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Focus on the Need for Workplace Technology Accessibility!

January 5, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker


The only significant issues I encounter in the workplace that result from my disability have something to do with either accessibility or transportation. I am an experienced blind information technology professional. My current job involves providing e-mail and telephone based technical support on an outsourcing basis. I am competent and confident in my abilities.


Many in the blind community constantly tell me that all issues of blindness come down to social attitudes. I am told that the only way to improve our socioeconomic condition as blind people is to be sure that we have received training in the alternative techniques of blindness and then to work to change society’s negative attitudes. My personal experience and that of many other blind people I know out here in the real world says otherwise. Yes. It is absolutely critical that we master the alternative techniques of blindness such as Braille and the use of the white cane or guide dog. It is also important that we exhibit confidence in ourselves and our abilities as blind people and that we work to change negative attitudes through our positive examples. But, what I am saying, is that this work by itself is insufficient and will not, alone, do anything to increase our employment rate or give us much more success.


My own personal experiences bare this out quite nicely. I work in a technical support facility. My bosses and other colleagues treat me as a normal, real human being. I am respected and my advice and assistance is often sought both formally and informally on issues of a procedural and a technical nature. When it comes to the attitudes my colleagues have concerning my blindness, I just can’t complain. They’re great! Nevertheless, I encounter serious problems at work because of my blindness. That’s right. Read on!


My company provides technical support to customers on an outsourcing basis. That means other companies come to us to provide technical support services to their customers. Our customers expect us to largely provide technical support services on their terms. That means we must use the tools they provide to get the job done. There is often little or no room to request adjustments to the software tools chosen to perform the duties of the job, and we are certainly in no position to pressure our customers to make changes for reasons of accessibility or anything else.


While providing technical support, we utilize various software tools to communicate with customers, document actions and their results throughout the troubleshooting process, log in to various servers and pieces of network equipment, and interact with other colleagues. These tools must be accessible with a screen reader in order to perform the duties of the technical support position. There are usually few if any alternatives to the tools supplied by the customer. If they can’t be used with a screen reader, then the job can’t be done by a blind person. It is really just that simple.


There are a number of different types of tools we used to facilitate the provision of our technical support services. Communication with customers and documentation of troubleshooting are typically accomplished by means of a customer relationship management (CRM) tool. This tool enables us to perform actions such as creating, updating and closing trouble tickets. We often must gain access to one or more pieces of the customer’s equipment or servers in order to complete our work. Sometimes this involves remotely accessing computers on the customer’s network. At other times, we must access the administrative user interfaces of network monitoring software, firewalls, routers, switches and other similar systems. We communicate with our customers and our colleagues using electronic mail, instant messaging, interactive chat or the telephone. If, for any reason, the candidate for employment in one of these positions is unable to use all or most of these tools independently, that person is not going to be able to perform the duties required by this position and thus an otherwise perfect opportunity will be lost.


My employer serves a number of different customers. We work with each customer in terms of a separate account or project. In most cases, each technical support engineer is assigned to perform their duties on a single account. Some cross training enables us to be versatile by providing support on other accounts when needed. Each customer (account or project) requires us to use different tools as dictated by that customer to complete our work. It has been necessary for me to be switched among several different projects due to the inaccessibility of one or more aspects of the job with a screen reader. This has happened with my current employer for a year and a half now. Many employers would have decided to let me go, simply throw me away because I am unable to meet all the requirements of my job. I happen to be extremely fortunate this hasn’t happened to me, but I know it does happen to thousands of my blind brothers and sisters on a regular basis. Let me just state a few examples.


Most CRM tools are still inaccessible. I was ultimately unable to perform the duties of one of the projects to which I was assigned because I was unable to use the Siebel software to create and manage technical support cases effectively due to its inaccessibility with a screen reader. For awhile, I was assigned another set of duties with that same account which were significantly outside my interests and best talents. These duties avoided the use of Siebel.

In the Siebel case, the manufacturer of the software told me that the customer would have only needed to implement Siebel in a “standard interactivity” format that did not require the use of Java and which would have been much more accessible. This would have required approximately an hour worth of work on the part of a system administrator, but, ultimately, our customer decided not to even make the attempt. The customer had what they needed to serve the masses, the employees without disabilities, so it did not make any “business sense” to make this accomodation for me.


I was finally reassigned to another project. Their web based CRM tool was extremely accessible, but, alas, I encountered another show stopper. One of the products this company sold and supported involved a piece of security management software that was based on Sun Java and was not written in a manner that would be accessible. Once it was decided that my ability to use this application in a hands-on manner would be necessary in order to perform the duties effectively, I was again reassigned to a different project.


The current project is completely accessible. The CRM tools are all web based. The software is certainly accessible enough. I can use accessible productivity tools such as AOL Instant Messager, Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express and Microsoft Word to perform all necessary tasks. Sadly, this project will be suspended very soon. I am documenting processes and procedures for other projects. I am still being told that my job is secure, that my value to the company is recognized and that I will be reassigned as necessary so that I continue to provide value as an asset.


We must take serious, significant actions to improve our ability to access information systems used in the workplace. Businesses are not jobs programs. People are hired so that they can get the job done. If we can’t do that, for any reason, then we can’t be hired and retained as valuable business assets. Like it or not, it is just this simple. Let’s stop quibbling about attitudes and get down to the business of accessibility!

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