Volume I Number 1, January 1994

The Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation (COCA)

Susan Brummel
Doug Wakefield

The Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation (COCA) is located within the General Services Administration (GSA) an agency of the federal government. Since 1985, COCA has been pioneering information policies and computer support practices that benefit federal employees with disabilities as well as members of the public with disabilities. Today, COCA provides a variety of services to people within and outside government employment. The ultimate goal of all COCA's activities is to advance equitable information environments consistent with non-discriminatory employment and service delivery goals.

Who are COCA's customers? The "customer base" for COCA is comprised of those people who, due to some disabling condition, encounter barriers when accessing and manipulating information in print and electronic form. The bulk of information management in industry and government today is handled through the use of personal computers and computer/telecommunications networks. This fact means that COCA's role in helping people with disabilities gain access to information translates into helping individuals and their organizations solve today's access problems to computers/telecommunications products and services.

COCA's activities can be divided into two broad categories: direct service to individuals, and indirect services through support to organizations. The latter encompasses those activities where COCA staff members work within the national information community to reduce barriers to information access, thus increasing job opportunities and equitable access to services.

1. Direct services - COCA provides direct services to people with disabilities in several ways. First, in its offices at the downtown Washington, D.C. GSA headquarters, COCA runs a demonstration center. At this location people can view and test various accommodation strategies for specific disabilities. A visit to the demonstration center is often a part of the equipment selection process that an employee and his or her manager need to go through in the accommodation process. COCA very strongly supports the concept of involving the person who is being "accommodated" in all phases of the process.

COCA's staff provide telephone consultations to employees with disabilities and managers who are looking for ways to enhance access to electronic information. These phone consultations are often the first step in the job accommodation process. Many times the initial phone contact is followed by a visit to the demonstration center by the employee, supervisor and technical support person of the agency.

Under certain circumstances the COCA staff will make an on- location visit to an employee's work site. Since the staff is quite small it is impossible to satisfy each request for on- location consultation; therefore, when a location visit seems appropriate it is expected that a computer support person from the employee's organization will be on hand during the consultation. An effort is always made to give the local support person enough information to carry on the accommodation effort without the personal help of the COCA staff. Ongoing phone support is available if necessary.

2. Indirect services - The following activities of COCA are classified as indirect because they involve working with another group of individuals or an organization that in turn provides service or products to people with disabilities.

A. Consultations during purchasing - Although legislation is in place requiring that systems purchased by the Federal government be designed so they can be made accessible to persons with disabilities, most people involved in the actual drafting of procurement proposals are totally unfamiliar with access products. COCA conducts workshops for procurement officials to acquaint them with the technology and the access industry. COCA also participates in GSA's Trail Boss program, a high-powered procurement training program for selected federal procurement personnel.

B. Customer requirements identification - On the other side of the coin, COCA has been able to work with organizations that are developing new services or products to meet real needs. For example, COCA is working closely with the Special Interest Group on CDROM Applications Technology, (SIGCAT). COCA has organized and conducted workshops on accessibility for software developers at SIGCAT conferences.

C. Information Dissemination - COCA also produces a resource document on accessibility entitled "Managing Information Resources for Accessibility". This publication gives an overview of current legislation applicable to issues surrounding accessibility, explains how various disabilities can be accommodated, and discusses the various steps that should be taken to resolve accommodation issues.

A second information product from COCA is Opening Windows, a tutorial developed to teach the Windows interface to blind and visually impaired computer users. Like the resource handbook, Opening Windows is available at no charge.

Future challenges for COCA are intricately linked to the speed of technology change in the information age. Just a sampling of current literature shows that advances in such technologies as multi-media programming, electronic document formatting and transmission, interactive video, and ultimately virtual reality are going to radically change the way everyone interacts with computers and with the information they can compile and transmit.

For many this will mean forms of employment in the near future not dreamed of today. But, for persons with disabilities, many of these advances could create barriers to information processing and ultimately to employment. COCA's mission is to stay current with developments in technology, in order to contribute to significant customer service initiatives such as the National Information Infrastructure, in a manner that anticipates the needs of persons with disabilities and intervenes if accessibility and jobs, are threatened. Reacting to lost accessibility after the fact has proven to be expensive and often an unsuccessful way to cope with computer and information accommodation for persons with disabilities.

How to Contact COCA:
Phone (202)501-4906
Internet coca@tmn.com
18th and F. St. NW Rm. 1234
Mail code KGDO
Washington, DC 20405

Brummel, S. & Wakefield, D. (1994). The Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation (COCA). Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(1).