By Karen Rutzick
Need an ergonomic chair? How about a magnified computer screen, footrest or sound amplifier for your telephone? For federal employees in a host of government agencies, support like this is just one form away.
The Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program was created within the Defense Department in 1990 to leverage technology to help disabled employees perform their duties. It now partners with 64 federal agencies to provide such assistance.
The program's $5 million annual budget is used to dramatically help people. For example, a soldier who lost his hands and vision in Iraq who was given prosthetics and a CAP-provided talking computer at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The soldier, CAP Director Dinah Cohen said, now plans to attend law school with the aid of this technology.
But the program is available for people with everyday impairments too; so far, 50,000 requests for help -- such as for ergonomic chairs or specialized computer monitors -- have been completed.
"For a lot of us, especially what we call our aging workforce, we need magnification ... or color contrast," Cohen said. "We have hardware solutions and software solutions like a closed circuit TV where...it magnifies for you."
Most of the fixes cost $500 or less. Cohen said her biggest challenge is spreading the word about CAP.
To get started, employees should complete a needs assessment form on the program'sWeb site and then submit a request to CAP for the device best suited to help them. CAP takes care of the rest.
"We buy it, we pay for it, we get it to the users; it's just that simple," Cohen said.
The ease of the program helps with recruiting disabled people into federal service, Cohen said, because the fears of managers who might be wary about the hassle of overcoming disabilities, even from a budgetary standpoint, are put to rest.
For that reason, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission granted CAP a Freedom to Compete award in June. It was the only federal program to receive the honor, designed to recognize employers that showcase business initiatives promoting inclusion in the workplace.
"The program has helped thousands of federal employees realize their personal potential and achieve new levels of productivity, and is central to...help[ing] the federal government serve as the model employer for people with disabilities," the EEOC announcement said.
Among the technologies available are gel wrist rests, lumbar support, screens to reduce glare, Palm Pilots to aid faltering memory and voice recognition software.
"You see the power of technology," Cohen said. "You see the power of independence. You see, even for someone who has a relatively minor limitation, carpal tunnel or an injury, they get scared and think 'What's going to become of me?' And then they see themselves working again and being independent. That's powerful."