Meeting of the Federal Exchange on Employment & Disability (FEED)
June 13, 2019
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
I. Welcoming Remarks
Michael Murray, Director of the Employer Policy Team for the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and introducing Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for ODEP, who joined the meeting remotely via Skype.
Ms. Sheehy thanked her colleagues at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for hosting the event and the meeting participants for attending. She stated that she wished she was able to have attended the meeting in person because she loves the energy of the FEED members and always learns something from each event. She noted that she frequently discusses the initiative with delegations from foreign governments. Ms. Sheehy closed by saying that the commitment, enthusiasm and efforts of FEED members reflect positively on the country as a whole, as well as on the agencies the members represent.
II. Creation of FEED Work Groups
Dexter Brooks, Associate Director for the Office of Federal Operations at the EEOC, introduced the next segment of the meeting, which focused on the creation of FEED work groups. Mr. Brooks explained that the real work of FEED comes from members’ everyday efforts, and that the goal is for FEED meetings to be more than just listening sessions. He reiterated that FEED is meant to be a cooperative of practitioners that come together to share information and practices to help inform the partner agencies and other members.
He then referenced EARN’s “Inclusion@Work: A Framework for Building a Disability-Inclusive Organization,” which was updated last year to include promising and emerging practices from FEED member agencies. The Federal Framework was also the subject of the FEED meeting held in April. Mr. Brooks stated that the new work groups will be self-directed, and are based on the six main topic areas in the Federal Framework. He said that the work groups will include: Outreach and Recruitment; Hiring Processes; Reasonable Accommodation and Personal Assistance Services Policies; Accessible Information and Communication Technology; Workforce Assessment and Barrier Analysis; and Partnerships with External Stakeholders. He asked FEED members to volunteer to participate in these workgroups, which will be meeting throughout the next fiscal year to explore promising and emerging practices and develop strategies agencies can use to further the recruitment, hiring, advancement and retention of federal employees with disabilities. The groups will report back to the larger FEED membership to share the information and recommendations they gather.
Mr. Brooks said that a solicitation asking for volunteers will be sent out soon via email (Note: the solicitation was sent via email from Dexter Brooks on June 17, 2019). He stated that potential participants should be mindful of their agency workloads before committing to volunteering for a work group, and make an informed decision before joining the effort, which will begin mid-third quarter of this year and run through the next fiscal year. He then turned the meeting over to Anupa Iyer, Policy Advisor for the Office of Federal Operations at EEOC, to introduce the next segment and panelists.
III. Communications Access for Federal Employees Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Ms. Iyer thanked Mr. Brooks, Mr. Murray and Ms. Sheehy for their comments, and then introduced the topic of the meeting — communications access for federal employees who are deaf and hard of hearing. She explained that the topic emerged from suggestions from FEED members who wanted more information on hiring, recruiting, advancing and retaining employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, and members of FEED who are part of that community who have experienced barriers at work.
Ms. Iyer then introduced the panelists for the meeting: Anthony Napoli, Diversity and Inclusion Program Manager in the Diversity, Recruitment and Employee Services Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Brandon Pace, Enterprise Application Administrator for the Office of Accessible Systems and Technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); and MarcusKeith Island, Program Manager for Sign Language Interpreting Services in the Disability Rights Center at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Mr. Napoli began by speaking in sign language without the interpreter translating. He did this to illustrate that the focus of the meeting is communications access. Mr. Napoli then provided background information about his career path, which has included 18 years at the EPA. He stated that he began his career at the EPA by being hired via the Schedule A hiring authority.
Mr. Napoli then discussed the web-based system EPA uses to track reasonable accommodations (RA) requests, including interpreting and CART services. He stated that employees can include specific information about their needs when they enter their requests into the system, which he said makes him feel like an equal participant in the accommodations and process, and in his workplace. He stated that the system lets him view in advance who has been assigned to his requests, so he has the ability to schedule his meetings around the availability of the interpreters with whom he prefers to work. He also explained that there are agency-wide contracts for sign language interpreters and CART services, and there is a central fund for these accommodations, which assists managers who might otherwise feel that interpreting services could be too expensive for their particular department to afford.
Mr. Pace then introduced himself and discussed his work at DHS. He stated that his office provides accessibility services and technical assistance to agencies within the Department, and he himself provides consultation, guidance, advice and information, as well as acts as the lead for reasonable accommodations, among other “hats” he wears at work. He stated that he came to be hired by DHS through his participation in the American Association of People with Disabilities’ (AAPD) internship program.
Mr. Island then provided some background information about his role at DOT. He said he is a federal staff interpreter and also handles the program management of interpreting services, including overseeing a contract for nationwide interpreting services for DOT.
Ms. Iyer began the moderated discussion by asking the panelists what communication access means to them, and if they could explain the different types of languages and communications methods that are used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Mr. Napoli responded that he personally uses American Sign Language (ASL) and Pigdin Signed English (PSE), and explained that there are grammatical and structural differences between the two. He stated that there is also Signed Exact English (SEE), in which for every English word there is a word assigned to it and it uses English Signed Order.
Mr. Pace stated that he typically uses ASL, but since his work takes place in a technical environment, he will sometimes use English to address specific situations that may require more precise or technical language. He stated that it can be difficult to “code switch,” and it is for that reason that most of his interpreters are CODAs (children of deaf adults), because he feels they are able to code switch more easily. He noted that everyone has their own needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the deaf and hard of hearing communities. He provided the example of a DHS employee who is deaf who has a designated interpreter who knows the context and jargon of the employee’s work, so the employee is able to communicate clearly and efficiently. He said that sometimes interpreting requires different levels of language, and having a designated interpreter can help avoid a disconnect between what is meant and what is being interpreted, which can happen with interpreters who don’t regularly interpret for that person.
Mr. Pace further explained that a designated interpreter provides consistency for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, which he stated is important because it takes time to build a professional reputation and having this consistency is essential to communication. He related a personal story that took place when he started working at DHS. He said he felt his reputation was suffering because he was using different interpreters and he didn’t have the consistency of an interpreter who understood his work and had background information and context from past meetings. When he was finally assigned a designated interpreter, he said he began to be recognized for his abilities to do the job and his accomplishments, and he was able to communicate effectively.
Mr. Island then added his perspective as an interpreter. He said that he was taught to match the needs of his clients and make sure they get what they need to effectively do their job and participate in the workplace. He also said that there are many options for preferred languages and interpretation styles, including ASL, PSE, contact signing, oral interpreting and tactile interpreting.
Ms. Iyer asked if Mr. Island could clarify what he meant by oral interpreting. He explained that this is another mode of communication used when the client might not know sign language. He said in oral interpreting, the interpreter repeats what a speaker is saying with associational cues, so a person who lipreads can understand what is being said.
Mr. Napoli then expanded on Mr. Pace’s previous point about how communication access impacts work performance. He stated that an interpreter needs to be fluent in an agency’s jargon and understand workplace dynamics. He shared an anecdote about a work assignment that took him a significant amount of time to complete due to lack of communications access. The story concerned him trying to locate a file about which information had been vaguely interpreted to him. He stated that he spent weeks searching for the document because the interpreter was not able to clearly communicate exactly what was being asked of him. He said that he was finally able to finish the assignment right before the deadline, which unfortunately gave his manager the impression that the task took him more time than necessary, and possibly that he was not using his time efficiently. Mr. Napoli stated that if it had been more precisely communicated to him what was needed, he could have located the information much more quickly and completed the assignment sooner. Mr. Napoli said that the lesson to learn from his story is that interpreters need to understand the terminology and specific language used by their clients so that the employee can perform their job duties effectively and efficiently.
Mr. Pace agreed with Mr. Napoli and shared that he sometimes uses an electronic tablet with live captioning through Google Live Transcribe, which he said has been beneficial to helping him do his job.
Mr. Island returned to the discussion of interpreters knowing technical terms and common terminology that client use. He suggested that contracts should provide for consistent interpreters to build familiarity between interpreters and clients. He said that as an interpreter, he sometimes experiences nervousness when he’s trying to voice for someone he hasn’t met previously, and that the more information the interpreter is given prior to the assignment, the better they can do their job.
Ms. Iyer asked the panelists what they would recommend reasonable accommodations (RA) managers and disability program managers (DPMs), particularly those who are new to the field, be aware of when they receive RA requests from employees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and as they engage in the interactive accommodations process. She expanded on the question to ask what DPMs and RA managers should keep in mind in order to help employees who are deaf or hard of hearing identify their needs and ensure accommodations are provided on an ongoing basis.
Mr. Napoli responded that RA managers and DPMs need to become educated about Deaf culture. He added that to figure out what this community’s needs are, they need to be involved in the accommodations process and take the time to learn about the experiences of deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Mr. Pace suggested that managers take online training courses, as well as invest time and energy in learning about the Deaf community.
Mr. Island agreed with Mr. Pace regarding the need for education about the Deaf community and encouraged managers to conduct research if they aren’t well-versed in the experiences of the Deaf community. He recommended Gallaudet University as a resource for managers, stating that they can reach out to ask questions and receive information that can help them understand the RA needs of employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Ms. Iyer then asked the panelists for their recommendations or best practices for encouraging hearing employees to engage with colleagues who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Mr. Island stated that workplace social events are a great way for colleagues to interact and get to know each other. He also suggested that hearing employees check to see if someone at their agency is teaching ASL.
Mr. Pace noted that, although he understands the tendency for people to look at his interpreter rather than at him when he’s speaking, the best practices is for whoever is communicating with him to look at him directly in order to see his facial expressions.
Mr. Napoli stated that in his opinion, a best practice for interacting with colleagues who are deaf or hard of hearing is to learn sign language.
Ms. Iyer then asked the panelists about challenges that they have faced in the workplace due to lack of communications access. She noted that agencies may not always have the budget to have full-time staff interpreters or designated interpreters. She asked how agencies can plan meetings to accommodate their employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, particularly if a last-minute meeting comes up.
Mr. Island responded that meeting schedules are something that agencies, and in particular the DPM, need to think about at the beginning of the RA process. He recommended scheduling meetings ahead of time and ensuring that the schedule is communicated between managers and employees. He also suggested having an interpreter in the office for a set amount of time on a specific day, and scheduling meetings around when the interpreter will be there.
Mr. Pace stated that having an interpreter call into the conference line and using live captioning are both options that can be used for meetings. He said in his experience, having the interpreter call into the conference line generally works well, but there can occasionally be difficulties, such as the microphone not picking up certain sounds, or two people talking at the same time. He then said that live captioning works well, but he feels it sometimes diminishes his voice and he is not able to respond in real time since he is watching the captioning. He said sometimes he will text his supervisor or another colleague to read his comments aloud to others in the meeting, but that he feels this is not as effective because his words are not being communicated in his voice.
Mr. Pace commented that institutional discrimination can result in employees getting pushed to the sidelines when the workplace isn’t accessible. He said if employees who are deaf or hard of hearing can’t get interpreters or other accommodations for meetings, they may become disengaged from work.
Ms. Iyer then took a question from an audience member. David Baquis from the Executive Office of the President asked panelists about using CART as an accommodation for an employee who has partial hearing loss and has trouble hearing over the phone, noting that CapTel hasn’t been sufficient to meet his needs. He also suggested hosting a future FEED meeting solely about accommodations for employees who are hard of hearing, because the vast majority of people with hearing loss are hard of hearing, and they often don’t use interpreters, but instead depend on accommodations like assisted listening devices.
Mr. Baquis then noted that his agency is currently updating its RA procedures, and asked if there were attendees who would be willing to share their agency’s RA procedures with him.
Ms. Iyer replied that she would be happy to speak with Mr. Baquis after the meeting about RA procedures, as part of her job at EEOC is drafting reasonable accommodations procedures and making sure they comply with regulations.
Mr. Island replied that CART services are an accommodations option for phone calls, as are amplifiers, an assistive technology that can help amplify conversations. He also mentioned hearing aids tuned to a Bluetooth device, and Zoom, Adobe Connect and Skype as additional examples of technology that can be used to accommodate employees who are hard of hearing.
Mr. Pace related a story about a fellow DHS employee who is hard of hearing who often encounters difficulties bringing his CART equipment and a captioner with him to meetings due to security restrictions. He stated that there is no standard federal policy that addresses this particular issue, and he feels that a policy should be set, and federal agencies should work in collaboration with each other to allow reasonable accommodations approved at one agency to be accepted at other agencies.
Ms. Iyer asked what agencies should do when certain technologies that employees who are deaf or hard of hearing use aren’t allowed because of controls within an agency’s IT security system.
Mr. Napoli replied that he faces technology issues every day. He said that he feels Skype is the most effective technology for communications access, and also likes Adobe Connect for its real-time captioning ability. He recommended conducting a dry run before any presentation, meeting or webinar where these systems are being used, to ensure that all technical issues are addressed prior to the event.
Mr. Pace stated that his preferred way of using Adobe Connect captioning is through the “share” pod, which runs the captioning separately. He noted that often there are easy workarounds when accessibility seems insurmountable because of technology related issues.
Mr. Pace then shared a story about an employee at his agency who wanted all of the TVs in the building he worked in to be captioned. He said that this request led to months of ongoing discussions about how to get the captions on the TVs. When Mr. Pace was brought in to provide his expertise, he found that the Department was looking into buying a captioning decoder to be added to each TV in the building, which would have been very expensive. He said he asked to see the room in which all the TV broadcasting systems were housed and noticed the agency was using DirectTV, so he simply turned the captioning on for all of the TVs by using the remote control. He said the lesson he learned from this experience is that agencies and managers need to have a good relationship with their IT staff so problems can be addressed with input from them and other technology experts.
Akinyemi Banjo, Senior Policy Advisor at ODEP, then made a brief announcement that the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) is looking for federal employees to act as recruiters. Mr. Banjo said anyone interested in learning more about becoming a WRP recruiter should send him an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and he will connect them with the WRP coordinators, who can provide additional information.
IV. Question and Answer Session
Ms. Iyer then opened the floor to questions from the audience. A meeting participant asked how many interpreters the panelists have at their agencies who are full-time federal employees (FTEs), not contractors, and how the agency hired those interpreters.
Mr. Pace said that at DHS, the majority of the interpreters are not FTEs. He said due to the nature of the work the agency does, some divisions, like FEMA and the Secret Service, have hired some staff interpreters, particularly with regard to the need for clearances and other security issues. Mr. Pace added that the federal position for staff interpreters could potentially lead to a conflict of interest, and for this reason, he recommends using contract interpreters.
Mr. Napoli agreed with Mr. Pace and said he would recommend against full-time interpreters because sometimes employees who are deaf or hard of hearing have a preferred way of communicating or a preferred interpreter, and an on-call interpreter might better match their preferences.
Ms. Iyer than asked how the panelists identify and qualify contract interpreters, and how the agencies should approach this so there is continuity when providing interpreting services.
Mr. Murray added to Ms. Iyer’s questions, asking what DPMs can do to ensure that contracts for interpreting or CART services are good, and hold interpreters accountable, when they might not use the services themselves.
Mr. Island responded that he can provided additional information about this topic in a PowerPoint presentation (note: this presentation will be made available to all FEED members). He also stated that at DOT, there are two staff interpreters and that one is on detail. He recommended that agencies should consider things like how interpreters might want to advance in their careers, as longevity of interpreters may become an issue if that is not taken into consideration. He also said that it’s important to have people who are subject matter experts review these kinds of contracts, because if the program manager doesn’t know anything about the industry, the agency could be overcharged for services.
Mr. Pace added that with contracts, the employee who is deaf or hard of hearing should be the point of contact (POC) for the interpreters, not the contracting officer’s representative (COR). He explained that the COR should know the details of the contract and the qualifications needed for interpreters, and that employees who use the services provided under the contract should communicate with the COR to ensure their needs are being met. He said his agency uses a blanket purchase agreement (BPA), which sets high standards and allows them to have multiple vendors, if needed.
An audience member stated that those involved in the accommodations process, particularly RA managers, should be aware of the specifics of a contract. She noted that contracts might set minimum timeframes for an interpreter’s services, so those who use an interpreter for a shorter meeting, for example, should be aware of these stipulations.
Mr. Island shared that his agency regularly reviews data related to the financial resources they are using for these services. He said that for one of DOT’s agencies, they compared the ad hoc requests with the on-call requests for one year and found that the ad hoc requests were more expensive than providing a scheduled interpreter for 8 hours every day of the work week. He said that reviewing these requests is an important part of figuring out an agency’s needs related to these services. He also mentioned that it’s important to factor in the time interpreters need to get through security at agencies when reviewing costs.
Mr. Island than reiterated the importance of making sure that a consistent, regular pool of interpreters that have the required background knowledge is available to employees who are deaf or hard of hearing. He noted that both interpreters and CART providers should be provided with background information before meetings so that they can accurately provide these services. He stated that the better informed the interpreters and CART providers are, the better the services they will be able to provide, and that this benefits everyone. He also stated that the conversation with interpreters and CART providers needs to be ongoing and everyone that has a contract that provides these services should be included in that process.
Mr. Pace shared his experiences with ad hoc interpreter requests for shorter time blocks, stating that he found that often the interpreters were not qualified to meet his needs. He stated that when he began requested interpreting services in larger time blocks, that the quality of the services improved. He said that in his experience, the interpreters he had for shorter time blocks were often new to the field or not as experienced as others.
Mr. Napoli mentioned that a promising practice is to issue security badges to interpreters that regularly provide interpreting services at the agency. He said his agency does this and that it cuts down on the amount of time an interpreter spends going through security and signing in.
Mr. Island remarked that it helps maximize the return on investment of hiring an interpreter to use their services for multiple things in the same day, as opposed to scheduling them for shorter timeframes.
An audience member, David Baquis from the Executive Office of the President, then suggested that a future FEED meeting could focus solely on the accommodations needs of federal employees who are hard of hearing, because they often don’t use interpreters, but instead use assistive technology such as assistive listening systems. He stated that 95 percent of people with hearing loss are hard of hearing, not deaf, so this is an important topic to address.
Mr. Baquis then mentioned that his agency is in the process of updating their RA policy and asked if other agencies would be willing to share their RA policies with him. Lastly, he asked if the panelists could comment on the use of CART for phone calls for a person who is hard of hearing and for whom CapTel is not sufficient.
Ms. Iyer stated that she would be happy to discuss RA procedures with Mr. Baquis after the meeting, and that part of her job at EEOC is to draft RA procedures and make sure they comply with regulations.
Mr. Pace noted that there are services other than CapTel or Federal Relay that are available to provide accommodations for telephone calls. He mentioned WebCaptioner.com, a free service through which users call into a call bridge through Google Hangouts and the audio is converted into live, real-time web captioning run on Google Chrome.
An audience member noted that they had experienced delays when using WebCaptioner. Mr. Pace replied that the service is not 100 percent effective, but that it is about 70-80 percent accurate most of the time. He stated that Google Live Translator is about 90 percent accurate and that when he uses it, he puts his headphones on top of his tablet and uses the conference bridge to stream captioning.
Ms. Iyer then closed the question and answer portion of the meeting by thanking all the panelists and audience members, and introducing Brett Sheats, EARN’s National Project Director, who provided closing remarks.
V. Closing Remarks
Mr. Sheats thanked everyone for coming and mentioned the growth of FEED’s membership. He stated that the information discussed during the meetings was being shared by people around the country, and even in other countries, and that this speaks to the importance of the work the group is doing. He mentioned that FEED members are aware of what they should be doing to meet federal regulations, but sharing information about how to do so is what FEED is really about. He then shared information about an EARN webinar on procurement of accessible information and communication technology, which took place on June 26.
Mr. Sheats mentioned that meeting notes and a full transcript will be available to FEED members in the coming weeks, and closed the meeting.
[End of Meeting]