For federal accessibility managers, adding ‘A’ to new DEIA initiative is a welcome change

As agencies continue an ongoing push to make their processes, tools and workplaces more accessible to employees and members of the public, a recent executive order is putting more wind in the sails of those who manage federal accessibility programs.

Accessibility managers say the extra attention and focus is a long time coming — and a welcome change.

“A lot of times in what we do when dealing with accessibility, we are reacting. There’s a problem. We have an employee or an applicant or someone from the public who can’t access something. We are scrambling to fix it, and a lot of times we are seen as party crashers,” Annette Carr, disability program manager for the Transportation Security Administration, said Tuesday at the annual Interagency Accessibility Forum.

The General Services Administration, departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, Merit Systems Protection Board and the federal Chief Information Officers Council produced the forum, which falls during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“By nature of what we do, we’re reacting. They’re already dealing with other problems, and we just added another one on,” Carr added. “We have to change how we’re perceived, and that takes a lot of work.”

But a recent executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), which the president signed back in June, nudges agency accessibility programs and their managers closer to the spotlight.

While the federal government in recent years has exceeded its goal of hiring at least 100,000 individuals with disabilities to agency jobs over a five-year period, recent data from the Government Accountability Office shows agencies often struggle to retain them.

Agencies hired 143,000 employees with disabilities between 2011 and 2015, with an additional 79,000 new hires in 2016 and 2017, according to a 2020 study.

But 39% of those employees with disabilities hired over the six-year period stayed at their government jobs for less than a year, GAO said.

“Clearly much work remains when it comes to establishing a federal work environment that is accessible and inclusive for civil servants with disabilities,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Wednesday at the summit. “This is urgent and vitally important work. If thousands of Americans with disabilities are swiftly exiting federal services because of the issues relating to accessibility, professional development and non-inclusive cultures, do we really think that the interests of millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on these services are being championed?”

Biden’s executive order tasks agencies with identifying barriers for members of underserved populations inside the federal workforce, which include employees with disabilities.

Accessibility managers think about those barriers every day, but the recent executive order forces all of government to consider how the federal work environment — from the digital tools agencies use to the physical workspace — can best meet everyone’s needs, including employees with disabilities.

“In this room we’ve always talked about the lifecycle of accessibility,” Carr said. “Accessibility needs to be incorporated from the beginning. DEIA embraces that, but it also says we need to do that across the board with all our partners.”

“This information is not new to us, but it’s an opportunity to embrace a different way of starting to include everybody,” she added. “We have some more power behind us.”

To build more successful and inclusive accessibility programs, agencies say they’re building partnerships with IT, acquisition, human resources and legal staff throughout their organizations.

“From a technology perspective, we can’t simply deploy shiny new systems and call it modernization. We have to modernize the workforce, to include accessibility right up front in the design phase,”  Bobby Duffy, chief information officer for the MSPB, said. “From a business perspective and from a process perspective, it’s important that we identify work flows and work streams and use cases that [make] 508 part of that discussion. For better customer support and for more of an automated trail, it helps build in collaboration right from the beginning.”

The MSPB is in the middle of modernizing nearly a dozen systems, including its 12-to-13-year-old online appeals filing system and a new secure file sharing program.

To share files with other organizations, the MSPB had to burn case documents onto a CD and mail the disc to the district courts, the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies — until recently.

When evaluating and vetting possible vendors for the new file sharing program, Duffy brought the MSPB’s accessibility program manager, Dennis Oden, into the process.

The two worked with the MSPB budget and acquisition offices to include 508 compliance language into the contracts for the new file sharing system. They’re replicating that process as they adopt a new modern e-appeals system.

“We are in a multi-year, multi-step process, that I know can’t come soon enough for a lot of folks in our agency, to completely overhaul and revamp the entire e-appeals system,” Oden said. “That’s not limited just to how it looks for folks on the outside but also for employees on the inside as well. We are taking every step we can to make sure that 508 is baked in all the way from the very get-go.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found similar success in building a better partnership between its accessibility and acquisition programs, said Mark Urban, the section 508 program manager for the agency.

“That conversation led to us reviewing almost 20,000 different acquisitions for, I think last year it was $16.2 billion,” he said. “We got [our] eyes on at the beginning of projects and the beginning of expenditures to identify potential risks and have engagements with the projects and programs.”

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