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Vol. LXIII, No. 24
November 25, 2011

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NIH Celebrates a Decade of Accessibility

CIT’s Teresa Shea advocates for people with disabilities.
CIT’s Teresa Shea advocates for people with disabilities.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Section 508 compliance, which went into effect to ensure equal access to information and federal documents. NIH celebrated this decade of accessibility and National Disability Employment Awareness Month with its “More Than Words” program on Oct. 31.

Over 25 million Americans have trouble seeing, even with correction, or are blind and approximately 1 million can’t hear within the range of conversation. “The public most in need of health information and web sites may have some disability that prevents them from getting the information and services they require,” said Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, in opening remarks.

As technology rapidly changes, NIH and other federal agencies strive to adopt the assistive technologies (ATs) required by the public. Such a task is not without difficulties. Tabak harkened back to September 2001 when the NIH 508 working group was first formed and many of the products on the market weren’t designed with accessibility in mind. But NIH has come a long way and HHS reports indicate that NIH is one of the leading agencies, with more than 80 percent of web pages compliant with 508 standards. Further, each IC has a specified 508 officer and both NIH and HHS have a wealth of in-person and online training for making material fully accessible.

“This represents thousands upon thousands of people working to get to this point, and it will continue to take some of that effort to keep this moving forward,” said Tabak. “With continued dedication we can ensure that we continue to turn discovery into health. Not just for a few people but for everyone.”

Bruce Bailey, an accessibility IT specialist at the U.S. Access Board, was among the event’s speakers.

Bruce Bailey, an accessibility IT specialist at the U.S. Access Board, was among the event’s speakers.

Photos: Bill Branson

Keynote speaker and relationship manager at the Center for Information Technology Teresa Shea knows firsthand what it’s like to be one of the many Americans in need of AT. After a diagnosis of retinal ischemia at age 24, she struggled to find the resources and training she needed and to re-master even simple tasks and to return to the professional workplace.

“I do not have the constitution to be holding onto someone else’s arm for the rest of my life,” said Shea.

Despite a strong résumé, skill set and blind training, Shea faced difficulties finding employment as a blind professional. “Everyone who has a disability knows, it’s a constant struggle to prove your ability,” she said.

When she was hired at NIH, Shea imagined an ideal world of accessibility. It wasn’t quite the picture of perfection she expected, but that gave her the opportunity to dive in and be a part of efforts to make needed improvements.

She has taken an active role in promoting disability awareness, including holding a position on the Equal Opportunity Employment Program committee and spearheading “3 Blind Mice,” a resource-sharing group for the blind/low-vision, with two NIH coworkers. The mission of 3 Blind Mice is to provide fundamental knowledge about the needs of the blind/low-vision community within NIH and strengthen the overall quality of accessibility, training and awareness throughout the workplace.

Shea has taken an active role in promoting disability awareness, including helping start 3 Blind Mice, a resource-sharing group.
Shea has taken an active role in promoting disability awareness, including helping start 3 Blind Mice, a resource-sharing group.

“I’m doing my part to grow awareness and continue that change that was started 10 years ago,” said Shea, “transforming the NIH into a more inclusive workplace and highlighting the sheer determination, drive and professionalism of those with disabilities at NIH.”

The program also included a panel discussion with Bruce Bailey, an accessibility IT specialist at the U.S. Access Board; Angela Hooker, a senior accessibility specialist for Cascades Technologies, Inc.; Mat McCollough, executive director of the D.C. Developmental Disabilities Council; and Jonathan Lazar, a professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University. Lazar urged NIH, and all federal agencies, to be open and transparent when it comes to technology access and 508 compliance. “If you don’t talk about it, the public perceives it as you aren’t doing anything,” he said.

Other topics included accessibility in the private sector, problems with electronic forms, the importance of getting qualified individuals with disabilities into the workforce to effect change and the need for accessible medical diagnostic equipment.

The need to share responsibilities in accessibility was also a highlight, expanding Tabak’s earlier thoughts on making accessibility a part of standard operating procedures. “So often we rely on one person to be an accessibility champion at our agency, but I want us to start thinking about making accessibility a part of everyone’s responsibility. If everyone has an accessibility role in the project, I guarantee that we’ll see a different outcome,” said Hooker.

Attendees were also free to browse an assortment of booths presenting ATs and other resources.

Etienne Lamoreaux (r) of NIAAA visits an exhibitor’s
Etienne Lamoreaux (r) of NIAAA visits an exhibitor’s booth at the disability awareness event.

The program ended with a presentation by Joel Snyder, president of Audio Description Associates and director of the Audio Description Project for the American Council of the Blind. His presentation was timely, as October 2011 marked the 1-year anniversary of President Obama signing into law a mandate for audio description in broadcast television.

A master of description, Snyder painted pictures with words for the audience, clearly illustrating how audio description enhances the experience of a movie scene, a comic’s performance, or even a speech, whether the audience is blind, has low vision or is not visually impaired at all.

“In this country, the principal constituency for audio description has an unemployment rate of about 70 percent,” he said. “I am certain that with more meaningful access to our culture and its resources, people become more involved, more engaged with society and they become more engaging individuals and thus more employable. There’s no reason why a person with a visual disability must also be culturally disadvantaged.” NIHRecord Icon

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