robust because it now has access to every thought and every talent possible.”
Equal access is vital across all spaces—both physical and digital. In today’s world, the digital environment is crucial to the way the Department does business. Ensuring digital communications—e.g., Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs, PowerPoint slides, and web applications and sites—are accessible is a necessary step in ensuring that all employees will have equal access to the same information. OAA’s Section 508 Program team provides assistance in ensuring all electronic documents and information technology at the Department are as widely accessible as possible.
“Accessibility makes the digital experience inclusive, regardless of a person’s ability,” said Rajiv Shah, a blind assistive technology specialist in OAA. “If a MyData form [an online platform used for various human resources transactions] is accessibly designed, for example, it ensures that I can efficiently submit my leave requests and transact my benefit changes, just like any other Department employee.”
Many digital platforms include videos as part of their multimedia communications. OAA’s Video Captioning team provides captioning on all recorded videos developed, maintained, or used by the Department, ensuring content and information is accessible to everyone.
“State Magazine has built the services of the video captioning team into our process whenever we are producing video media or require transcription,” said Multimedia Editor Amanda McCarthy. “Their team is incredibly responsive, they understand technical aspects of producing and rendering video media, and they have become a crucial partner in ensuring that our content is ultimately accessible.”
The Video Captioning team also provides live captioning for virtual and hybrid events for the Department. Captioning videos not only creates a more inclusive Department, it also is required by law.
Live captioning is one component of accessibility and ensuring an inclusive virtual or hybrid event. Other aspects of accessibility to include at the forefront of the event planning are ASL interpreting services, accessible invitations and other documents, such as PowerPoint slides, and physical access of the building and event space.
Building accessibility goes beyond in-person and hybrid events and reflects the Department’s commitment to an inclusive environment. OAA often works with the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) to help achieve facility accessibility overseas.
“The integral accessibility in U.S. embassy projects embodies the American values of respect, equality, and dignity for all, which parallels and underscores the Department’s goals of openness and democracy,” said Ron Tomasso, the Barrier-Free Accessibility Program manager for OBO. “OBO remains committed to making U.S. diplomatic facilities barrier-free accessible, not only in new office buildings, but across the spectrum of our historic, residential, and recreational facilities.”
While OAA’s mission is to reduce and remove barriers for Department employees with disabilities, their team also works to increase the number of employees with disabilities at the Department. This means recruiting persons with disabilities, providing accommodations to applicants with disabilities, and ensuring employees have the tools and support they need.
Increasing the number of Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) interns helps create a pipeline of talent. The WRP is a recruitment and referral program that connects federal and private-sector employers nationwide with highly motivated college students and recent graduates with disabilities who are eager to demonstrate their abilities in the workplace through summer or permanent jobs. In addition, the Schedule A (internal link) hiring authority streamlines and expedites the hiring process of applicants with disabilities for Civil Service positions.
Department employees and job applicants with disabilities can also visit OAA’s Access Center, a facility that provides assistive technology tools, resources, and support to employees with disabilities. The center is open to all employees. Employees with disabilities can try out different technologies; supervisors can gain a broader understanding of the resources available to their teams; and employees without disabilities have a safe space to ask their questions and learn more about accessibility.
“The Access Center has helped our students learn how to support colleagues with disabilities at post,” said Sam Aluko, information technology specialist-instructor and distance learning program manager at the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Applied Information Technology. “The in-person visit to the Access Center has added the missing layer—students are able to interact with some of the assistive technology equipment and have a clearer and better understanding of their roles at post when they support colleagues with disabilities.”
While accessibility benefits persons with disabilities, its impact extends well beyond one component of the Department’s community. Accessibility benefits everyone. For example, while captions on videos help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, others also benefit, including English language learners and people viewing a video in places where audio might not be optimal. Studies have also shown that captions increase the retention and overall learning experience for all viewers.
Examples of accessibility benefitting a range of individuals are everywhere and include ramps, automatic doors, voice controls on smart devices, and audio books. These features—designed for persons with disabilities to gain access to information or physical spaces—have become ubiquitous in the United States and are used by persons with and without disabilities. Designing with accessibility in mind creates solutions that benefit everyone.
Integrating accessible design into everyday processes is vital to creating a truly inclusive environment. Every small step toward greater accessibility makes a difference.
Heidi Howland is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Accessibility and Accommodations.