Implementing Universal Design in the Workplace

November 12, 2017 | Ariel Carlin, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

The Administration for Community Living (ACL) is a federal agency devoted to supporting people with disabilities and the aging population in our country. The administration, like many, have had changes this past summer including new leadership which has welcomed Melissa Ortiz as Commissioner. The Administration for Community Living deserves praise for their work and commitment to the American citizens.

What I found striking when interning with ACL was not only the diversity among cohorts but the workplace itself was inclusive and cognitive of Universal Design. Universal Design (UD) is a design concept that creates access to all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design in regards to products and environments. For example, all doors opened with the touch of a button, creating an overall ease of access throughout the workplace whether you were a wheelchair user or running from one meeting to another with full hands. Individual’s cubicles were designed for that specific employee. Some aspects of an individual’s cubicle that varied included lighting, desk height, number of computer screens, chair type, and or any assisted technology to effectively participate in daily work functions. It was evident that the ACL administration looked for optimal inclusion in all breadths of the work environment.

Interning with the Policy and Evaluation team was a very unique experience. Each day I gained more knowledge on federal policies regarding things such as housing or healthcare but more importantly I gained a greater understanding of the importance of diversity within the workplace. Seeing and working alongside individuals of varying abilities, race, religion, age, gender, sexuality or otherwise benefited the quality of work we produced. The varying perspectives and character strengths are vital in this field of work. To best serve and protect the American people through these areas of policy, the diverse cohort and inclusive, universal environment are necessary for success. ACL is a federal agency that models an inclusive workspace.

Experiencing this atmosphere this past summer was a privilege.


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Ariel Carlin is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the Administration for Community Living within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Technology Forum – August 2017

September 13, 2017 | Chris Corsi, AAPD Intern

On Wednesday, August 23rd AAPD hosted the August Technology forum, a space where leaders from the technology industry can collaborate with leaders from the disability community to advance accessibility in current technology and set the path for future advances in the tech industry to pave the way for a more accessible future. The August forum brought technology representatives from Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, IBM, CTIA, and others, as well as disability representatives from the National Council on Independent Living, United Spinal Association, the National Association of the Deaf, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Hearing Loss Association of America, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, and others.

The meeting in August functioned as a planning session to inform the focus of the AAPD Technology Forum’s work moving forward. While a broad range of issues were discussed, the meeting hoped to tackle and address two central questions:

  1. What are some of the issues that are currently facing the disability community and how is technology currently hindering or helping to overcome those?
  2. What future advances in technology will affect the way people with disabilities live, and how can we ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in these advancements?

Below is a brief summary of the topics discussed during this meeting.

A question was raised as to whether technology might be able to supplant the lack of support supplied to individuals needing Personal Care Assistants (PCAs). This is a vital resource for many, demand for which is expected to rise 37% in the next 5 years. However, the Disability Equality Index, a joint initiative of AAPD and the US Business Leadership Network to measure the disability inclusion policies and practices of participating companies, shows that only 8% of companies offer PCAs as an accommodation. The future of robotics and mobility devices may offer more affordable options for businesses. A paper published in the Journal of Intelligent Robots and Systems presents research focused on developing applications to assist individuals with dressing.

Advancements in speech-to-text have created new avenues of accessibility for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHOH) individuals. For example, it is being considered that the same technology that allows someone to voice-type a text message could be used in an airplane to transcribe what the pilot is saying to Deaf passengers. While this is a good idea for future advancement, it was noted that many DHOH individuals currently do not trust speech to text technologies. The current transcriptions on YouTube videos by Google’s automatic speech recognition often have numerous substantial errors. Working to improve speech-to-text technology can reduce these mistakes and improve accessibility for the DHOH community. IBM’s Watson’s speech recognition can recognize different speakers in a conversation, breaking down barriers in multi-person communications. Many newer artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistant devices are not accessible as well, as they focus on text-to-speech and listening. For instance, Alexa and Google Home require activation and interaction through voice.

Additional issues were raised from the cognitive community in the advancement of “simple language,” particularly within online platforms and personalization of all technology. Although great strides have been made during recent years, advancements in technology have remained stagnate for the cognitive community. As machine learning continues to gain traction, the technology industry needs to ensure it is inclusive of all people with disabilities.

Access to basic household appliances is still an issue for some in the blind community. For example, certain laundry machines might be better adapted for blind individuals if they were equipped with text-to-speech. Motivating businesses working within the world of IoT (Internet of Things) to increase accessibility could improve this area, especially considering that blind and low-vision individuals comprise 2% of the population.

One of the most pressing issues facing people with disabilities across the spectrum of disability is the digital divide. While 81% of adults without disabilities use the internet, only 54% of adults with disabilities use the internet. Of those, 69% of adults without disabilities have broadband at home, compared to only 41% of adults with disabilities. This divide contributes to the economic oppression of people with disabilities and keeps people with disabilities from being as connected as they should be to the world around them. As Congress has begun discussing the idea of a new wireless infrastructure bill, this creates an opportunity to advocate to lawmakers the needs of discreet populations. For example, when 5G rolls out, how will advocates be sure this technology is delivered to rural areas and people with disabilities, as well as urban areas?

Looking forward to the future of technology, the August Forum also discussed mobility as it relates to self-driving cars. As cars become more autonomous, drivers will transition from the roles of “operators” to that of “riders,” and this will greatly benefit individuals with disabilities who may not currently be able to drive, but would be permitted to in a fully autonomous vehicle. The Forum hopes to ensure that people with disabilities are not left out of this transition (perhaps by states arguing there must be a cognitive requirement to be the primary rider in an autonomous vehicle). Ridesharing also presents its own challenges. Blind individuals have reported being passed over when they order an Uber or LYFT. There have also been issues where people with service animals are being denied service because the driver will not permit them, even though in 2016 it became Uber policy that drivers must allow service animals. While there are still issues in many areas for wheelchair users obtaining service, Uber has begun to roll out UberWAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles) in a number of metropolitan areas. These advancements increase the accessibility of current rideshare technology and sets the path for the future of ridesharing development as it becomes increasingly autonomous.

Wayfinding has been another topic of discussion regarding one’s ability to be independently mobile. Perhaps an autonomous vehicle drops someone off who is blind or otherwise has trouble with navigation a block or two away from their desired location; how can they find their way to their desired path? Ideas with augmented reality were discussed, which overlays virtual landscapes over the visual field in order to change (or augment) the way we experience the world. This could provide new ways of wayfinding that are more useful and accurate than GPS.

One step, among many, advocates can take to improve accessible transportation would be to ensure that the future Hyperloop (a proposed mode of transportation that would travel at 670 mph across long distances) offers accessibility features. While this seems like a faraway phenomenon, Tesla is currently testing pods for production, and we could see the first Hyperloop in the next five to ten years.


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Chris Corsi is the fall 2017 AAPD In-House Intern. He is a senior at the University of North Carolina.

The AAPD Technology Forum, comprised of individuals from the disability community and tech industry, works to advance access to technology to increase the opportunities and independence of all people with disabilities. The September Technology Forum will focus on the “open internet” and telecommunications policy.

Striving for Inclusion Yet Unconsciously Veering Toward Integration

August 15, 2017 | Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

“Accommodations, what are you referring to?” Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time I attended a professional conference or briefing where diversity and inclusion is the central topic, however people with disabilities fail to be acknowledged and permitted to participate fully and in a meaningful fashion. Although I submitted my disability related accommodations on the registration application in the box labeled “List the accommodations you need to participate in the conference,” my query regarding the accommodations I previously requested were met with blank and confused reactions from the conference staff. I re-explained the accommodations I had submitted with a disappointed heart. Simultaneously, I questioned myself how a professional development conference, which promotes and strives for inclusion and meaningful participation as a best practice, fails to implement this. Are they in fact, touting inclusion while practicing a different model? Perhaps veering toward integration

Traditionally, individuals with disabilities have been marginalized and excluded from participation in the community such as subminimum wages and institutions. Passage of legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975) mandate people with disabilities must have equal opportunity and full participation within their communities; in other words, individuals with disabilities should be included and allowed to participate meaningfully in activities that people without disabilities have access to. Diversity is a contemporary trend society would “like” to value, believing that variation in backgrounds and experiences can contribute to innovative spaces. In many situations, I feel these amiable goals are reduced in terms of compliance and individuals with disabilities, such as myself, are often an afterthought rather than incorporated in the design and planning stages of opportunities and events. There appears to be a profound yet often overlooked difference between the desired outcome of inclusion versus the commonly practiced model of integration; unfortunately, I continue to encounter this as a doctoral student both in my personal life and research work in the field of education.

Although the words integration and inclusion are frequently used interchangeably as synonyms, I assert inclusion is the intentional and genuine involvement of individuals with disabilities to contribute and to participate in society where they partake in the design process of the structure and planning of such activities. Meanwhile, integration is the attempt to bring people with disabilities into an already existing opportunity or event WITHOUT their involvement in the design and planning process. Subsequently, inclusion is a proactive approach whereas integration is a reactive measure.

Returning to my recent experience at the professional development research conference where full participation was one of the focal topics, the conference organizers practiced integration rather than inclusion. If people with disabilities were on the planning committee or were consulted, then conference staff would have been aware of disability accommodations. The conference could have infused principles of universal design and the accommodations I submitted would be read and implemented. Although attending the conference in person was insightful, my experience would have been enhanced if I had access to the accommodations I requested. A clear example is to have electronic versions of the conference agenda and presentations on-line to provide access to people who have disabilities such as myself; this will also benefit those who tend to misplace hard copies of conference materials since they can refer to the schedule electronically. I hope, in the near future, society will be able to align our promotion for inclusive outcomes to our actions of full and meaningful participation while steering clear of mere integration.


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Ann Wai-Yee Kwong is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she worked with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL).

Technology Forum – May 2017

May 18, 2017 | Anthony Stephens

This week, on the eve of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, disability advocates and technology leaders joined in a tour of Local Motors office in National Harbor, Maryland. Just down the Potomac from our nation’s capital, advocates and innovators experience the future of transportation, and there was a sense of optimism amongst our group as we listened to IBM’s Watson greet them from inside a scaled down version of the fully autonomous shuttle named Olli.

The name of the revolutionary vehicle comes from the Italian word for Octopus, a nod given from the vehicle’s creator, who pitched the idea to Local Motors after a global crowd-sourcing competition. The vehicle, debuted in National Harbor last summer, was not just revolutionary by being the world’s first cognitively aware fully autonomous shuttle, but using Local Motors innovative 3D printing micro manufacturing model, it was able to go from design to final production in only three months.

Working with IBM and the CTA Foundation, Local Motors is moving forward toward making the next generation of Olli to be the world’s most accessible vehicle in the world. And leveraging their innovative tactics toward design and manufacturing, concepts that once seemed science fiction are becoming reality at a speed similar to that on the Autobahn.

One of the greatest barriers to independence for people with disabilities has been accessible transportation. In the same breath, one of the greatest barrier busters for independence of people with disabilities has been the recent innovations through technology to augment the loss of particular abilities. This is what makes the Olli vehicle so promising for those looking to innovate in a way that can push the envelope for true universal design.

Last year, I had the opportunity to serve on the Department of Transportation’s negotiated rulemaking committee for the Air Carrier Access Act, where advocates and airline industry leaders got together to find ways to make air travel more accessible. The experience was a complete eye-opener (pardon the pun) on the constraints that traditional manufacturing place on innovation around universal design. Trying to make a Boeing 737 fully accessible was like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime. Of course, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) have much fewer constraints than jet aircraft. However, Local Motors demonstrated the process by which a traditional highway vehicle with 2500 parts could be supplanted by a 3D printer in under 44 hours with just 44 parts.

Local Motors achieves its success around innovation using concepts still being developed through the intersection of crowd-sourcing and micro-manufacturing. This method turns traditional manufacturing constraints up-side-down, breaking down barriers to what was often tethered to costly R&D. Such changes in the paradigm of manufacturing holds significant opportunities in the sphere of accessible design.

It’s in this same spirit that Local Motors, IBM, and CTA Foundation are reaching out to accessibility minded groups, in hopes to create a vehicle that can be accessible to everyone. It might not be a car that can fly, but it has the potential of being a vehicle that communicates in multiple mediums including ASL, can tell blind passengers which way to the front door, have self-releasing ramps for wheel chairs, send messages to family members on the travel status of their loved ones with cognitive disabilities, or any other accessibility feature that you can dare to dream. Indeed, that’s where the biggest challenge will lay – not in what we refuse to do, but in what we refuse to imagine.

Click here to learn more about Olli’s pathway toward full universal design.


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Anthony Stephens, an AAPD Technology Forum participant, is the Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for the American Council of the Blind, a leading grassroots consumer organization for people who are blind and visually impaired in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @StopThatOr.

The AAPD Technology Forum serves as a strategic meeting of national disability advocacy organizations and representatives from the technology industry with a mission to holistically drive and accelerate innovations to advance the interests of underrepresented groups. The accessibility of various technologies, devices, and applications continues to be an essential part of the forum’s deliberations.

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