NIST: Cloud computing could hinder disabled workers

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The federal push into cloud computing could be setting back disabled employees dependent on certain accessibility programs, according to a new National Institute of Standards and Technology report.

When agencies migrate to the cloud, many computer-based disability programs like speech recognition or Braille output devices cease to function, according to the draft NIST special publication Cloud Computing and Accessibility Considerations

It illustrates the difficult balance between efforts to drive increased cloud usage with the 2011 federal cloud-first policy and the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which mandates federal agencies to make accommodations for disabled workers.

The NIST draft says problems are often caused by updates to computer operating systems or other installed applications.

For example, the report gives a hypothetical example of “Cora,” who is blind and uses a Braille display for her computer. Any time there is a software update, the Braille display no longer works correctly, requiring her to depend on IT support.

According to the report, some agencies also don’t have the resources to develop the missing software or additional apps to help those with disabilities.

To fill these gaps and meet section 508 obligations, the report’s authors urge the use of an accessibility application programming interface. Such an API allows agencies to add certain software or build specific coding to “tune up” certain applications and solve an individual’s accessibility issues, said NIST cloud computing program manager Robert Bohn, co-author of the report.

“This is not only a benefit to people with disabilities, but in the age of cloud computing and mobile devices, such APIs offer competitive advantages, including efficiency, flexibility and ability to adapt to future devices,” the report said.

They also support the development of the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure — a framework that allows cloud-connected devices to recognize if someone has a disability based on info from the cloud and adjust the devices’ output accordingly.

In the future, for example, Bohn said he could imagine automatic doors being part of the GPII and staying open longer for people they recognize as disabled.

Bohn is optimistic these solutions could lead the way to a much easier world for disabled people. As the amount of devices dependent on the Internet rise too, he is confident there will be more devices that can be customized for accessibility.

“Cloud computing can allow them to help themselves get around,” Bohn said. “It allows everyone to be independent.”

Contact the reporter on this story via email: Jeremy.Snow@FedScoop.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyM_Snow. Sign up for the Daily Scoop — all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning — here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Cloud, Commerce Department, Departments, disability, Government IT News, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Section 508, Tech, workforce
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