Last week, I had a rendezvous with innovation. I paid my first visit to the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference — commonly known as “CSUN” in honor of its sponsor, California State University, Northridge — and I was wowed at every turn. I took in speeches and workshops by technology thought leaders, and got up close and personal with products on the proverbial cutting-edge.
Office of Disability Employment Policy Chief of Staff Dylan Orr meets a remotely-operated robot at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, March 2015.
The innovations I witnessed were technology advancements that have the power to increase inclusion on multiple levels, including employment. The event’s program featured an Employment & Workplace track focused on strategies for achieving a technology-accessible workplace. As such, it served to confirm what we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy have always believed — that the creation and adoption of accessible technology can serve as a great equalizer in the employment of people with disabilities.
The exhibit hall was a wonderland of the latest and greatest, and I couldn't help but recognize the potential employment applications of the various innovations on display. For example, I was fascinated by a company that creates multimedia learning objects through Flash applications and three-dimensional printers. Using an interactive, mapped image of an actual human brain, this company’s exhibitors demonstrated how medical students with visual disabilities could touch various parts of the brain and then hear a description of what they were feeling. It is amazing to consider the ways this technology can enhance the learning experiences of people with disabilities — and open new doors for them in science, technology, engineering and math careers.
Another attraction was a giant robot that interacted with me at a highly personal level, asking questions and noting things about the surroundings that no machine could. It turned out that the robot was controlled by a human watching me from another location. I can imagine this breed of advanced "remote assistance" becoming commonplace in tomorrow's workplace — and of great benefit to people with disabilities who use personal assistance services or job coaches.
Exhibitors at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference demonstrate a multimedia learning tool that enables people with visual impairments to learn the anatomy of the human brain.
The most exciting thing at CSUN, though, wasn’t a product — it was engagement. The U.S. Access Board held a hearing on-site to solicit public comment on its proposed rule updating accessibility requirements for information and communications technology (known as ICT) in the federal sector and with telecommunications products and services, commonly known as the "ICT Refresh." The changes would update the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is key to ensuring that the technology purchased and implemented by the federal government is accessible to all of its employees.
The changes would also update the Section 255 guidelines on access to telecommunications products and services that apply to manufacturers of telecommunication equipment. With many state governments and private sector technology providers electing to follow the Section 508 and other related accessibility standards, these updated rules can only have a positive ripple effect. I was among the hundreds of CSUN attendees who were packed into the standing-room only Access Board hearing. It was thrilling to see so many engaged members of the disability and technology communities providing testimony and lending their voice to this important policy development.
Speaking of engagement, CSUN was also a wonderful opportunity to meet with some of the employers and technology leaders who are working with ODEP’s Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (known as PEAT). I was excited to see the high level of interest level in PEAT’s work to make online job applications more accessible and I look forward to continuing to engage on behalf of ODEP with these outstanding leaders who want to ensure accessible technology in all aspects of employment.
So that's my report from innovation's front lines, where engagement and empowerment were on full display. I hope my first trip to CSUN won't be my last.
Dylan Orr is the chief of staff of the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.