Improving Accessibility for Intel Community Employees with Disabilities

October 2019
Topics: Human Resources Management, Human Factors Engineering
The U.S. Intelligence Community recognizes the value of a diverse employee population, including people with disabilities. MITRE is helping key agencies improve their accessibility with new, more intuitive technologies.
Man looking intently at a computer.

Imagine having a job you've always wanted, but not being able to do it because the computer systems prevent you from doing so. The systems do not work with screen readers, will not allow you to use the keyboard to navigate, cause headaches or seizures, or are designed to prevent you from concentrating. 

These and other challenges are the reality of what people with disabilities often face. But MITRE is helping several agencies in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) achieve their commitment to hiring and retaining more people with disabilities.  

"The IC recognized that often new employees with disabilities—or existing employees who become disabled—were waiting too long for accessible systems that would let them do their jobs," says Rachael Bradley Montgomery, a former MITRE human factors and accessibility engineer. (Note: Montgomery recently joined another firm, but still consults with MITRE.)

"This also made it harder for them to transfer to new positions,” she says. “And that's counter to the culture within the agencies, where people often change roles every few years and gain new experiences." 

Montgomery and other MITRE engineers began with one agency in 2012 and have helped create an approach to enterprise accessibility that is being adopted across the IC.

Don't Make Assumptions

"You don't want to make assumptions about what people with disabilities can and can’t do," Montgomery says. "I've been really impressed with how much can be done with imagery, mapping, and search applications. Blind analysts can often read through data faster than sighted analysts if the system is built to support them."

She says that while one might assume that people with sight impairment or blindness couldn't research visual data. But that's no longer the case, as new innovations allow tactile exploration and "sonification," which assigns tonal values to data and plays the chart or graph.   

The MITRE team worked with vendors such as assistive device company Freedom Scientific to help define good solutions for a wide variety of challenges and worked with the agencies to set up program offices to implement these solutions. These included changes within applications and content, such as making it easier for those with impaired motor skills to use their computers without a mouse, exploring captioning solutions for multimedia, and ensuring systems work with screen readers.

Strong Capabilities in Other Areas

"The agencies are focusing on hiring and retaining more people with disabilities—and not just because it's the right thing to do. They recognize that the diversity of people with disabilities often means they have strong capabilities in other areas that can be powerful assets."

For example, Montgomery says people with cognitive impairments often offer significant strengths.

"There's a huge range of processing difference and neuro diversity. Somebody who has had a head trauma may find they are easily distracted by moving carousels on a website but can otherwise think quite clearly.”

"And those on the autism spectrum often can bring tremendous focus to bear on challenging problems. In fact, many private companies like Google and Microsoft recognize this and are making efforts to recruit people on the spectrum."

Identifying the Right People to Address the Problem

The MITRE team helped the agencies both at the enterprise and implementation levels. This included reworking the standards, doing outreach across the government to gain lessons learned, and helping with acquisitions. 

"Often what we do is identify the right people to address a problem. It could be a vendor or someone doing in-house development. We also bridge across other MITRE projects such as our work on captioning and support to the Federal Communications Commission.

The team also focuses on helping the IC implement the newest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which came out of the World Wide Web Consortium, of which MITRE is a founding member.  Montgomery and her team helped integrate these into the development, requirements, and acquisition processes.

"The IC has been proactive adopting the newest version of the standards, even though they were not required." Her team worked on a pilot study to determine the best ways to incorporate and test these new guidelines.

"We helped them use the standards effectively and ensured that they could track changes over time—and we can now measure an increased number of applications working towards accessibility and show an improvement for all applications we're tracking.

"Plus, we've been able to share our learning about greater accessibility for people with disabilities with other sponsors in the IC."

—by Bill Eidson

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