2004 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 


SIMPLE STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING AN ACCESSIBLE WORKPLACE FOR BLIND EMPLOYEES

Presenter(s)
Kelly Bleach
Director, Information Systems
American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
Telephone: 212-502-7710
Email: kellyb@afb.net
Website:
http://www.afb.org

Vita Zavoli
User Support Specialist
American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
Telephone: 212-502-7666
Email: vita@afb.net
Website:
www.afb.org

Introduction

The IS department plays a significant role in providing equal access to information across the organization. An important lesson learned via first-hand experience is that accessibility solutions need not be complex. AFB has incorporated some simple strategies that make a big impact toward providing an accessible workplace and equal access to information.

Information in Alternate Formats

HTML:

The vast majority of AFB's information is available via an employee Intranet. Almost all information is distributed to employees electronically, by email and/or the Intranet site. The interface is clean and follows good principles of accessible web design. This is simplified by the fact that we know what browser and screen reader our employees are using.

AFB's Intranet site is the central repository for the employee handbook, the office procedure manual, job postings, forms, and a number of "fun" areas. For instance, the organization has a recognition program called Bravo awards, where employees can formally thank one another for their assistance or contributions. Via the Intranet site, employees can complete a simple Bravo award form; when submitted, a copy of the Bravo appears on a page of the website and a copy is emailed to the recipient with a link to the online award.

The employee Intranet has been so successful that, more recently, we introduced a Board of Trustees Intranet site. All Board materials are available via this site, including budgets, meeting minutes, travel request forms, and contact lists. Almost all of our Board members receive their advance materials for Board meetings via the Intranet site; very few members request print or audiotape materials instead.

Electronic Documents and Email:

Memos to employees or collaborative documents are most often created and distributed electronically. AFB has incorporated accessible design guidelines into application training to introduce employees to simple concepts that result in creating spreadsheets, tables, and presentations in an accessible manner. Applications are also installed with standard configuration features that aid in the development of accessible electronic information, such as sending email messages in text rather than HTML or using "straight quotes" instead of "smart quotes." Guidelines for creating accessible documents are also posted on the Intranet for quick referral.

Braille:

AFB provides Braille materials, as a matter of course, for information such as presentation materials and employee contact lists. These are also available in electronic format. For complex documents, employees trained in Braille production use Duxbury software to format and translate materials for printing on a Juliet Braille embosser. For simpler documents, such as meeting agendas, employees have Winbraille installed on their computers so that simply choosing Emboss instead of Print will send the document to the Index Braille embosser. This provides a quick and easy way for employees to provide Braille agendas or meeting minutes without needing to learn Braille translation software.

Audio:

In some cases, audio format may be the preferred method for disseminating information. Teleconference and voice mail are commonly used, particularly since we have offices around the U.S. In some cases, an employee might prefer to review a document that has been audiotaped; this is a choice available upon request but, since the wide availability of electronic information, it is used less frequently. Another choice available to users is the ability to send and receive email via telephone; in some cases, this is a popular option for employees who travel frequently. In keeping with the spirit of equal access, AFB's employee book club chooses titles that are available in both print and audio formats.

Computing Resources

The IS department tests and configures every office desktop and laptop computer in a way that will provide easy computing for all employees, including those who use screen reader software. As a standard, every pc has JAWS installed so that a user can either use the software in demo mode to perform short administrative tasks or can quickly install the JAWS authentication key to that pc for longer term use. This also provides mobility for employees so that anyone can sit at any pc and have an accessible work space.

AFB's user group, the Information Systems Advisory Committee (ISAC) consists of a rotating group of computer users from across the organization. We look for employees with a variety of skill levels, representatives from regional offices, and employees who use a variety of applications, including assistive technologies. Together we research and test best solutions for the suite of standard applications to be used at AFB and we discuss and test configurations that address the usability of the software. For instance, we created a custom global view, as an option, for the Outlook Exchange calendar that was most usable for individuals using a screen reader. In fact, we test and document every potential setting in office applications to try to optimize the usability for all employees and these settings become a standard part of the software installation process. Other configuration solutions involve equipment configurations, such as purchasing computers with dual-channel sound cards and speakers with headphone jacks, and network settings, such as implementing roaming profiles.

The IS department and the ISAC evaluate the accessibility of AFB's standard applications but there are often requests for additional software applications that are specific to the needs of particular departments. AFB employs guidelines for departments who wish to request an accessibility evaluation of a proposed software application. A checklist was developed to identify and document the accessibility and usability of an application's interface. From there, a brief report is issued, detailing the degree of usability and, if deemed "not accessible," what might be done to sufficiently improve the interface. If an application does not meet approved standards of accessibility, the department must show that the software is a business necessity and that there are no reasonable alternatives. In this case, the CEO evaluates the available information and issues a decision on whether or not to approve the application for use. Beyond that, a regular review of the software and possible alternatives is scheduled to account for changes that might positively affect the availability of an accessible solution.

Training

Training encompasses both general staff training, generally managed by AFB's Human Resources department, and computer training, managed by the Information Systems department. In all cases, materials associated with the training are available in accessible formats. Supplemental materials, such as tutorials from the IS training and development library, are made available in a variety of formats as well; some materials may be print books but there will be an equivalent audiocassette tutorial available as well.

AFB's IS department often develops its own in-house mini sessions on topics such as Office XP and the Windows OS. Most sessions are inclusive, since they convey information on both mouse-clicks and keyboard commands. If an application will be used very differently with a screen reader (such as the calendar view in Outlook), additional sessions that focus specifically on keyboard commands and usability tips are offered as well. All sessions also incorporate strategies for creating accessible materials; for instance, a PowerPoint training curriculum will point out that text boxes that are inserted will not be readable, whereas text that is entered via choosing the correct slide format, will appear in the outline view and can be read with a screen reader.

Conclusion

AFB's goal is to be a model of accessibility in the workplace. Towards this end, the IS department continues to test and implement user solutions that are useful for the entire computing community. A cleanly designed Intranet page, complete with alt-tags, is universally appreciated by computer users. The important point to note is that good standards and practices may not be onerous or expensive, but can make a significant difference in making the workplace available and inviting to all employees.


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.