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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act: A Program with Heart

A photo of Helen Chamberlain.
Disability.gov article by Guest Bloggers Helen Chamberlain, Program Director of Section 508, and the General Services Administration Team
A Growing Need
More than 60 million Americans are classified as having a disability; about 19 percent of the total population. More than 50 percent of those Americans with disabilities are in their working years (ages 18-64).(Census)
The federal government is the largest employer of Americans with disabilities and with that comes the responsibility of ensuring equal access to opportunities and information as put forth in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. With our world and workforce becoming increasingly virtual, we rely more and more on technology to ensure those with disabilities are woven seamlessly into the rapidly diversifying fabric of our labor force.
The Section 508 program is at the forefront of this effort, ensuring that agencies are informed about and have access to technology that makes it possible for people with disabilities to not only do their jobs, but also excel at them. As the chief advocate and coordinator for Section 508 implementation, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Office of Government-wide Policy (OGP) provides accessibility solutions to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities. People like Rita. 
Rita’s Story
A photo of Rita Harrison, a woman who is blind walking with her guide dog Emmett.
Rita is a 508 coordinator with a disability and a federal employee who has benefited from this focus on a technologically accessible workplace. Rita was born with an eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and has been visually impaired all of her life. Though RP raised many obstacles, she faced the biggest one of her life in 2001 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her chemotherapy treatment left her blind, but she survived. She says of the experience, “My view is, “I’m a breast cancer survivor” and losing my vision was a very small price to pay in exchange for my life, which I cherish and enjoy very much to this day. I’ve learned to never take life for granted because I’ve come to realize the present is a gift and I may not have tomorrow!”
We tell Rita’s story because she is thriving in her work as a federal employee, made possible because of Section 508. “I think it’s great we now have all these avenues that weren’t available to me as I was growing up,” Rita says. “It’s because of reasonable accommodations and Section 508 that I find myself where I am today, which is the 508 coordinator for a federal agency. Because I not only talk the talk, I walk the walk and my agency is walking right alongside of me.”
A Passionate Program
Helen Chamberlain, the government-wide section 508 program director at GSA, is known for her engagement and development of the federal 508 community. “Section 508 has been my passion for many years, and as the GSA/OGP federal government representative, I have been able to share my knowledge and experiences and provide a forum for the Section 508 community to make sure every federal employee and the public have access to all the information and resources the federal government has to offer.”
Helen’s goal is make sure that accessibility is “built in, not bolted on” to electronic and information technology (EIT). That’s a lesson the federal government is taking to heart by making sure that all EIT, which is purchased or used, is accessible to everyone. A key step to improving access happens during the procurement process. Here, Helen and her team help agency acquisition officials in developing Section 508 requirements. The 508 Program at GSA provides valuable tools at BuyAccessible.gov, including the BuyAccessible Wizard and Quick Links tools, which can develop Section 508 requirements and contract language.
Getting Results
Rita’s accomplishments of overcoming multiple obstacles to become a successful 508 coordinator show the individual results Section 508 can have. Katherine, the 508 coordinator at the National Science Foundation (NSF), has seen a lot of organizational success engaging people with disabilities through the support offered by the GSA program. “Through knowledge gained from Section 508 trainings and individual research, I have been able to help NSF increase engagement for both employees and the community at large by counseling them on ways to conduct more accessible meetings. Consequently, a large number of NSF’s outreach information sessions now include online participation via WebEx with real-time captioning (at a minimum), accessible presentation files available to attendees in electronic format, onsite sign language interpretation and assistive listening device systems.”
Katherine has also seen enhanced recruiting efforts that included using accessibility and virtual technology to conduct candidate hiring interviews with remote applicants (with and without disabilities), which limits the need for candidates to make multiple trips to NSF. As a result, several employees with disabilities, including veterans, have been hired.
Every new 508-conformant procurement, service or innovative tool that provides better EIT access to persons with disabilities is a tremendous accomplishment and validation that the lawhelps federal employees and fellow citizens. And as you can see from stories like Rita’s and Katherine’s, the 508 program has both a personal and organizational heart.
If you are an accessibility specialist who has ideas on how to improve accessibility of federal EIT, please share your best practices and implementation approaches via the Request for Information on FedBizOpps. For news and more general information related to Section 508, visit Section508.gov. Anyone with questions concerning Section 508 can contact Helen Chamberlain at GSA or the respective agency’s Section 508 coordinator.
For more from Disability.gov, visit: https://usodep.blogs.govdelivery.com/

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