While outlining the ways cloud technologies can help and hinder disabled persons' access to government information, the National Institute of Standards and Technology offered nine use cases that illustrate these challenges and potential technological solutions.

Unexpected software updates make it harder for the blind

Cora is a customer service representative in a specialized work group that covers income from foreign sources. She is blind from birth and uses a Braille display connected to her computer. Most of the information she handles shows up in specific blocks on the screen and she has learned the keyboard commands to give those blocks focus on the Braille display as needed. Unexpected software updates to the internal cloud application sometimes change the layout and cause the Braille display to lose focus. This requires some assistance from the IT support center to get her back on track; in the meantime her productivity is compromised. The IT support people have come to expect her calls whenever there is a software update. They serve other blind users, who use a range of screen readers and Braille output devices. Cora and her blind peers have tried to escalate this problem but have had limited success.

No resources to fix a fixable problem

Garrett is a wounded veteran with a moderate cognitive disability as a maintenance technician in a remote area. He drives between work sites and uses a mobile device that lets him navigate by GPS and retrieve his work orders through the company's app. Some work orders are confusing and he needs help. He must place a call to his supervisor and slowly read aloud the text of the order. The supervisor then explains the work order and occasionally must text him a complete, simplified order, in a regular text messaging app. Keeping track of the company's app and the separate text messages can be confusing as well, and makes Garrett's recordkeeping less accurate but it does let him get his maintenance work done. He and his supervisor talk about creating a simpler solution but they do not have any resources to develop software or even explore what their organization may already have that they could use.

Strict digital processes can hamper productivity

Deena is a program administrator at a federal contractor working on many projects with several agencies. She is an older worker and has been experiencing problems with her vision and memory. Her company and the multiple agencies she works with all use different management applications, some in the cloud and some not. She has trouble keeping track of her logins and passwords; she keeps a 'cheat sheet' in her desk drawer, which is against policy. She also has trouble copying and pasting information from an agency application into her company's management tool – the highlight color is yellow on a white background, which doesn't work for her. So she copies the whole page, pastes it into a word processor with higher contrast, selects the text she wants to copy and then pastes it into her company's tool. At the end of the day, she has many open word processor pages that need to be saved or discarded and this is very time consuming. She says "in the old days" most of her work was done by phone, informally checking in with her colleagues in the federal agencies she was working with but that nowadays there is a need to document everything, which means more typing and reading than she can easily do. She gets tired and has headaches many times during the week. She attended a workshop for low vision solutions such as larger or clearer monitors and high contrast settings a few years ago but did not follow up with her supervisor.

Bad captioning leads to confusion and missed opportunities

Roberto works as a statistical analyst. He is deaf and uses video relay and video remote interpreting to communicate with his workmates. His supervisor encourages him to use direct text instead whenever possible, for budget reasons. Roberto finds sign language to be a more effective form of communication. Some of the training videos he needs to use have poor quality captions with errors and the transcripts do not let him know what is being said at what part of the video. He and his deaf peers informally exchange information about good and bad captioning training videos; some admit that they choose what training they take based on the quality of the captions. A recent problem has been an increase in the use of telecollaboration for project meetings. Sign language is not available at all on these meeting calls. Real-time captioning (CART) is not always available and the quality is mixed. When it is slow or incorrect, he misses opportunities to ask questions or make comments. Moreover, when he is reading captions he occasionally misses some content of the graphs in the main part of the screen and has to review the recording of the session to catch up. Lately, he has been using his tablet to attend these sessions. This is good for his flexible schedule but he has to balance the size of the captioning and chat panes with the size of the text in the main content pane. Depending on the content, this can be problematic.

Some dragons shouldn't be slain

Virginia uses multiple applications plus email on a daily basis. Because of a spinal cord injury, she cannot use her hands for typing and has limited use of the mouse. She relies on Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech recognition system that lets her speak words to type and say commands to control the computer. Virginia's component is working with a cloud service provider who plans to provide software-as-a-service and to utilize a virtual desktop as a delivery mechanism. Because the virtual desktop, Citrix Receiver, does not work with Dragon Naturally Speaking, Virginia will not be able to work unless an exception is made to continue supporting her current configuration. Virginia knows this because she works in the accessibility group.

Lack of requirements leads to work stoppage

Allen uses multiple applications plus email on a daily basis. Allen has been blind from birth. He cannot use a mouse because he cannot see the screen to follow the cursor. He uses a screen reader, assistive technology that speaks the screen information to him and lets him control the computer with the keyboard. Allen is in Virginia's component. His group is going to the virtual desktop next week. Allen doesn't know that his assistive technology will not work with the virtual desktop and is facing a work stoppage next week. His situation and user needs in general were not considered during the planning process. The virtual desktop vendors claim that assistive technology will work if installed on the remote desktop. Allen's agency has tested this and found that it works poorly or not at all. However, there is no requirement in place for the vendor to fix this compatibility problem in time for the transition; there is no timetable at all built into the service contract. The current plan is to have Allen use a separate system until the problem is resolved but there is no clarity on how that will work or how long it will last.

Poor requirements leaves some out of the game

In order to make compliance training more interesting and 'game-like,' Jason's agency has begun to teach courses online so that units can track progress and compete for high scores and early completion of training. These courses often use graphics and interface elements that make it impossible for Jason, who is blind, to use a screen reader to independently complete the required training. The software developers did not follow best practices regarding accessibility, as it was not part of the contract. Jason often has difficulty completing courses, due to no fault of his own. One typical problem is that as the training application calculates his work to show progress graphically, his computer freezes and no record is retained. Jason's supervisor has to request system logs of Jason's training instead, which is time-consuming and cumbersome.

No way to turn off distractions

Nancy is an agency financial analyst with Attention Deficit Disorder. Her agency regularly requires her to teach using webinars. While the hosting software has the capacity to demonstrate calculations and can show the impact of proposed changes on the agency's finances in near real time, the screen cannot be modified by individuals. Nancy is often distracted by incoming questions when teaching and loses her train of thought. As a work around, Nancy tried to call into the seminar and ask a colleague to change screens for her and field questions but this has led to confusion when the slides were not in sync or when students were asking for demonstrations of calculations needed in their jobs and Nancy needed to comment on specific results.

Latest updates don't work with old interface

The agency Tuan works at has approved apps on mobile devices to gather and support cloud-based data collection and analysis. Tuan, who has limited use of his hands, is knowledgeable about the assistive technology he needs, a switch selection system on his tablet. However, the apps his agency uses were not designed according to the accessibility recommendations for the operating system, which often change. Since the last update, Tuan is unable to perform specific key functions on the apps that let him import, compare and aggregate data from multiple cloud sources, limiting his ability to explore the data creatively. This reduces both his value to the agency and the intrinsic reward he gets from his job.

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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