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Easterseals Job-Training Project to Make Internet Work Accessible

Currently the software used to produce Web pages and other Internet content is not accessible to many people with disabilities, shutting them out of a rapidly expanding job market. As the recipient of a Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Easterseals is working with Internet software and services company Convio to make the software used by Web content producers accessible. Once the Internet tools have been made accessible, Easterseals will sponsor a internship program to train people with disabilities who use adaptive technologies to use the tools and how to create effective Web site content.


Project Purpose

Defined Problem-- Easterseals’ Web Author Accessibility Project

Easterseals, Inc., a national leader in job training, employment and assistive technology for people with disabilities, proposes a breakthrough Web accessibility project and job training program.  The high unemployment rate among people with disabilities and the growing need for Web-related job skills makes this project extremely relevant for millions of people nationwide.

Only 32% of working-aged Americans with disabilities have jobs, compared to 81% without disabilities. Half of the people with disabilities surveyed are discouraged from looking for work because there were no appropriate jobs available and many find that accessibility issues stand in their way (“Executive Summary: 2000 NOD/Harris Survey”). 

At the same time, the Web is playing an increasing role in the workplace and has emerged as a key form of communication. The Economics and Statistics Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that 70-80% of people in professional occupations used a computer at work, compared to 20% of people employed as laborers (“A Nation Online”, 2002). Yet, in the report “The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A New Look at Internet Access and the Digital Divide,” only 38% of Americans with disabilities say they use the Internet, compared to 58% of the general population a disparity larger than any other subgroup (Lenhart, 2003). Likewise, software innovations are changing the way we post content and design Web pages, just like the advent of desktop publishing in the 1980s changed the way we produce print publications. With content management systems, people without technical skills can now author Web pages with a simple point and click. But for people with visual or mobility impairments, using these systems to build a Web page is not possible.

Workplace accommodations have been shown to contribute significantly to a person’s employability and productivity.  The National Council on Disability found that of those individuals with disabilities who “reported having paid jobs, 92% said AT enabled them to work faster or better---and 67% reported that the equipment had enabled them to obtain employment” (NCD, 1993, “Executive Summary”, page 7). While 93% of public sector employers and 82% of private sector employers have made their facilities accessible (DOL, 2004), there has been virtually no effort to make Internet technologies accessible on the authoring side. Of the 25 most prominent Web development products currently used by nonprofits, none are accessible. Although Web site visitor accessibility is a growing concern, accommodating Web content publishers is consistently overlooked. This is a necessary workplace accommodation to make the electronic workplace accessible for all employees, regardless of their disability or the AT they use. In addition, if people with significant disabilities remain unable to develop Web content, they do not have a voice on the Internet.

Solution

Easterseals will target two populations during this project; 1) people with vision-based disabilities who desire careers that include Web authoring tasks as duties, and 2) employers of dedicated Web development staff and other Web content publishers.

Easterseals plans to partner with Convio, Inc., who will create new technology to enable people with vision-based disabilities to be employed as Web content publishers. Once the content management systems were redesigned, they were tested by Lighthouse International, where representatives from the intended target population evaluated usability.

During the testing phase, project staff and Easterseals’ participating affiliate partners finalized plans for an intern program, intended to serve two sets of five interns. Easterseals affiliates applied to participate and were selected based on their current Web site content, expertise in both job training and AT, experience supervising interns, and capacity to provide interns with work space, equipment and supervision at no cost to the project.

The internship phase of the project includes recruitment, screening, selecting, training, supervising, and support for attainment in permanent jobs. Collaboration with outside agencies and participating Affiliates is used to recruit candidates locally.

Intern screening criteria are: 1) comfort with use of the Web, 2) writing skill, 3) stated career goals, 4) proficiency with word processing software, Internet access and use, and needed software-based assistive technology (i.e., JAWS and/or Zoom-Text).  Intern candidates will submit their applications and will be interviewed locally for selection. 

Selected interns will be trained by the project director both via teleconference and offsite venues, anticipated to last approximately 20-hours.   A consultant skilled in AT may accompany the project director to ensure that training proceeds without access issues. Interns will work an average of 20 hours per week developing Web content for their host affiliate. Internships will last an average of six to eight months. Interns will be in communication with each other and project staff through a listserv and regular teleconferences, as will their supervisors. Project staff will help address issues as they arise, documenting those important to project outcomes. As interns become well versed in tasks, the supervisor and intern will work with affiliate job training and employment staff to support job acquisition.

Project Outcomes

We anticipate that the Web Author Accessibility Project will achieve the following outcomes:
1) The electronic workplace increase its  accessibility to employees with significant vision-based disabilities of the more than 1,300 nonprofit employers using Convio tools.
2) Involved interns will demonstrate feasibility of people with significant vision-based disabilities in jobs that include Web content authorship.
3) Interns who successfully complete their internships will be prepared for entry-level jobs that include Web content authorship and Internet marketing.
4) Awareness that Web author access is an important job accommodation will increase within the employer and disability communities.

Replicability of this project is ensured by Convio’s commitment to offer the accessible tools to existing customers at no extra charge. We also expect that news of the project will encourage vendors selling products to the nonprofit, for profit and public sectors to take accessibility issues more seriously.  


Innovation

Our proposed Web Author Accessibility Project is distinguished from previous Web accessibility efforts because it focuses on Web content authors rather than Web content consumers. Section 508 of the 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires the federal government to buy and develop accessible information systems and remediate existing systems. In response, many software publishers have rushed to add accessibility evaluation and repair features to their products. Although only government agencies must conform to Section 508 requirements, and they don’t yet mandate author access, there are indicators that expansion is coming. According to NewArchitect.com, research firm “Forrester predicts that within three to five years, the government will extend the Section 508 accessibility requirements to companies in the private sector” (Kuchinaskas, 2002, para. 9).

Previous Web access efforts have focused on Section 508 and similar content guidelines by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  This project’s technical approach is based on the W3C’s Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, compliance with which has rarely been demonstrated.  For instance, the TOP project conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences aims to create an accessible Web gateway for people with vision impairments, but does not address providing Web content authoring. Additionally, our project will create job opportunities for people with disabilities. Clearly, new technologies and methods are required if people with disabilities are to be able to secure and keep positions in the new digital economy. Finally, the project will raise the bar for the approximately 25 software companies who market Web authoring tools to the nonprofit sector, comprised of approximately 750,000 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States. This proposed project could very well transform the understanding and provision of access to the Web overall.

The Interns will play a key role in the work-based testing and development of the accessibility and usability of the software, the program training content, technical documentation and Intern job development.
 


Project Feasibility

Sustainability

The Web site management tools Easterseals uses (developed by Convio, Inc.) are also used by more than 1,300 other nonprofits nationally. Although most of these organizations have not yet recognized administrator accessibility as a critical need, the proposed technology innovation along with an awareness campaign will make it feasible for them to recruit and hire Web content staff members with significant disabilities.  Convio offers the new product to all other nonprofit clients at no additional expense to them, and provide it in such a way that the configuration can be turned off and on as needed by each user.

Dissemination

Our main goal through project dissemination is to dramatically increase awareness that Web administrator access is a serious issue and must be universally addressed. Our 80-plus affiliates throughout the country will receive the toolkit (described in Section I, B) to attract skilled candidates with disabilities. Second, we will announce the availability of this new product to Convio clients. We plan to inform business leaders, through multiple press releases to the technology and nonprofit management communities, that Web administration is a viable career path for people with significant disabilities by announcing our experiences and sharing the toolkit with them. Additionally, many affiliates are involved in job training and employment for technology fields, and will share the toolkit in meetings with Business Advisory Councils, local One Stops and Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs).

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