The 78th Blinded Veterans Association National Convention
The Blinded Veterans Association National Convention marks the one time each year that blind and low-vision veterans meet directly with Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Service leadership and other rehabilitation professionals to learn about and discuss new products, services, and assistive technologies. Earlier this month, the event’s 78th annual meeting exemplified how much progress has been made to provide essential accessibility services for our nation’s veterans and how much still needs to be done.
Coincidentally, Senators Rick Scott and Bob Casey of the Special Committee on Aging respectively introduced the Veterans Accessibility Act at the start of August, with the goal of ensuring that Veterans Affairs complies with federal disability laws and makes its programs accessible for people with disabilities, including facilities and technology. The bill would establish a 15-person Advisory Committee on Equal Access, which would consist of veterans with disabilities, disability experts, and representatives of advocacy organizations. The Committee would be responsible for evaluating and reporting on VA’s compliance with federal disability laws and would issue recommendations for how VA can improve its accessibility for people with disabilities.
Digital Accessibility for Veterans
In a panel discussing digital accessibility during the convention, Vispero Vice President Matt Ater and Veterans Affairs 508 Program Office Director Pat Sheehan stressed the importance of fostering a culture that embraces accessibility.
“Part of the struggle around accessibility is thinking about it solely from a compliance perspective,” Ater said. “What we should be moving to is understanding the user’s needs. If we program and develop based on a user’s experience vs. checking off a compliance mandate, we’ll solve more problems along the way.”
Sheehan echoed the need for a focus on usability. “You can be technically compliant but not usable. The Department of Veterans Affairs works to test products not only to meet 508 requirements but also to make sure they’re fully usable for [people with vision disabilities].”
According to Sheehan, achieving program-wide accessibility requires a good team that understands testing, requirements, and how to work with people. Secondly, there needs to be support for accessibility initiatives from the top. And according to Sheehan, the third component to move the VA forward is putting together the right metrics.
“Numbers help tell the story,” he said. “508 is the law and the right thing to do. But beyond that, we have to ask: ‘Are we doing well?’ ‘What are our goals?’ The story alone is good but not good enough without metrics. Because we can take those numbers and make a clear case to improve digital accessibility.”
Accessibility Vs. Usability
The panel also discussed the essential differences between “accessibility” and “usability.” Ater equated the difference between the two as fulfilling the protocol to meet a certain standard and making sure that standard reflects the experience of any user with a disability.
“Usability comes into play when examining whether a product or system is functionally usable from beginning to end,” he said. Referencing his upcoming return flight after the convention, Ater – who is blind – used the example of the tasks ahead of him to efficiently get on his plane home. “If I can easily perform what I need to from here to there, all the hotel and airport kiosks and digital assets are usable. Whereas, even in this hotel, a kiosk effectively ‘faked’ accessibility by including a headphone jack that didn’t prompt any voice instruction. That’s when you can say the device failed on an accessible and usable level.”
At the VA, Sheehan said kiosks have a long road of improvement ahead: “Older kiosks are being taken out [in VA facilities]. We’re replacing kiosks in a couple of different ways, making them more accessible with voice output and following 508 guidelines for kiosks. For usability and accessibility, kiosks are an area where that has to be done better.”
The Veterans Accessibility Act
In a press release introducing the Veterans Accessibility Act, Senator Rick Scott said, “It’s absolutely unacceptable that any federal programs designed to support and assist our nation’s veterans would be inaccessible to so many who are living with disabilities and in need of critical resources. Our veterans deserve better, and our government must do better. Our men and women who served have sacrificed so much in defense of our freedoms and way of life—we should do everything we can to give back.”
Executive Director of the Blinded Veterans Association Donald Overton said, “While blind and disabled veterans have sacrificed so very much in service to our great nation, we should not have to also sacrifice our dignity and basic rights in order to receive equal access to VA information, services, and programs. … “The Veterans Accessibility Act of 2023 establishes a long overdue Veterans Advisory Committee on Equal Access at VA and affording blind and disabled veterans the opportunity to assist VA in improving its overall service delivery and compliance with disability laws.”