Technology is a powerful thing. When applied to how we work and play, it has the ability to optimize, accelerate and transform. Innovations that come to the market universally designed allow all of us to benefit immediately. But when those same tools − such as software, computers, online applications and mobile devices − are not accessible, they exclude key segments of the population, negatively impacting some people’s employability and opportunities for career advancement.
As a long time user of assistive technology, I’ve watched this conundrum play out time and time again. I’ve experienced the frustration of technology that is not accessible; but, on the flip side, I’ve seen how accessible technology can empower all of us to excel and fully participate – at work and in life.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking about the state of disability employment in America and accessible technology’s potential to enhance workplace inclusion at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, hosted by the California State University of Northridge (known as CSUN). I shared how my agency, the Office of Disability Employment Policy, is establishing a Accessible Technology Action Center to address the regrettable shortage of universally designed technology in the workplace.
I also spoke about the exciting new ways my agency is harnessing technology to transform the nature of federal policy development itself. For instance, ODEP has created an online, collaborative workspace called ePolicyWorks, which empowers national experts to work with us to shape policy and address specific barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities, including inaccessible technology.
We’ve also been exploring the power of Web-based crowdsourcing tools and online dialogues to save costs and expand the range of input we receive on various issues. In the process, we’ve been able to test the functionality of these tools, and then work with their creators to improve the accessibility and usability of the tools’ features. This work is already paying off, with ODEP planning to roll out a new template through ePolicyWorks that our partners can use to host accessible and inclusive online dialogues.
In addition, ODEP is working closely with the General Services Administration to tackle accessibility issues related to social media content, including creating a toolkit related to this issue. We are actively seeking suggestions for making “tweets” and other social media posts accessible. To share your ideas and learn more, visit HowTo.gov/Social-Media.
All of our initiatives have something in common: proactive engagement with the technology community. Instead of waiting around to see whether technology manufacturers build accessible collaboration and workplace technology, we are providing them with tools they need to do so up front. We are also testing the accessibility of their existing tools, and then working with their developers to troubleshoot their accessibility challenges. These companies seem ready and willing to make the needed improvements, and the results will speak for themselves: new and improved accessible technology applications that can be used as tools for inclusion so that all users can participate. It’s a process I hope others will replicate.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.