1999 Conference Proceedings

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Gary R. Day
Computer Programmer
National Security agency
Fort Meade, Maryland

Christopher Murphy
Computer Programmer
Columbia, Maryland


Rapidly changing information technology, together with the ever increasing requirement for information access, is posing some major job performance obsticles for persons with disabilities. Even with the wide variety of assistive hardware and software that is currently available from commercial vendors, an extensive effort is still required on the part of many employers to make their information technology infrastructures accessible via assistive equipment. That is especially true of government agencies and large private sector employers who develop their own software applications for information access.

Further, the installation and configuration of assistive products for use with compatible applications often requires the efforts of a professional system integrator. The National Security Agency (NSA) facilitates access to its information technology infrastructure by employees with disabilities, through the agency's Center for Computer Assistive Technology (CCAT) and project Clearpath.

The CCAT is a show case for the latest assistive technology and provides one stop shopping for employees with disabilities. It is a center where employees can come in and evaluate assistive products for use in their own work environments with agency software applications. The CCAT attempts to meet the needs of a number of at risk groups including those who are blind, deaf and hard of hearing, motion impaired, and those with learning disabilities.

The CCAT manages project Clearpath, a project that is designed to facilitate accessibility of the agency information technology infrastructure, and to provide direct user support for agency employees with disabilities. To meet its goal, project Clearpath is comprised of the following major efforts:

1. Facilitating the Development of Accessible Software

The interoperability of assistive hardware and software with software applications is a very nontrivial problem that requires a good deal of attention on the part of software developers. Many legacy applications developed at the agency prior to the advent of project Clearpath have presented our employees with disabilities with some serious access problems because accommodation was not incorporated into the design of the applications. By providing professional guidance in thedesign of new agency applications, project Clearpath is facilitating incorporation of platform independence and accessibility into the design and implementation of new agency applications.

2. Direct User Support

The integration of assistive hardware and software for use in an employees automated work environment is a very nontrivial job that requires the services of ADP professionals with expertise in system integration. Project Clearpath provides direct user support for installing and configuring assistive hardware and software in user's work environments.

3. Interim access to legacy applications via the development of alternative interfaces.

Prior to the creation of project Clearpath, a major source of inaccessibility to agency applications arose due to the agency's establishment of UNIX workstations running X windows as the foundation of its information technology infrastructure. Historically, developers of disability technology have focused their efforts on the PC market, and have ignored the UNIX/X-window market. To ensure accessibility of new applications, the members of project Clearpath are assisting agency software developers with the design and implementation of platform independent applications in the Java programming language.

Platform independence will allow employees to access the new applications from alternative platforms equipped with assistive hardware and software. In addition, we are providing direct access to the new Java applications by integrating speech access into the applications via the new IBM Java screen reader toolkit.

By working with IBM and following their guidelines, the Clearpath project has successfully integrated the first real world application with SR/J. The application is a database client that allows users to issue queries as well as modify and delete data. The data itself represents information about segments of audio. Based on the content of the data, users decide which audio segments they wish to hear. When a selection is made, the user is presented with a GUI that allows them to control the playback of the audio. The audio is then streamed across the network and played on the user's workstation.

Sun's Java Foundation Classes (JFC) comprise a rich GUI toolkit that provides a common look and feel across all Java platforms. To achieve this common look and feel, the rendering of GUI components is done in Java, and not by a native windowing system, such as X Windows or Microsoft Windows.

Thus, Java applications utilizing the JFC pose difficulties for traditional screen readers that derive accessibility information from native windowing components. To address this limitation, the Accessibility API was built into the JFC. This API provides a new level of accessibility where assistive technologies can directly query applications for information.

The IBM Screen Reader/Java (SR/J) is the first screen reader to take advantage of the Accessibility API.

Pending the development of some new database interfaces, we have provided our blind employees with an interim solution based upon the Emacs editor. By developing an Emacs based database interface, we have provided our blind employees with a tool with which they can access agency databases from their UNIX workstations, and which provides a very fine speech interface via T. V. Raman's Emacspeak screen reader.

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