Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) Think Tank Meeting Proceedings Report

December 13, 2017 · Washington, DC

Executive Summary

On December 13, 2017, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) hosted an in-person meeting of the PEAT Think Tank with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Jennifer Sheehy at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC. PEAT designed this invitation-only event to refine its efforts and explore key issues related to accessible workplace technology, from identifying ways to increase the hiring of people with disabilities to closing the accessible technology skills gap.

The 63 participants represented the diverse perspectives of employers, technology developers, universities, and tech users with disabilities in rich facilitated discussions and working groups throughout the day. For the first time ever, the event also included an accessibility “TechTalk” with Federal Government leaders from numerous agencies. See the Appendix for a full list of attendees.

Key Recommendations

The Think Tank meeting generated several tangible ideas for PEAT and the accessible technology community to consider. Based on an in-depth analysis of those insights, PEAT distilled a set of key recommendations that PEAT, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the General Services Administration (GSA), and other organizations can use to help prioritize new and existing efforts around accessible technology and employment.

At-a-glance, these recommendations are as follows:

Closing the Accessible Technology Skills Gap

  • Scale existing programs such as the Teach Access model and other programs that can teach students and apprentices key accessibility skills early in their tech educations. 
  • Create resources to help foster better education around accessibility for both students and existing workers, such as a searchable database of accessibility training programs and profiles of developers that illustrate how accessibility acumen can advance someone’s career.
  • Provide policy support to incentivize accessibility skills-building, such as the creation of an accessible technology apprenticeship designation and the development of vocational rehabilitation (VR) incentives for skill development.  ​

Expanding Government Apprenticeship and Workforce Programs for People with Disabilities

  • Create new approaches that can expand upon traditional programs, such as disability apprenticeships and hiring programs modeled after successful Veterans programs; initiatives that encourage virtual internships and apprenticeships; and cohesive training programs that offer transferrable skills and/or credentials across industries. 
  • Provide policy support that can advance the necessary changes, such as reciprocity of Uniform State Standards and licensures; apprenticeship programs that are pathways to return to work; disability benefits reform; public-private partnerships around disability employment; and strengthening of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. 
  • Raise awareness about accessible technology and the skills and talents of people with disabilities through catalogs of best practices, stronger rating programs for exemplary businesses, and national public education campaigns.    

Encouraging Accessible Technology​

  • Create resources to advance the creation and adoption of accessible products, such as tools that document who is responsible for what in the accessibility ecosystem; guidance on best practices related to accessibility in an agile environment; and repositories of companies and consultants who specialize in accessibility.
  • Provide policy support that encourages the development of accessible products, such as a shift in focus from accessibility compliance to the principles of the Section 508 standards, and requiring companies of a certain size and scope to have an accessible technology policy for the products they sell. 
  • Raise awareness of the importance of accessible technology among IT decision-makers within companies, and encourage peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and holistic approaches to accessibility that span both internal and external efforts.

This report outlines the ideas put forward during the Think Tank event, and the process that ultimately led to them. It concludes with an expanded outline of the above recommendations.

Meeting Highlights

The meeting kicked off at 9:00am with welcoming remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary Sheehy. In addition to thanking the event hosts, organizers, attendees, and refreshment sponsor, she provided background on PEAT and explained the purpose of the Think Tank. She then introduced PEAT Project Director Josh Christianson, who helped facilitate a day of solutions-oriented brainstorming.

Attendees were seated at round tables in groups of approximately eight, with several individuals joining remotely via video teleconference. The groups were assigned a variety of break-out exercises throughout the day.

Exercise #1: Facilitated Large & Small Group Discussions

The facilitators explained that the day’s exercises and activities were designed to explore three key questions:

  • What can PEAT do to support hiring and training people with disabilities in the technology sector?
  • How can PEAT support bringing more accessible technology skills to the marketplace?
  • How can Think Tank organizations leverage DOL programs, such as apprenticeships, and what else can DOL and other agencies do to provide support?

To help spur discussion around those issues, the facilitators asked six of the Think Tank attendees to highlight some of their own relevant efforts:

  • Jeff Wieland, Facebook: Wieland described the Teach Access initiative (teachaccess.org)—a partnership of leading tech companies (like Google, Intuit, Adobe, Yahoo/Oath, and Facebook) and universities (like the Cal State System, MSU, Stanford, and Olin). The initiative is addressing the accessible technology skills gap by creating models for teaching and training students in technology degree programs (CS, design, etc.). The initiative has already produced training materials for students (available online), run multiple university workshops to train professors, and will launch its first “Study Away” program for students in the summer of 2018. “Study Away” will bring approximately 40 students to Silicon Valley to learn about accessibility and inclusive technology.
  • Patrick Romzek, Cisco: Romzek described the award-winning Cisco LifeChanger program, developed by Cisco employees with a passion for inclusion and innovation, and a strong desire to break down employment barriers for people with disabilities. LifeChanger has developed novel applications for Cisco’s voice, video, and collaboration technology, and combined them with process improvements to transcend location, accommodation, and mobility issues. As a result, more than 100 people with disabilities have been able to seamlessly join teams and contribute value at Cisco.
  • Tim Bomke, Amazon: Bomke, who is Amazon’s military programs manager, discussed the importance of IT apprenticeships, and his efforts to help launch the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA) and more recently, Amazon’s Vets program which helps transitioning service members secure IT training (and now apprenticeships). He also discussed Amazon’s partnership with Apprenti, a program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute.
  • Roxann Griffith, U.S. Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS): As a Regional Veterans Employment Coordinator based in Texas, Griffith works with multiple tech companies to build programs that help facilitate the employment success of Veterans through apprenticeships. She cited the natural synergies between VETS and ODEP, and the importance of apprenticeship programs to help close the skills gap.
  • Jennifer Carlson, Apprenti: Carlson, Apprenti’s co-founder and executive director, discussed her organization’s leadership in the area of technology apprenticeships, and Apprenti’s efforts to attract and serve diverse talent pools. The program is increasingly focusing on how to better incorporate people with disabilities as potential area for growth.
  • Ather Sharif, EvoXLabs: EvoXLabs is an initiative dedicated to bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities. It researches and develops universally designed tools to improve web accessibility, and runs a variety of hackathons and other projects. Sharif discussed the importance of using open source technology in the pursuit of better competence around accessibility, and the need for education since people simply aren’t aware of accessibility’s importance.

Think Tank attendees were then asked to engage in group discussions about the ways their own efforts intersect with the themes of the day. Highlights from the report-outs included the following:

  • One table remarked upon the great diversity of individuals in the room who hail from private sector companies to academia to federal agencies.
  • Another table pointed out the importance of teaching accessibility throughout the education lifecycle—in middle school, high school, college, post graduate work, and in the vocational trades.
  • One table discussed ways to leverage the different programs that have been addressed by PEAT’s dialogues. They discussed the importance of mentoring apprentices who understand accessibility and encouraging them to challenge their own organizations. They also wondered what we can learn from skills training models in other fields and in various institutions, including historically black colleges.
  • One group emphasized the need for company hiring managers to know about the inclusion and accessibility resources available to them.
  • Another attendee talked about the ways that technology has dehumanized human resources. We need to let job applicants with disabilities present their whole selves and not be judged by what a screening algorithm spits out.

Exercise #2: Challenges and Solutions

Following a short break, the facilitators asked attendees to work in their small groups again. Each discussed what they perceive to be the greatest challenges in the area of accessible workplace technology advancement, and then they focused on solutions to those challenges. During a report-out period, representatives from each table shared the following possible solutions:

Pressure on the Vendor Community. One group focused on the accessibility challenges that come with IT products purchased from external vendors. We have a collective responsibility to put pressure on the vendor community and “hold their feet to the fire” by demanding accessible products. (Another table later added to this point, stressing the need to hold vendors responsible, and to put pressure on assistive technology providers to make workarounds easier.)

Awareness Campaigns. Another group noted the general lack of awareness and comfort with employees with disabilities. Citing the success of disability employment awareness campaigns in Spain and other countries, the group expressed desire for a broad campaign featuring public service announcements (PSAs) and success stories about people with disabilities at work.

Stabilizing the Workforce Entry and Return-to-Work Process for People with Disabilities. For many Americans on disability benefits, there are disincentives to seeking or returning to employment. Coming off of benefits (and going back on them, if necessary) requires numerous administrative hurdles, attorney fees, and more. This group wondered how can we stabilize this process and make it easier for people to get back into the workforce.

Developing Accessibility Competencies and Universal Design Standards. Another table talked about the lack of truly compliant systems and technologies in the marketplace—a challenge that can be solved by developing accessibility competencies and a universal design mindset.

Making Accessibility Accessible. The final table referred to “Bob the CIO” across the street, who can serve as a persona for those outside the accessibility “choir.” People new to accessibility consider it to be a daunting, onerous thing, and CIOs need to feel comfortable about starting an accessibility journey. The group identified two core issues: how can we make accessibility an easier issue to engage in, and how do we convince people that “getting better” is just as important as making it perfect.

Exercise #3: Presentations to DOL Leadership

The facilitators distilled the morning’s discussions into four focus areas as follows:

  • Closing the Skills Gap: Given the shortage of accessible tech skills in the marketplace, how can we expand accessibility knowledge among developers, designers, and programmers?
  • Strengthening Apprenticeship Programs: How can we grow/expand traditional apprenticeships and job training programs to advance people with disabilities?
  • Rethinking Workforce Development Programs: Beyond traditional, registered apprenticeships, what are some new ideas for apprenticeships and other job training programs that could be focused on people with disabilities?
  • Encouraging Accessible Products: How do we encourage technology developers to build tools that are more accessible—and adopt accessible workplace tools and eRecruiting technologies to meet the needs of those who haven’t yet been hired?

The facilitators then asked attendees to self-select the topic they wished to tackle, and then break into groups to brainstorm solutions. Then, following a lunch break, each group presented their ideas to a panel of leaders from various Federal agencies. Panelists included:

  • Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (DOL/ODEP)
  • Dominic Sale, Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Government-Wide Policy, General Services Administration (GSA)
  • Daniel Villao, Deputy Administrator, Office of Apprenticeship (DOL)
  • Nathan Cunningham, Policy Advisor (DOL/ODEP)

Group 1: Closing the Skills Gap

Group 1 shared several ideas with the panel for expanding accessibility knowledge among technology professionals:

  • Learn how to scale the Teach Access model and offer students opportunities for “study away” job experience programs in Silicon Valley tech companies.
  • Determine how to take Teach Access model and curriculum and expand it to current employees at tech companies who don’t have accessible tech skills
  • Create a repository of companies and consultants doing accessibility work.
  • Collect and showcase examples of accessibility driving innovation; i.e., products originally designed for people with disabilities that now benefit everyone. This will demonstrate the large-scale impact that budding technologists can make by embracing inclusive design.
  • Maintain a searchable database of accessibility training programs of all shapes and sizes.
  • Develop and promote profiles of developers that illustrate how accessibility acumen can advance someone’s career.

Panelist Questions/Discussion:

  • In the “study away” model, could additional pools of job trainees be considered (such as apprentices)? And could it be done virtually? Could such a model be valuable in younger talent pipelines (e.g., high school age students)?
  • Not all employees have time to commit to a full training program, so the idea of a database featuring flexible accessibility training formats and programs is a good one.

Group 2: Strengthening Apprenticeship Programs

Group 2 shared several ideas with the panel related to the expansion of apprenticeships and other programs to accelerate employment for people with disabilities:

Apprenticeships:

  • Fund and create more awareness about the value of apprenticeship programs, and boost accountability around them. (In the United Kingdom, all companies must offer apprenticeships or pay a fine. Could we consider a similar model?)
  • Apply reciprocity to Uniform State Standards and licensures. (Currently, licenses for nurses, teachers, electricians, and others apply only in one state. Can we explore universal licenses and certifications, which hold great promise for people with disabilities?)
  • Encourage virtual apprenticeships, which offer greater flexibility.
  • Promote inclusive apprenticeship programs that are more welcoming of people with disabilities.

Employer Hiring:

  • Model disability hiring programs after successful Veterans hiring programs (e.g., the HIRE Vets Medallion Program which recognizes employers for Veteran-friendly hiring practices).
  • Simplify, broaden, and make permanent the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
  • Expand and innovate around the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).
  • Strengthen Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which holds certain government contractors to key standards around disability inclusion.
  • Increase employer accountability around employing people with disabilities.
  • Execute programs that encourage small businesses to hire people with disabilities.
  • Focus on eliminating barriers, creating incentives, building the right skill sets, and making it easy and inexpensive for employers to invest in this untapped talent pool.
  • Share best practices and guidance through ODEP and others.

Awareness:

  • Launch a public awareness/PSA/ad campaign showcasing what people with disabilities bring to our workplaces (such as the successful ad campaign in Spain).
  • Create brand awareness through certifications or inclusivity ratings for exemplary businesses. (This would be similar to the Disability Equality Index, but higher-profile—like a TripAdvisor rating for top companies.)
  • Rebrand apprenticeships, and emphasize that they extend beyond the traditional trades, such as plumbing.

Skills:

  • Incentivize, support, and replicate alternative education models that can train people with disabilities to match employer demand.
  • Engage candidates in apprenticeships before they graduate; if there’s a known job on the other end, this will boost participation.
  • Offer vocational rehabilitation (VR) incentives for skill development.
  • Allow candidates to “double dip” on disability benefits for as long as they need to, and let them re-enroll and get back on benefits easily.

“Otherships”:

  • Encourage virtual internships and apprenticeships.
  • Incentivize and fund pathways to work and return to work (“return-ships”).

Panelist Questions/Discussion:

  • What kind of incentives do you mean? Experience has shown that C-level executives don’t have much interest in tax incentives for hiring people with disabilities. What will it take?
  • The employer rating is compelling. Many employers go to great lengths to avoid bad PR, shame, and/or fines. There also may be some application of this concept in RFPs, where certain organizations are only allowed to consider bids from certified companies. (This has worked with green environmental standards.)
  • Government agencies could benefit from an awareness campaign about the Schedule A Hiring Authority, which allows agencies to directly hire people with disabilities.
  • With regard to employer accountability around apprenticeships, America doesn’t view apprenticeship the same way Europeans do. Our country may not be ready for taxes and penalties for not participating. However, a broad stakeholder education campaign would be a great place to start.

Group 3: Rethinking Workforce Development Programs

Group 3 shared several ideas with the panel related to new approaches to bridging the accessibility skills gap, beyond apprenticeships:

  • Look for ways to scale behavior change within hiring paradigms (i.e., look beyond the 4-year college degree standard). In particular, find ways to drive this change in companies from the top down.
  • Foster cohesive training programs. For example, create centralized certifying bodies so that skills are portable across industries. This takes the pressure off of employers who don’t always want to train and certify their own staff individually.
  • Consider public-private partnerships around disability employment. These ensure that companies have some “skin in the game,” while also receiving support and funding from the government so that they don’t have to bear the whole burden of managing a hiring program.

Panelist Questions/Discussion:

  • The group was asked whether it considered changes to traditional screening/admissions processes, which often weed out people with disabilities inadvertently. Members explained that they did, indeed, discuss changing the paradigm so that companies are screening for skills, not competencies.
  • Panelists agreed that it could be useful for DOL to do a review of innovative hiring/screening processes, and then share those best practices.

Groups 4 and 5: Encouraging Accessible Products

Groups 4 and 5 shared some ideas for encouraging technology developers to build tools that are more accessible—both for the marketplace and their own workplace. One of these groups illustrated their ideas through the acronym “PEST,” which stands for pressure, encourage, support, and test.

  • Shift the focus from accessibility compliance to the principles of the Section 508 standards, which frame accessibility issues in a much more positive light. Also encourage a systematic approach so that we’re improving systems, not making patchy fixes.
  • Shift the locus of responsibility from people with disabilities to the IT decision-makers. Currently, pointing out and solving accessibility shortcomings often falls on the individual, but it needs to fall on hiring managers, IT providers, etc. There must be supportive dialogues between vendors and employers, and we shouldn’t put tech users with disabilities in the middle of those discussions.
  • Showcase and leverage the experiences of accessibility exemplars. Learn from their example, and “shame and name” those who are doing well and not so well when it comes to inclusive tech.
  • Consider expanding the Disability Equality Index and other ratings to score additional accessibility criteria, including the accessibility of corporate intranets (which are often less accessible than public-facing websites).
  • Require companies of a certain size and scope to have an accessible technology policy for the products they sell, and hold companies accountable for it through audits. Such policies could be uploaded into a database and tracked. This would bake accessibility into the fabric of each organization and encourage best practices without “counting errors on a web page.” The plans would follow a maturity model and encourage continuous improvement, and they would offer an opportunity for small start-ups that are versed in accessibility to compete with larger companies that may not be.
  • Focus inclusiveness and platform development efforts and solutions on both consumers and internal operations, so that accessible products also translate into hiring and supporting employees with disabilities.

Panelist Questions/Discussion:

  • While systematic change is good, those in the workplace accommodations space would argue that individual productivity enhancements do work, and often can drive a more systematic approach. So, it’s about both system-wide changes and accommodations at the user level. As one participant put it, individual accommodations can “sit on top of” systematic improvements.
  • Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing can be highly effective. In the apprenticeship space, the “Leaders Program” fosters experience sharing and encouragement among businesses.
  • Businesses don’t seem to change unless they are incentivized to do so. The group discussed whether a carrot or stick approach works better with regard to accessibility practices, and most agreed that it takes both.
  • The model policy requirement is an interesting idea. Questions were raised over who would do the auditing.

Exercise #4: Accessibility TechTalk with Federal Leaders

Following a break, numerous representatives from various Federal government agencies joined the group, and GSA’s Dominic Sale moderated a discussion around several questions. Paraphrased highlights from the discussion included the following:

Question 1: Why does universal design matter and how can it drive citizen engagement?

  • Universal design is essential to driving modernization. If you design something correctly, it will have the broadest set of applications and be usable by everyone.
  • When GSA embarked on the journey of cloud modernization, there was renewed focus on user centric design. Refreshingly, the concept of accessibility and Section 508 compliance is more commonly being considered at the beginning of the product development process.
  • Trends in universal design extend far beyond the government. Every social media company is doing exactly the same thing to optimize usership.
  • Research is an important part of building accessibility into the development lifecycle.
  • We are still failing at accessibility, and we need to focus on why we fail. Why do we have to keep teaching new developers about accessibility?
  • The government’s dependency on legacy systems makes it harder to make progress on accessibility.

Question 2: How is the private sector approaching accessible workplace technology and what are some leading practices?

  • Even for exemplars, accessibility is a process. One attendee shared his company’s lofty goal of making all homegrown and vendor-specific applications accessible by 2020, along with progress percentages. The company still has a long way to go, but is still willing to be open about it. And the lesson is that organizations should not be afraid to share their successes and challenges and hold each other accountable.
  • Accessibility councils can be effective in the private sector. In one company, such a council grants the accessibility lead valuable access to half of the organization’s C-level executives on a monthly basis.
  • We need to be asking how companies can share their leading practices with the general public. The growth of technology has been spurred by open source, and that same principle should apply to accessibility.
  • Some of that open sourcing is happening. One attendee is working with W3C to bring standards to leading companies such as Airbnb, Salesforce, etc. Best practices are housed in an Accessibility Toolkit.
  • For the most part, word of our work around accessibility is not getting beyond “the choir.” We need to be targeting the next generation of developers.
  • Partnerships are key and should be more common. Microsoft recently partnered with Accenture to have its employees test Office 365, which was a great approach to enhancing usability.

Question 3: What's the future of accessibility in government? What comes after Section 508?

  • Lack of enforcement of Section 508 remains a challenge.
  • Government modernization has been a real challenge. Things that start out accessible become inaccessible when they need to be maintained for too long.
  • The Section 508 refresh is an opportunity to get to some specific, user need-driven approaches.
  • We should equip disability organizations with knowledge and support around accessibility since they have a key stake in the process.
  • It’s important to pay attention to the speed at which technology is changing, and what it takes to ensure products are born accessible and stay accessible.
  • We need agile, living standards to ensure that emerging technology keeps up. And managers must pay attention to virtual reality and other emerging tech since innovations that begin as entertainment often move into the workplace.
  • We must keep core principles in mind throughout the entire ecosystem of an organization. Inclusiveness in general can foster accessibility. People with disabilities are watching with a refrain in their mind, “Nothing about us, without us.” So, include people with disabilities in your product development.
  • What we deem to be accessible also means usable. Instead of 508 being the finish line, it’s the starting line. The goal is to get to usable, delightful experiences—not to meet a standard.
  • “Getting beyond 508” is important, but don’t skip the starting line.
  • Older adults who may develop disabilities are part of this discussion. Good accessible design benefits everyone.
  • We’ve got to change the conversation. Accessibility is part of IT modernization, security, universal design, and user experience—it’s not a bolt-on; it should be baked in. If government spent a tenth of what we spend on cybersecurity on accessibility, we’d be well on our way to a more accessible government.

Question 4: What are the potential risks and benefits of future technologies (AI/Machine Learning, Mixed Reality, etc.) for people with disabilities?

  • What’s driving tech innovation is the desire to improve the lives of users (e.g., to reduce their workload).
  • Technologists try to design with cool technology once they learn about it, and open source and programs like Trusted Tester can help speed the process.
  • It’s amazing that something as simple as keyboard access continues to be an issue in many applications. Why is something so simple still a fight? It stands to reason that if you test for keyboard accessibility in any new product or application, you’ll probably catch about 80% of use cases for accessibility.
  • “Smart home” environments, self-driving vehicles, and other emerging innovations present a new set of accessibility challenges. There’s a lack of process to review these innovations for accessibility across modalities. What does it take to support accessibility? Is there such a thing as a seamless accessible experience?
  • When considering the Internet of Things and other advancements, there’s often an assumption that tech will solve a lot of issues. But there’s no consideration that it will meet the individual user’s need for access. For instance, over the next five years, more and more alt text will be (poorly) auto-generated, leaving us with an over-reliance on technology that’s not effective.

Question 5: How do we integrate accessibility into standard workflow? Agile methodology?

  • Agile is a methodology for developing quick programming in short bursts, and it has pros and cons for accessibility. On the one hand, work is segmented and accelerated, so accessibility can fall to the back burner. On the other hand, depending on how it’s performed, agile can result in engineers not signing off on code until it’s accessible, which can be a great thing.
  • Industry has had to move to agile to stay relevant and competitive. And now, policy making will need to move to an agile take-up of standards so that there’s no massive lag. W3C wants to brainstorm on this topic and learn how government can take an agile approach to accessible standards work.
  • Adopting agile will not solve issues magically, but it will allow you to have a thoughtful conversation about how to improve your process. Issues that took months to come up will now come up sooner.

Closing Exercise #5: Takeaways

Following final group discussions, attendees were asked to share something they learned during the meeting, and/or something they want to do different tomorrow. Paraphrased statements included the following:

  • I’m concerned about the hazards of ethics and biases. With the move toward machine learning, someone will be programming machines to make decisions for you.
  • Private industry is facing a lot of the same challenges as the government. I was surprised to see the large number of companies that are making accessibility a key priority. I would love to see artifacts and policies from these companies, and have other forums to engage with industry. I’d also like to rebrand the scope of the program to think about accessible IT serving not just people with disabilities, but also the needs of seniors, plain language goals, etc. Let’s make the mandate broader and more about universal access.
  • There’s been a lot of conversation today that needs to continue. How far we’ve come since my early days of making IBM DOS accessible!
  • With regard to the agile development discussion, it’s clear that we need to: 1) better manage the acquisition of informal and decentralized technologies with regard to accessibility conformance beyond technology-specific standards; 2) help create accessible architectures so people know how to build innovations into systems; 3) increase automation of accessibility testing and better integrate users to ensure quality of implementation; 4) leverage the collective work of industry to pressure vendors to make sure there's a full suite of accessible workforce tools to support agile workers; and 5) ensure all the players and agile development teams have at least some foundation of accessibility knowledge so they know what each other is talking about.
  • As an open question, we need to think about how we’ll implement some of these things. The majority of the government’s IT budget goes toward maintaining legacy systems, which presents challenges to doing technology the right way. It’s challenging to find the right resources, and we often need to make tradeoffs. So, we need a roadmap for how to keep the ball moving forward in constrained environments.
  • I’m struck by the support and connection I’ve found in this room. Today has been among the most powerful discussions I’ve had in 15 years of working on this issue. Instead of getting stuck on issues of stigma and discrimination, we’ve moved the discussion forward today toward technology and innovation. We’re not stuck on fear-based thinking. Can we please keep this going? Because we finally have gotten to a place where we can make it work.
  • What’s clear is that PEAT is able to pull together a terrific group. I would say to DOL and others, I hope you’re hearing that we need to continue these conversations. I had skepticism of PEAT at the start, but I’m really impressed by the progress made.
  • I thought it was a great day, with a great group of folks committed to the same mission. We should be talking to each other more. You’re trying to drive the strategy on the government side, and on the industry side, we are, too. We should be collaborating more, and we don’t necessarily need meetings like this to do it.
  • From the Department of Labor side, there is more you can do to continue to provide leadership and highlight best practices. There’s so much more that can be done. Many employers are happy to share and learn from our mistakes. The rising tide lifts all boats.
  • The private sector and government sector need to talk about accessibility in a more cohesive way. Today we sit 35 days out from the 508 refresh. If we’d had this conversation two years ago, there would be no ground for commonality. Today, we’re getting closer to speaking the same language. It made me optimistic, and I loved the sense of collaboration today.
  • We need to keep doing this and make sure we have a space for this kind of collaboration. PEAT is willing to keep this up. From a DOL perspective, we need to look at Administration priorities and shape PEAT’s work accordingly. For instance, we can tie apprenticeships to technology and show that accessibility is a workforce issue.
  • I want to spread the word about what we did here today. And I encourage everyone to look at Section508.gov and give us feedback.

Conclusion & Recommendations

This year’s Think Tank attendees contributed a wide range of insights and recommendations that PEAT, DOL, GSA, and other organizations can use to help prioritize new and existing focus areas in the near and long term.

One of the primary Think Tank recommendations was for PEAT to continue its work around stakeholder engagement. Citing the value of the day’s event, several attendees expressed a desire for PEAT to continue convening diverse groups to collectively work toward shared goals around accessibility and the employment of Veterans and people with disabilities.

Based on the insights and ideas gathered during the event, PEAT has compiled the key recommendations below, which are segmented into three main categories:

​Closing the Accessible Technology Skills Gap

  • Scale existing programs
    • Scale and expand the Teach Access model to address the skills gap by offering students opportunities for “study away” training and job experience programs with tech companies.
    • Consider expanding this model to include not just college students but other pools of job trainees such as apprentices, and also making it available virtually. Another option is to look into whether this model would be valuable in younger talent pipelines such as high school students.
    • Explore expanding this model/curriculum to current employees at tech companies who lack accessibility skills.
    • Work with colleges and universities to expand curriculum to include accessible technology skills.
    • Conduct a national survey of companies to document the full extent of the accessible technology skills gap.
  • Create resources
    • Maintain a searchable database of accessibility training programs, from apprenticeship programs to just-in-time trainings that are launched immediately prior to usage.
    • Document and promote profiles of developers that illustrate how accessibility acumen can advance someone’s career.
  • Provide policy support
    • Create an accessible technology apprenticeship designation.
    • Explore offering vocational rehabilitation (VR) incentives for skill development. Create incentives, support, and replicate alternative education models that support training people with disabilities to match future employer skill needs.​

Expanding Government Apprenticeship and Workforce Programs for People with Disabilities

  • Create new approaches (which may require policy changes)
    • Model disability apprenticeships and hiring programs after successful Veterans apprenticeship and hiring programs. Offer similar incentives to employers.
    • Create programs and incentives that encourage more small businesses to create apprenticeships and hire people with disabilities.
    • Create programs and resources that encourage virtual internships and apprenticeships, with a specific focus on people with disabilities.
    • Create programs to engage candidates in apprenticeships before they graduate; if there’s a known job on the other end, this will boost participation.
    • Develop cohesive training programs. For example, create centralized certifying bodies so that skills are portable across industries. This takes the pressure off of employers who don’t always want to train and certify their own staff individually.
  • Provide policy support
    • Apply reciprocity to Uniform State Standards and licensures.
    • Incentivize and fund apprenticeships that are pathways to return to work (“return-ships”).
    • Allow candidates to keep disability benefits for a transition period into work, and simplify the process of getting back on disability benefits. This approach will encourage more people to seek apprenticeships and employment.
    • Consider public-private partnerships around disability employment. These ensure that companies have some “skin in the game,” while also receiving support and funding from the government so that they don’t have to bear the whole burden of managing a hiring program.
    • Simplify, broaden, and make permanent the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
    • Expand employer incentives through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
    • Strengthen enforcement of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which holds certain government contractors to key standards around disability inclusion.
    • Increase employer accountability around apprenticeships and employing people with disabilities, similar to the incentives required in many other countries worldwide, such as the UK.
  • Raise awareness
    • Resources
      • Catalog best practices in hiring people with disabilities from across DOL workforce programs. Also review other general innovative hiring/screening processes. Share these practices and corollary guidance documents on how to implement similar programs successfully across industry.
      • Create resources that can raise awareness and scale behavior change within the traditional hiring paradigms (i.e., look beyond the 4-year college degree standard or screening for competencies not skills). In particular, find ways to drive this change in companies from the top down. Focus these resources on company decision makers and the C-suite.
      • Develop an inclusivity rating program to create brand awareness for exemplary businesses focused on things like hiring practices, accessible product development, etc. Consider creating a certification or “seal,” which could be used by buying organizations to help review vendors.
    • Campaigns
      • Launch a general public awareness campaign showcasing what people with disabilities bring to our workplaces.
      • Launch a public awareness campaign on the value of apprenticeships with a focus on technology (broaden perception of apprenticeships). Consider branding tech apprenticeships separately from other apprenticeships.
      • Create a campaign and resources focused on promoting inclusive apprenticeship programs for Veterans and people with disabilities in the tech industry.
      • Launch a federally-focused awareness campaign about the Schedule A Hiring Authority, which allows agencies to directly hire people with disabilities. 

Encouraging Accessible Technology​

  • Create resources
    • Create a resource that documents who is responsible for what in the accessibility ecosystem. Such as, what is the role of leadership, HR, compliance, vendors, supply chain, regulators, etc. Provide resources to support each part of this ecosystem.
    • Bring together a working group and develop resources and guidance on best practices related to accessibility in an agile environment.
    • Document who is doing accessibility well through a repository of companies and consultants.
    • Collect and showcase examples of accessibility driving innovation; i.e., products originally designed for people with disabilities that now benefit everyone. 

  • Provide policy support
    • Shift the focus from accessibility compliance to the principles of the Section 508 standards, which frame accessibility issues in a much more positive light. Also encourage a systematic approach so that we’re improving systems, not making patchy fixes.
    • Require companies of a certain size and scope to have an accessible technology policy for the products they sell, and hold companies accountable for it through audits.
  • Raise awareness
    • Shift the locus of responsibility from people with disabilities to the IT decision-makers.
    • Encourage companies to share and document progress toward accessibility. Create a forum for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.
    • Consider expanding the Disability Equality Index and other ratings to score additional accessibility criteria, including the accessibility of internal systems such as corporate intranets.
    • Encourage companies to take a holistic approach with their accessibility efforts by focusing on both internal operations and external customer-facing efforts, which will in turn support hiring and recruitment efforts for people with disabilities. 

PEAT looks forward to continued collaboration with partners and stakeholder to act and build upon the insights gleaned during the Think Tank.   

Appendix 

PEAT Think Tank Meeting Agenda 

8:45 – 9:00am: CHECK-IN 

9:00 – 9:30am: WELCOME & CONTEXT

Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy, Department of Labor (DOL) and Josh Christianson, Project Director, PEAT

9:30am – 12:00pm: FACILITATED SMALL AND LARGE GROUP DISCUSSIONS

PEAT leaders will facilitate discussion about what Think Tank organizations are currently doing to hire more people with disabilities. We will also discuss:

  • What can PEAT do to support hiring and training people with disabilities in the tech sector?
  • How can PEAT support bringing more accessible technology skills to the marketplace?
  • How can Think Tank organizations leverage DOL programs, such as apprenticeships, and what else can DOL do to provide support?

12:00 – 1:00pm: LUNCH ON YOUR OWN

1:00 – 2:15pm: PRESENTATIONS TO DOL LEADERSHIP

Think Tank participants will present ideas generated from the morning session about how to increase the hiring of people with disabilities and close the accessible technology skills gap. Participants will highlight innovative solutions currently happening in the private sector as well as focus on how DOL and other agencies can serve as catalysts moving forward.

2:15 – 2:30pm: BREAK

2:30 – 4:45pm: ACCESSIBILITY TECH TALK WITH FEDERAL LEADERS

Leaders from across federal agencies will join the Think Tank for an open discussion led by Dominic Sale, Deputy Associate Administrator, Information Integrity & Access, GSA.

Topics for discussion include:

●      How is the private sector approaching accessibility and what are some leading practices?

●      What's the future of accessibility in government? What comes after Section 508?

●      Why does universal design matter and how can it drive citizen engagement?

●      What’s the potential of AI, VR and machine learning for people with disabilities?

●      How do we integrate accessibility into standard workflow?

4:45 – 5:00pm: CLOSING REMARKS & NEXT STEPS

5:00 – 6:30pm: NETWORKING RECEPTION (optional) 

PEAT Think Tank Participant List

Think Tank Meeting Attendees

  1. Lori Adams, Policy Director, National Association of State Workforce Agencies     
  2. Paul Albano, Sr. Manager, Integrated Marketing, Canon USA          
  3. Matt Ater, General Manager, The Paciello Group
  4. Cathy Bodine, Associate Professor, Department of Bioengineering, University of Colorado
  5. Tim Bomke, Military Programs Manager, Amazon                
  6. Kent Boucher, Senior Director - Accessibility Program Office, Oracle (remote participant)
  7. Judy Brewer, Director, Web Accessibility Initiative, W3C/MIT       
  8. Mary Brougher, EVP, Bender Consulting Services, Inc.       
  9. Jennifer Carlson, Executive Director & Co-Founder, Apprenti        
  10. Josh Christianson, Project Director, PEAT               
  11. Nathan Cunningham, Policy Advisor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, DOL                
  12. Ted Drake, Principal Engineer, Accessibility, Intuit (remote participant)   
  13. Eric Duffy, Director of Access Technology, National Federation of the Blind              
  14. Dan Ellerman, Inclusion and Diversity Senior Manager, Accenture                
  15. Toby Erickson, Sr. Director, Accessibility, Comcast             
  16. Larry Goldberg, Senior Director, Accessible Media, Oath
  17. Lori Golden, EY Abilities Strategy Leader, EY           
  18. Roxann Griffith, Regional Veterans Outreach Coordinator, DOL   
  19. Dean Halstead, Director, Collaboration, Cloud & Accessibility, Microsoft                 
  20. Brian Horn, Chief of Staff, USBLN                 
  21. Ronald Johnson, Senior Advisor, Diversity & Inclusion, Wireless Infrastructure Association
  22. David Jones, Workforce Analyst, Employment and Training Administration, DOL
  23. Jeff Kline, Accessibility Program Director, Texas Department of Information Resources (remote participant)
  24. Dana Marlowe, Principal Partner, Accessibility Partners, L.L.C.
  25. Shannon Offord, Director, Strategic Partnerships & Alliances, DirectEmployers Association
  26. Sassy Outwater-Wright, Director, Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired
  27. Michael Reardon, Supervisory Policy Advisor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, DOL
  28. Patrick Romzek, Executive Consultant, Cisco Systems       
  29. Joiwind Ronen, Strategic Consultant to PEAT, Ethos Strategic Consulting
  30. Carolina Rossini, Global Connectivity Policy, Facebook   
  31. Paul Schroeder, Director, Public Policy & Strategic Alliances, Aira               
  32. Ather Sharif, Founder and Researcher, EvoXLabs
  33. Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy, DOL
  34. Roger O. Smith, Director R2D2 Center/President, UW-Milwaukee/RESNA
  35. Kate Sonka, Assistant Director of Academic Technology, Michigan State University               
  36. Daniel Sullivan, Vice President, AudioEye                
  37. Shea Tanis, Associate Director, Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities              
  38. Corinne Weible, Deputy Project Director, PEAT
  39. Jeff Wieland, Director of Accessibility, Facebook (remote participant)       
  40. Jay Wyant, Chief Information Accessibility Officer, State of Minnesota (remote participant)
  41. Joe Zesski, Program Manager, Northeast ADA Center (remote participant)                 

Other Department of Labor Staff                

  1. Tiffany Boiman, Director, Office of Policy and Programs, Women’s Bureau               
  2. Joan Farrelly, Deputy Director, Women’s Bureau                 
  3. Carolyn Jones, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Youth Policy Team
  4. Carolyn Renick, Program Analyst, Office of Apprenticeship              
  5. Daniel Villao, Deputy Administrator, Office of Apprenticeship      
  6. Taryn Williams, Lead, Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Youth Policy Team                

Accessibility TechTalk with Federal Leaders (afternoon session)

  1. Bruce Bailey, IT Specialist, U.S. Access Board         
  2. Robert Baker, Director Section 508 Governance, DHS       
  3. Randy Cooper, Director, Policy and Programs Diversity Management & Equal Opportunity
  4. Scott Cory, Chief Information Officer, Administration for Community Living, HHS                
  5. Kathy Eng, IT Accessibility and Assistive Technology Specialist, DOJ
  6. Shawn Garmer, 508 Program Manager, SBA           
  7. Sarah Griswold, Manager, Eagle Hill Consulting
  8. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Technology Officer, SBA          
  9. Allen Hoffman, Deputy Executive Director, Office of Accessible Systems & Technologies, DHS
  10. Stephen M. King, Director, Office of Accessibility & Accommodation, Department of State
  11. William Lynch, Assistant General Counsel, HUD
  12. Norman Robinson, Accessibility Division Chief, U.S. Department of State
  13. Dominic Sale, Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Government-wide Policy, GSA    
  14. Akanksha Sharma, Acting Chief Enterprise Architect, GSA
  15. Jessica Sharma, Consultant, Eagle Hill Consulting
  16. John Sullivan, Program Director of Government-wide IT Accessibility Program, GSA            

Categories