Transcript of PEAT Talks: Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month with Maria Town, Senior Associate Director for the White House's Office on Public Engagement. Recording date: October 20, 2016.


Thank you for coming to PEAT talks, our virtual speaker series from the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. We do this talk every third Thursday of the month. Generally speaking, PEAT talks showcases a variety of organizations and individuals whose work and/or innovations are advanced in accessible technology in the workplace. 

Today we have a special guest and a special topic on our NDEAM, which will introduce shortly. But, first, from logistics my name is Josh Christianson. I'm the project director for PEAT, and I will be hosting today's talk. Before we get started, I'd like to quickly review some of the logistics. 

So we will, number one, definitely have time for Q&A. We'd like to make this interaction. So you can use the chat function on Adobe Connect to type your questions in there. We may take them as they come in, but I will definitely save some time at the end of the event so we can have some questions and answers with our guests, so please use the chat window there to type in your questions. 

You can also use that window if you have any technical difficulties. We will do our best to resolve any of the issues and answer questions you have there. You will see on there some instructions and directions already. You can download today's PowerPoints right now if you're having any difficulty you can go to,, and we have a link in the chat box and get the PowerPoint now to follow along, but we'll also send out an archived recording of this that will be posted online following our event. 

So we'll also be tweeting, live tweeting today's events. So our account is @peatworks, p-e-a-t-w-o-r-k-s, and feel free to join us. You can join in there, add you thoughts, comments, put in some questions, and you can follow the whole conversation and thread if you just search for the hashtag peattalks, that's with two Ts, p-e-a-t-t-a-l-k-s, #peattalks, and please put any comments and questions. Use that hashtag and we can follow along the conversation there. 

So without further ado, we're very glad to have you here today for this special PEAT Talks webinar to celebrate ending National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Today PEAT is pleased to welcome Maria Town, the senior associate director for the White House office on public engagement. In her role there, Maria works to engage the disability community and coordinate engagement amongst various federal agencies. Maria previously served as a policy advisor for the Youth Team of PEAT's very own U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability and Employment Policy. So many of the folks on our team are familiar with her previous work, and we're really glad to be joined by her today. 

Again, we'll be doing a question-and-answer. We've come up with some ideas and questions I thought would be interested to the PEAT office and those joining. She'll be talking about the important work that the current administration has done to promote the use of accessible technology in the workplace. Nationwide we'll be talking about how we can promote diverse workplaces year round. So very important topic, so we're looking forward to diving into it, and I want to encourage you all to chime in on the chat box and put your questions in there. 

One more plug before we get to Maria. Many of you may know on PEAT, also, in honor of NDEAM, we have an online dialogue that's going on, that's really about accessible technology in the workplace. If you went to our webpage, you would see it's one of the top items on our website, and it will take you to the online. You can vote up, vote down ideas. Give your own ideas. We're really pushing the dialogue, trying to see what can the Department of Labor do to raise accessible awareness about accessible workplace technology. So, please, you've got one day. It closes at the end of this week. So today or tomorrow get online, give us your ideas, vote for the ideas you think are strong so that ourselves, Department of Labor, or other folks in government might be able to use this as a positive piece to really push this issue along. 


So long introduction. Without further ado, we will get started. Are you ready, Maria?

I am. I'm so excited. 

Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. I'll ask a few questions, and if we get some that are typed in the box, we might chime in for those, or I'll save some audience questions at the end. But, first and foremost, in honor of NDEAM, what is your office doing? What have you seen around the White House to honor National Disability Employment Awareness Month? 

Absolutely. Well this conversation is a part of our National Disability Employment Awareness Month activities. But after stating the obvious, just yesterday the White House had an internal National Disability Employment Awareness Month event for employees, because although I'm in the Office of Public Engagement, so I do a lot of external-facing events, the White House is a federal employer, and we have our own kind of employee interest groups and employee special programs.

So we had a talk from Paralympian Markeith Price, and he competed in track and field events in both the 2012 London and 2016 Brazil Olympics, and he talked about his experiences as someone with a disability participating in sports, someone with a disability and a student with a disability and employee with a disability, and one of the big takeaways that he had in his remarks that I just loved was that it's not that he can't do whatever he wants to do, it's just that he might need to do things differently, and he needs different tools. 

So one of the things that he talked quite a lot about was how assistive and accessible technology has advanced over the course of his lifetime, and he's fairly young. He's 26. So he talked in great detail about the magnifiers he used to have to use as a child and then talked about the technology that he uses on his mobile devices and various tablets that are just integrated into that design and how much easier it is for him to engage in his community and in the workplace using those tools, and even talking about running track and coaching, which, in some ways, is his job, the different skills and tactics he uses when doing that. 

And I think his message of I just need to do things differently and use different tools really resonated with the White House employees who attended the event and got them thinking more critically about other tools that employees with disabilities might use to be effective in their workplaces. 

In addition to that event, last week we collaborated with the Department of Transportation to commemorate the Air Carrier Access Act. And during NDEAM, I usually have two goals. One is to weave disability throughout enough, even if they are not disability focused, and two is to weave employment throughout all of the events that we do. And as you mentioned, I used to work for the Department of Labor's Disability Employment Policy, so I have a very strong bias towards the importance of employment, and it comes up in almost everything I do. 

And the Air Carrier Access Act is a piece of civil rights legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination when they are engaged in air travel. And for those with disabilities that fly, often we know that it can be a really tough experience, and there are so many people with disabilities who choose not to fly because they don't want to risk their tech, for example, getting damaged in the process. And for me — and this is what I talked with all of the airline carriers and the advocates about — this is a workforce development issue. 

Increasingly because of globalization and just the nature of work in the 21st century, our jobs, increasingly, require travel and air travel in order to be timely. And so if you are someone with a disability who has constraints around your mobility because you can't really fly, that is a workforce issue and it's particularly impactful for people who use assistive tech. And so I tried to make that point very clear during that event. Those are just two examples. 

A third one that I'll end on is last week we also hosted the White House Frontier's Conference. And this conference focused on science and technology and data and on frontiers in every definition of the word, so local frontiers, state-level frontiers, but also the final frontier in space. 

And one of our keynote speakers is an astrophysicist who is blind, Wanda Diaz Merced, and she lost her sight while she was studying astrophysics in college and talked to the audience about the ways and the tools that she uses in order to continue her work in astrophysics, which we would think of as very visual field. But she's actually able to hear patterns and stars that otherwise go unnoticed. And so what we were able to do is showcase just how people with disabilities can work in any field imaginable if they are given the right opportunity and the right tools. 

Those are three great examples. Thank you for sharing. And I definitely appreciate you harping on the lens of work in that, especially the second piece. We hear and see a lot around accessibility with the community, and something like air travel may just be seen as a personal choice or add on or best tip. But as you mentioned, it is a critical part to many people doing their job effectively, and we at PEAT always try to frame that as such, so I appreciate you bringing that lens. 

So switching gears a little bit, you're talking about people with various disabilities performing in their jobs. What advice would you give employees or employers who are working on making a business case for integrating accessible technology into the workplace? 

Sure. So the first thing that comes to my mind is that every single employee benefits from integration of accessible technology, and we have seen this over and over again with so many things related to disability, you know, whether it's curbs or door handles. I actually think about door handles quite a bit. Doorknobs, we wouldn't think of accessible technology in terms of what PEAT is talking about, but I work in a very old building. I work in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It was constructed in 1871, and so the majority of our doors are very heavy and use traditional doorknobs. They do not use lever handles. And one of my interns, an amazing intern, his name is James. James was born without arms. And so when we were going through his onboarding, my biggest concern was how was he going to be able to open the doors if we don't have an automatic opener on every door and we don't have lever handles. And lever handles are great example of, you know, employees carrying large packages or employees who bring their kids to the office, they need to get in and out easily, these handles are so much easier to use for everyone than a traditional doorknob. 

The exact same thing is true when we look at technology, and the example that comes to mind is texting and interoffice chat. Increasingly — and this includes the White House — you know, we're now able to use interoffice Skype on our computers to connect with our colleagues across the campus. When I worked at ODEP, I would often use interoffice chat to talk with my desk colleagues for whom I couldn't just pick up the call and say "Hey, let's chat about this for a second." Using the chat box was a much more accessible feature. And so there are lots of examples like that. 

And texting too, originally developed for the deaf community of technology that we think of in this kind of marked as technology for people with disabilities, but once we give it a chance to actually be used more widely, it winds up benefitting everyone. 

Thank you. I think there's a very valuable lesson. As you mentioned prime example for seeing that. And I definitely, through talking to some of the technology providers that are pushing accessible technology, which they've done some studies and showed that people that — all people of all learning abilities tend to use the tools if given the option to have, you know, accessible technology and some type of way they could tailor and navigate a webpage to their preference in a way that works best for them. Lots of people do, even those who don't identify as being people with a disability, and I think it is another prime example of just a better product and something that would work for everyone. 

And one of the things that I just want to add on this is, you know, demand can really drive innovation. And I think that there's so much accessible technology that is great and really does do a wonderful job, and if we have increased demand for that tech it can help drive innovation to make it even better. And so this is actually kind of the flip side of your question, which is what advice would I give to accessible tech companies to really push their products in workplaces for all employees. It's that let's create that demand so this technology can really get better for everyone. 

Yep. Yep. Thank you. Moving on. What have you noticed, as an employee, how accessible technology has incorporated into your workplace? You mentioned doorknobs and just kind of accessibility in a physical layout. But have you or your colleagues, or anyone, have you noticed kind of accessible workplace technology having an impact where you are? 

Sure. So the White House, as I mentioned earlier, it's an employer. We have an equal employment opportunity office and a whole kind of system for submitting requests for accessible technology, and then like, I think, most employers, there's always a little bit of a period of adjustment when you are using that tech in the workplace, so, you know, I'm going to talk a lot about interns, because the White House disability Outreach arm consists of myself and an intern. I've had interns who were blind and who used screen readers and other magnifiers. I mentioned James, who has no arms. For James it was not about getting additional tech but about setting up his tech knowledge in a different way. 

One of the big things that I've noticed across the White House is actually the use of more ergonomic office tools, whether that is a — I can't think of the word, but essentially an adjustable desk or a keyboard meant to adapt to someone who may have carpal tunnel, and I think what's been critical is making sure that all employees are acquainted with the process that they need to utilize to access the technology and making sure they're aware that of what their options are. 

Because one thing that I have found is that if employees are not told about options kind of during their onboarding process, there is a big gap, and often we get into a kind of situation where an employee, their work quality goes down or they may be in physical pain because the set up is not appropriate for them. 

And then there is other tech that, again, that I mentioned that all of the employees just use all the time. One is real-time captioning for our conference calls. This is something that I've been on a personal mission to improve within the Office of Public Engagement. I think people are now accustomed to me sending out an e-mail, you know, "Is your conference call going to be captioned," if I don't automatically see that link. And it has not only been beneficial for employees, but I've actually had advocates who work outside of the disability space e-mail me and say, "Thank you so much for the captioning on the phone call. It was so much easier to understand what was being said while I was listening during a busy workday." 

Yeah. I've definitely come to know the benefits of closed captioning through my work at PEAT. And on that issue, I would plug here we close caption all of our webinars. Sometimes the Adobe Connect is slightly delayed. But we did have the link up there at the top of the chat box, and you can go directly to closed captioning if for any reason people are experiencing too much of a delay there. 

Secondly, I would plug — it may not be the last time I plug it, Maria, but our online dialogue that's happening right now. You mentioned kind of bringing people on board and into the workplace and what they need to know and do, what their preferences are, what the options are. And that is one of the topics that's kind of like training and on boarding, what needs to happen around accessible technology, and what are the best ideas that Department of Labor could take and have an impact and make happen. So another plug for people to chime on their. You can find it through and get involved. 

Moving along, Maria, let's see, can you share with us some key initiatives or policies that the current administration has worked on to improve technology accessibility in all workplaces. 

Absolutely. One of the first ones that comes to mind are our various Connect initiatives. So these are initiatives focused on getting every community in the country connected to high-quality broadband Internet. And this may not be something that we usually think of when we go to accessible technology in the workplace; however, so many of our rural communities and communities that experience poverty don't have access to high-quality internet, and that creates huge barriers when it comes to information access and their ability to get work and to do those jobs. 

I always like to point out that people with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty. And if you look at kind of a map, a geography of poverty, you're going to see a higher incidence of disability in those communities. And so making sure that people can get connected to the internet in the first place is incredibly helpful to making sure they kind of can become aware of what their options are in terms of accessible tech, and so that all of the ways that we talk about the internet and the web, breaking down barriers for people with disabilities, particularly when it comes to doing things like teleworking, that's huge. That's enormous. And so we have done a lot of work in connecting — getting access to broadband internet in rural communities. 

We've also done a lot of work in making sure that libraries can get access to high-quality internet. And libraries are key places where people can go to look for jobs and to get support while searching for a job. Sometimes it might be a local community college library, for example, and ODEP has done some really great work looking at the nexus of American job centers and community colleges. And so with your question I instantly go to the work that we have done with those connect initiatives. 

One of the other really big barriers to accessing appropriate text for people with disabilities is just what kind of tech folks are able to get covered by insurance and by Medicaid and Medicare. And last year the President signed what's known as the Gleason Act for Steve Gleason. As someone who is originally Louisiana and Saints fan, I was very happy to see that this act passed. Steve Gleason was a Saints football player who, after he retired, was diagnosed with ALS, and very progressive ALS, and he decided that he would become an advocate to create opportunities for better technologies so that people like him could continue to lead facility wide. And the Gleason Act essentially creates better reimbursement coverage for speech-generating devices and more high-tech speech-generating devices. 

Very cool. Yeah, as not from Louisiana but a Saints fan myself, I remember what a great play he had, especially after Karina, and then I have since seen his great work around accessible technology, highlighted. Thank you for bringing that up that work. Let other people chime in. Go ahead. 

I mean, and lastly, I think if you look at all of the initiatives that we have really worked on to create better workplaces for women and families and our support of telework policies across the federal government as one example, that is one of the ways that we have really pushed accessible technology in workplaces as well. Telework and creating a solid telework infrastructure has really great benefits for people with disabilities, people with chronic health conditions, and then folks with families. 

Thank you. Skipped around here for sake of time. I do want to encourage people to put your questions in the chat boxes. We'll be moving to Q&A here shortly. What can employees with disabilities, employees and accessible technology experts do to ensure that the White House continues to make accessible technology in the workplace a priority? So I know you work with outreach in the community. What are tips and tricks for the public to stay engaged with the White House and continue to push this agenda? 

So this is a really interesting question, and it's a little tough to answer because of where we're at in the administration. I think we have 91 days left. We might have 90. I'm not sure. 

Sure. Yeah. 

And so a lot of this question will kind of depend on the next administration, and I'm not talking about who it is but the processes and the systems that they set up to engage folks. What I will say is that, in my experience in this role, it has been incredibly helpful when advocates send the White House information about current issues. So sometimes folks in my role won't know something is a problem until we're told, and then we can do the research to figure out exactly what's going on and identify a solution and a path forward. 

So for employees with disabilities or advocates interested in accessible technology, you know, sending the White House via even public inboxes, information about accessible technology solutions that need to be supported, innovative accessible technology practices, problems that you're having can help the White House continue to make this a priority. 

One of the things that happens on a daily basis is that the President reads ten letters a night from constituents who write to him. And the President gets so many letters every day, letters and e-mails, and now Facebook messages. If you haven't already messaged the President on Facebook, I highly recommend that you do so. And he gets ten a night, as I mentioned, and these ten are sent around two White House staff who are often tasked with helping a response if the President decides that he wants to respond. 

And one of the letters that we received about a month ago was from a young who was blind. And he wrote in his letter — and I don't have it in front of me so I may not get the quote exactly right. But people with disabilities should not have to pay thousands of dollars to perform a basic task that someone without disabilities can do for free. He's 17. I was just like, I wanted to meet him and give him a hug and just say, yes. But the President read that letter; right, and I just think that that was such a powerful tool to say this is a priority for the disability community. And I have to agree with the young man, he was so right. And I think continues to use these tools for engagement definitely helps set priorities. 

A great example of this is the "We the People" petition platform. And again, this is something that is unique to the Obama administration. So I'm not sure if it will continue in the next administration. But the "We the People" platform is a platform where folks can say we're going to petition the government to do XYZ. One petition was to build a Death Star, you know, as a tool to create jobs. And it if gets 100,000 signatures, the White House has to respond. 

There was a petition that was created by prosthetics kind of advocates and experts to change some of the policies that CMS was issuing around access to lower-limb prosthetics, so a form of assistive technology, not necessarily accessible workplace technology. And the petition received 100,000 signatures. And what we were able to do is, one, identify that this was an issue; but, two, the White House and CMS were able to work together to agree to form an interagency group that would begin to figure out better policies and practices for people who use lower-limb prosthetics. And so I would say keep all of that up. 

Thank you. That's good insight for whoever is there to see. Keep them informed and engaged. We had some questions come in, one says here, it's kind of how have accessible technology policies improved improvements and retention of employees with disabilities? And it also asks a follows up, is data available to support these policies and the increased employment rates of people with disabilities? And I'll take a first chop at it to say thanks for the question there, Candace. 

But we have on our PEAT website some information on what we call "TalentWorks," which is a resource we rolled out, which is really about how to make the recruitment and the e-Recruiting process accessible. And so that is one place people could go for ways they could definitely improve it. We talk about anecdotally on there what a difference it makes and how people of different abilities, it could definitely increase the retention. And then the on the second part of your question, as far as looking at the data, I don't know of any place right off the top my head that tracks specifically the policies to increase employment. 

I will say on ODEP's website there's lots of data around the current data around employment regarding people with disabilities. I will say on our website we have a PEAT talk by Denny Boudreau that is an accessibility technology programmer expert, and he talks about some data in there that kind of limits it for sure, looking at how inaccessible technology keeps people out. And so you can look at that. But I would love to — if anyone knows to share, if there is a place where they're tracking the implementation of policies and how that's impacted the data of services. 

And I would close just by saying, you know, part of PEAT's job and anyone's job is to push these policies through, and so we hope to get more policies in place that could have an impact. But with that, I don't know, Maria, if you know of any places that kind of — the policies that have improved it, and if there's a place that have tracked the data around that. 

So I completely agree with everything that you've said. I know that there's probably data around flexible workplaces and the technologies associated with that. So I think that might be one frame to look at for the data. 

Yeah, good point.

Another place where we might be able to track down some data is ATAP, which is — I'm going to get the meaning of the acronym wrong. I think it's the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs, and these are programs that are run out of states that help connect people with disabilities with accessible technology that they can use in their homes, in their communities, or in the workplace. And I'm looking at the chat and seeing that Corrine just posted some content that I believe answers your question. 

But to the broader implications of your question, I think the question about data is so important, and we — you know, I think of data as the clay that we use to create the bricks that ultimately build, you know, these more inclusive structures. And so I'll do some work around here with the White House data folks to see if there's particular data around accessible technology and retention and recruitment. And I think the PEAT resource that was referred to earlier about how to make sure that the e-Recruiting process is accessible is so critical and so important. 

I hear a lot of conversation, again, about how the Internet removes barriers for people with disabilities, but because of inaccessible websites there are still so many barriers that persist, particularly within job postings and job application sites. So we definitely know a lot about how inaccessible technology keeps people out. And in retention it's the same thing. If someone is not able to have the right tools to do their job they're certainly not going to be incentivized to stay. I'm just not sure about the data piece. 

Yeah. Thank you. Well if you hear of any and can share it, we'll do some research as well, and we could share it when we post this up or post it on our website. Anyone, I want to mind folks that PEAT is a very collaborative project and so if people know of resources they could send them to us at, and we could share with people as well. 

I see there's some plugging of a previous PEAT Talk we had. People are talking about some very exciting technology that could really impact the workplace and allow for folks — people with disabilities to thrive and excel with accessible technology, and so people are plugging that. 

We have time for maybe one or two more questions. So I'll ask one and see if we get one from the group. And it's really kind of a combination of the last two I was going to ask, which is really kind of one — part one is like what is an obstacle, one of the main obstacles to workplace technology being kind of fully implemented, and the second part of that, and the more important, is do you have any ideas of how we can really raise awareness for the need and implementation of accessible workplace technology? 

I think this is a great question. So for the number one obstacle — and I thought a lot about this — I think a huge obstacle is the lack of harmonization across systems and platforms. And as an example, if your time and attendance system in your workplace is not built thinking about which has 2.0 or 5.08 or other forms of accessibility standards and you have an employee who uses accessible technology like a screen reader or something like Dragon Naturally Speaking and those systems don't work together; one, I think it makes it incredibly difficult to implement as you're trying to kind of retrofit and hack these platforms; but, two, what happens is that an employer or manager is less inclined to try to utilize accessible technology in other areas of the workplace. And I just want to make sure — I said "hack" not "attack" on the caption. I don't want anyone —

Thank you for that correction.

Hack not attach. 

Yeah, we've noticed, definitely in our work, that interoperability, like the systems having to connect, you know, you could have accessibility maybe in both systems but then when it comes to them talking to each other, working together it can be really problematic. And you mentioned time and attendance. That's one of the biggest and broadest ones. We'll probably write a blog soon. 

But I was encouraged. I was out at the HR Tech Conference recently, and one of the largest payroll companies out there is launching a new platform to their clients. So they do payroll, time and attendance, but then it kind of goes into every technology that an HR office would use. And they are launching a new accessible platform so that it's not just that each piece is accessible individually but it's all on one platform. So that problem you mentioned around kind of harmonization and interoperability is solved, which would be a huge step forward. So they did a demo there, and I think they're kind of rolling it out and testing it. But that's an exciting progress in the field. 

And I think there are some lessons learned from the telecommunications industry, for example, about how we create that harmonization across all these platforms we're using in the workplace, because I just think it's such an enormous barrier. 

Yeah. I see we have some good input coming in on the chat window. And I encourage folks to take a look at what people are sending. We have some questions, too, that I don't know that we'll be able to get to or answer here, because where are a little bit over time already. But I would encourage people to continue the conversation.  

If you have questions about accessible workplace technology you can write us at If you have resources to share, we would love to see those too. I want to give a big thanks to Maria for joining us in celebration of NDEAM, and also for all of your strong work and advocacy work you've been doing with the White House and engaging the public, really appreciate it. I know we overlap in a couple different discussions, and I really appreciate the enthusiasm and smarts you bring to the issue. 


I want to thank everyone for joining us and hope you continue to celebrate NDEAM. And maybe my last plug of the day for our online conversation is really we've got the deputy secretary of labor involved. The Department of Labor wants to know what it can do to raise awareness around accessible workplace technology. And you can login, give your ideas, vote on ideas. And so please do that. We've got — it ends on Friday so get on out. It only takes a few minutes. And you can find that on our website 

Finally, before we bid ado, I'll just plug with you see on the slide here. We've got — next week we'll be talking about "Fostering a Culture of Inclusion and Accessibility in the Workplace," and that's with the chief accessibility officer of Microsoft. She's a dynamic speaker and an incredibly brilliant woman that brings a lot the passion to the conversation. So I would encourage you all to join us, as she is a joy to listen to. 

Finally, I just thank you, Maria. Thank you so much for making the time. Thank you for your efforts. Thanks for the White House for freeing you up. We really appreciate you joining us and sharing your perspective today. 

Thank you all for everything you do, and thanks for this great dialogue. 

All right. Great. Thanks, everyone. Have a good day.