2019 “Innovation at Work” Technology Showcase

The 2019 “Innovation at Work” technology showcase, hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture TARGET Center, brought together a wide range of interested participants within the technology, government, and disability communities. Upon arriving at the event, guests were greeted by staff skilled in American Sign Language (ASL), who signed as they spoke to all guests regardless of hearing ability. In addition, each session was equipped with live captioning service, a testament to the progress of the technology industry actively bridging the gap with the disability community.

Among the vendors in attendance, I had the pleasure of speaking with representatives from Freedom Scientific, Computer/Electronic Accommodation Program (CAP), and Otter. The tables were brimming with a variety of Assistive Technology (AT), both familiar and new. Freedom Scientific had their JAWS and ZoomText software, and their latest Ruby and Jupiter magnifiers on display.  CAP showcased their selection of readily available computer mice and keyboards, including a one-fingered alternative pointing device that fits much like a ring on an index finger with a trackball and programmable buttons that are fully reachable with just a thumb - removing the need for users to move their arms. In a conversation with a CAP representative, I learned that in removing sit-to-stand desks from their scope of accommodations, CAP has freed up over 65 percent of their annual budget, and can now expect to provide accommodations without delays resulting from a lapse in funding. From an OAST perspective, this means that our accommodations process will be much more streamlined moving forward, as customers interested in seeking AT from CAP can expect two- to three-day delivery rather than being placed on an indefinite waitlist through the next fiscal year.

I was also able to visit with representatives of Otter, which creates software for mobile, PC, and Mac, that integrates artificial intelligence (AI) into an affordable and relatively accurate real-time transcription service that records an audio file to accompany the transcription. The Otter team also gave a presentation on how the company began working with the accessibility community and gave demonstrations on the software’s limitations, flexibility, and precision. In speaking with the representatives after the presentation, it was mentioned that there is currently no plan to localize the stored data from meeting recordings. While this software seems very useful for individuals, it is unlikely to be available to Federal employees looking to take notes within a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, as to conserve memory, the audio files and notes are all automatically uploaded to a Google cloud linked to a Gmail account. For interested individuals, the app is available for free on iPhone and Android, with 10 hours of free recording per month. Premium access is also available, offering unlimited storage as well as custom playback and additional security options.

The showcase also offered educational presentations. At “Ergonomics 101,” the presenter (a New Editions Consulting employee) explained how improper postures can affect productivity and comfort levels, and went on to dispel some common misconceptions about the benefits of certain ergonomic equipment and postures. For example, lumbar cushions are prone to pushing users further up in their seats, causing them to slouch more rather than aligning their spine curvature; wrist cushioning on mouse pads can actually cause more pressure on the wrist, leading to greater likelihood of strain and carpal tunnel syndrome; and sitting upright in an “L” shape actually adds more stress on the lower back than leaning back or slouching forward, so it is recommended to sit further back in the seat at appropriate height with the desk and monitor. While this information is useful from an OAST perspective when providing ergonomic assessments for employees, it is also useful information to apply to your own work habits.

The other session I attended was an introduction to ASL, which included lessons on how to approach and work with members of the deaf community in the hopes of removing barriers in the workplace. The presentation covered the alphabet, numbers, and frequently used words around the office. It also emphasized proper etiquette when speaking with employees and their interpreters, and the culture surrounding the shared experiences among the deaf community. In the past, USDA’s Target Center offered ASL classes to USDA employees and they are looking to start offering these classes again in the future.

Over all, the “Innovation at Work” technology showcase introduced some exciting new accessibility-oriented products, and provided many insightful bits of knowledge to apply to one’s responsibilities on the job as well as to one’s own workplace experience.