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Fostering Digital Inclusion in the Federal Workplace: How Persons with Disabilities Use ICT

Persons with disabilities (PWD) face many barriers to accessing various types of information and communication technologies. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Assistive technologies can help many individuals with different types of disabilities access ICT. However, assistive technologies often also rely on technologies to follow code specifications, best practices and conformance to accessibility standards to work effectively for PWD. Developing accessible ICT to support inclusive environments for individuals with disabilities can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including computer-based and web-based accessibility applications such as screen readers, speech recognition, video communication (for sign language communication and video relay interpretation), voice to text services (such as open and closed captioning), and visual assistance. Accessible ICT can play a major role in the personal development and empowerment of PWD, in addition to being an institutional framework for inclusive development.

Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by The Rehabilitation Act, prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in the federal sector. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) final rule on January 17, 2017, titled Affirmative Action for Individuals with Disabilities in the Federal Government requires federal agencies take steps to hire more PWD and provide Personal Assistance Services (PAS) to individuals with targeted disabilities who need help performing basic daily activities. (82 FR 654).

The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Standard Form 256 (SF-256) identifies 12 categories of targeted disabilities:

  • Developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy or autism spectrum disorder
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Deafness or serious difficulty hearing
  • Blindness or serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses
  • Missing extremities such as an arm, leg, hand, and foot
  • Significant mobility impairments
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Psychiatric disabilities
  • Dwarfism
  • Significant disfigurement

Among permanent hires, the federal government exceeded its 2% goal in 2018 for hiring of people with targeted disabilities, but failed to meet the 12% goal for hiring persons with disabilities. The discrepancy points to an ongoing problem to hire PWDs more broadly. The federal government could get closer to meeting its inclusion goals by understanding how employees with disabilities use ICT now and in the future.

How Do People With Full and Partial Visual Disabilities Use ICT?

Approximately 2.2% of the non-institutionalized population in the U.S. identify as blind or visually impaired. People with full or partial visual disabilities use some of the following assistive technologies and methods to do their jobs effectively:

  • Speech output systems to read screen to text, referred to as screen readers
  • Refreshable braille displays to allow line-by-line translation of screen text on a display area, which can also be good for detailed editing,programming, etc.
  • Braille printers provide “hard copy” for blind users
  • Scanners with optical character recognition to read printed material and store it electronically so it can be used with speech synthesis or printed using braille translation software and printers
  • Large-print keytop labels, enlarging computer-generated content, adjusting monitor color and background colors, and using software to adjust light sensitivity

Without accessible ICT, people with full or partial visual disabilities face a variety of difficulties. For example, the top causes of frustration reported by people with full or partial visual disabilities when using screen readers include: page layout causing confusing screen reader feedback; conflict between screen reader and application; poorly designed and unlabeled forms; no alt text for pictures; and other common issues that include misleading links, inaccessible PDF, and screen reader crashes. In a study of 100 blind individuals, respondents reported losing, on average, 30.4% of time due to these frustrating situations.

How Do People With Hearing Disabilities Use ICT?

In 2021, 1.9% of the U.S. population identified as d/Deaf or hard of hearing. About two to four of every 1,000 Americans are functionally d/Deaf, with the majority aged 65 years or older. 52% of people with hearing disabilities are employed in the U.S., with 2% of federal employees reporting having targeted disabilities, including D/deaf and hard of hearing people.

People with hearing disabilities benefit from the following examples of accessible ICT and approaches:

  • Captioned video content and written summaries to supplement verbal conversation
  • Captioned or transcribed audio outputs
  • Increased availability of interpreters for those who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL)

People with hearing disabilities are also entitled to accommodations covered under Title I of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that include:

  • Amplified telephones and captioned telephones
  • Modifications to reduce ambient noise levels
  • Permission to bring service animals into the workplace
  • Qualified sign language interpreters for official agency communications, including discussions about training, work procedures, policies, assignments, and disciplinary actions

How Do People With Cognitive Disabilities Use ICT?

Intellectual Disabilities

About 2.5% of the U.S. population have an intellectual disability and comprise 0.4% of the federal workforce. People with intellectual disabilities may “face a greater disadvantage in their access to ICTs than other disabled populations.” Website designers often fail to consider people with intellectual disabilities when thinking about the accessibility of their sites. One of several ways to make a website more cognitively accessible is to use plain language, enabling people with intellectual disabilities better understand complex information.

Learning Disabilities

People with cognitive disabilities may have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions. They make up 12.8% of U.S. adults. People with cognitive or specific learning disabilities can benefit from the following tools and approaches:

  • List and time alert functions, including task prompting features, on a smartphone or tablet
  • Screen magnifiers, text-to-speech, and screen readers available on smartphones
  • Traveling assistance functionality on mobile devices such as global positioning, severe weather alerts, and the ability to sync to municipal transit websites that provide public transportation alerts
  • Augmented reality tools, which use a mobile device’s camera to create real-time views of a user’s surroundings and incorporate information from digital sources, like navigation aids and maps, to gain a better understanding of where a person is going

Psychiatric Disabilities

People with psychiatric disabilities comprise 0.56% of the federal workforce. These employees may experience functional limitations, such as sustaining concentration, maintaining stamina, handling time pressures and multiple tasks, interacting with others, responding to negative feedback, responding to change, screening out environmental stimuli, learning the job, and managing stress.

Federal agencies have many accommodations for people with psychiatric disabilities, some involve technology solutions and others are facilitated by policies governing accommodations. People with psychiatric disabilities can benefit from flexible workplace policies (telework), adjustment of work hours, sick leave related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, administrative lead for treatment of recovery, use of occasional leave for therapy and other related appointments, breaks, reduction of distractions in work area, soundproofing or visual barriers between workspaces, increased natural lighting, modification of job duties, division of large assignments into smaller tasks, additional training, and more.

How Do People With Mobility Impairments or Other Physical Disabilities Use ICT?

According to recent studies, people with motor disabilities make up 25% of the U.S. workforce. Physical and motor disabilities include any weakness or limitation that impedes movement. People with physical disabilities may benefit from some of the following tools and approaches:

  • Adaptive writing utensils, keyboards, mouses, and other modifications to physical workspaces to ensure access to computer technology
  • Rehabilitative technology to promote independence and decrease the need for other support

Raising Awareness for the Use & Application of Accessible ICT

Federal agencies have a responsibility to promote and adhere to Section 508 standards governing the access and use of ICT, which are essential to fostering a digitally-inclusive environment for PWD. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C § 794 (d)) to require federal agencies to make their ICT accessible, giving disabled employees and members of the public equal access to information.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to providing ICT and accommodations to PWD because the disabilities are so diverse. While this article does not address every barrier faced by PWD, detailing the broad range of ICT used by these current or future federal employees increases the awareness of the major role ICT plays in their day-to-day functioning and work experience.

If you are an acquisition professional, consider accessibility from the beginning of any agency purchase. If you are a developer, use and develop technology that conforms to Section 508 standards. If you are a designer, consider universal design principles and methodologies to help create products that are accessible for all users. If you are a content creator, ensure that the content you create meets Section 508 standards. Everyone deserves equitable access to the digital tools and assets necessary to perform their jobs and participate in their work cultures, and disability inclusion is key for any agency committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility missions.

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Reviewed/Updated: September 2023

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