The National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence components are prioritizing a shift toward making their technology more accessible for employees with disabilities, spurred on not just by accessibility requirements but by workforce demands.
And intelligence community IT leaders have a message for the vendor community: take accessibility seriously when you develop products and services for spy agencies.
“Depending on how you count, something like a quarter of the U.S. workforce meets the qualifications technically to be considered to have a disability at any one time,” NSA Deputy Chief Information Jennifer Kron said at a Dec. 15 panel at the Defense Department Intelligence Information System conference in San Antonio, Texas. “That’s a major issue for us in the IC, if we want to be fully inclusive of our entire workforce, to focus on our diversity and our retention of our workforce, and to be able to make the most and to leverage the capabilities of all of our folks.”
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to use information and communications technologies that are accessible for people with disabilities. But intelligence agencies can skirt around those requirements by relying on an exception in the law for classified systems.
However, Kron said the NSA and intelligence leaders are now trying to flip the script on that loophole.
“NSA has said, ‘That’s not how we’re going to do it. We are going to be compliant,’” Kron said. “And we have strong support from across the entire IC from the leadership on down now.”
Defense Intelligence Agency CIO Doug Cossa said DIA has led the development of “IT accessibility standards” for the intelligence community, similar to how intelligence products are guided by analytic integrity standards.
“We’re holding agencies accountable for the technologies that they’re developing, and designing that in from the get-go,” Cossa said during a media roundtable at DoDIIS.
When DIA applied the standards to contracts and programs in development, the agency found more than 6,000 deficiencies, he said.
“We were able to catch them before we actually put them into the deployed environment,” Cossa said. “But it goes to show, in the IC, it traditionally hasn’t been at the forefront of our minds of developing technologies for those with disabilities.”
The percentage of persons with disabilities in the intelligence community has steadily increased over the past decade. In 2011, it was just 5.3% across agencies. In fiscal 2021, persons with disabilities comprised 10.9% of the workforce. But that still falls short of the federal goal of 12% set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A 2017 study on diversity and inclusion commissioned by the Office of Director of National Intelligence found technology was a key factor in the challenges faced by persons with disabilities throughout the intelligence community.
“CIA employees with disabilities reported that they are required to use a particular system on the job that is not compatible with assistive technology,” the study states. “Focus group participants reported slow updates and approvals for software that would allow persons with disabilities to better do their jobs. One focus group participant, for instance, reported that he/she is ineligible for further promotion because assistive technology cannot be used with a particular required system.”
The guidance directed intelligence elements to “endeavor” to buy and use Section 508-compliant systems. It also made the intelligence community CIO responsible for setting standard technology accessibility requirements and promoting the use of assistive technology.
The intelligence community CIO’s office now has a team “dedicated to helping integrate IT accessibility requirements into policies and practices that govern enterprise IT, supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, specifically addressing IT accessibility challenges,” IC CIO Adele Merritt said during the DoDIIS conference.
Program managers from across intelligence agencies are also convening through an “IC IT accessibility community of interest,” Merritt said.
“Making data accessible to the IC workforce is vital and supporting IT accessibility for people with disabilities is a high priority for my office,” she said.
A common shortcoming in technology that has been used by the intelligence community, Cossa said, is a computer program’s use of a stoplight chart, with its red-yellow-green format that doesn’t account for colorblind individuals, Cossa said.
“Some of these are minor tweaks,” he said. “But it’s going through that lens of looking at it as a visually impaired individual or a hearing impaired individual or any disability that we have to accommodate. It’s looking at it before we go through a [software] release and actually getting more so on the front end of when we design capabilities.”