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Two State Departments, One Shared Goal: Accessibility

Tech leaders from the Employment Development Department and the California Department of Rehabilitation spoke recently about how vendors can help them meet the needs of the disabled as well as those without Internet access.

The technology leaders of two large departments in state government — the Employment Development Department (EDD) and the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) — briefed vendors recently on what lies ahead for their agencies and how industry can help them reach their goals.

 Jacob “Jake” Johnson seated onstage next to Rita Gass and gesturing towards the crowd with a microphone.
Jacob “Jake” Johnson and Rita Gass were among the CIOs who spoke about accessibility and equity during July's State of Technology California Industry Forum.
Dennis Noone / Industry Insider
Rita Gass, EDD’s chief information officer, and Jacob “Jake” Johnson, deputy director and CIO for DOR, spoke during a “fireside chat” at the State of Technology California Industry Forum on July 27 in Sacramento, an event presented by Industry Insider — California, the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine.*

In their conversation, each CIO discussed one key thing that sets them apart from many other state entities: the imperative of accessibility.

For EDD, the process of applying for unemployment or disability benefits is difficult for those Californians who don’t have ready online access, Gass said. For that reason, any technology or solutions that EDD may adopt must also remain available on paper. Though this may appear counterintuitive to the state’s goal of making services universally available online, it also reflects the state’s work in expanding the accessibility of broadband throughout California.

“I know that a lot of people want to get out of the paper process,” Gass said during the conversation. “I’m so glad to hear about the broadband, because people that don’t have access to computers — for example, in some rural areas — if they get unemployed, they need to have the payment process. So we can talk more about how we want to make sure that … when you file online as compared to the filing papers, that experience should be the same. One cannot have an advantage versus the other because they filed in a different situation.”

She added a message to vendors: For any proposed solution or service, being customer-friendly “must be at the top of the heap, because now everybody’s talking about customer experience.” She said that ensuring equity for EDD clients means “it needs to be able to include multiple languages, not just the front end; it has to be an end-to-end solution for multilanguage. … How does your paper solution integrate with your online solution? Because until things change, like legislative change, paper’s still going to be quite an add.”

Gass noted that the new state budget includes no significant changes in funding for EDD in the coming fiscal year.

For DOR, Johnson pointed out that accessibility for those with disabilities is all about ensuring equity — and for DOR, that means “meeting clients where they are” and ensuring that its offerings build in that disability accessibility from their inception, not as an afterthought.

His department is the largest vocational rehabilitation program in the nation, with about 1,800 employees and a client list of about 120,000 Californians. Like Gass, he said his department will have no significant changes this year in the new budget. And, he said, its mission remains the same: “Our mission is to, through our direct services and our advocacy, drive the employment, independent living and equality for people with disabilities.”

“So much of that work is done through providing direct services and to prepare our program participants for work, and to actually help them attain employment or to attain better employment,” Johnson said. “And then we also partner with various other state entities including EDD, and with community partners.”

Specifically, Johnson noted, “there are technologies that go along with accessibility, that we describe as assistive technology, right? So you could have a computer with a screen reader to read everything if you’re blind. Or if you have a mobility-related disability, you can have a voice recognition product or something like that.”

He added: “In our department, we’re mostly focused on people with disabilities, but it is a larger question: Just how can we make sure everyone who needs or wants this service is able to get it? That’s the dream. That’s the vision, that’s the goal. That’s what I get up doing every morning and go to sleep after doing most every day.”

Johnson noted that in working with “household name-type vendors, one of the first questions we ask is, ‘Is your product accessible? Can we build accessible solutions? Can we drive equity using your product?’ So we use a lot of the technology that others use.” He said that includes workflow solutions — something many state agencies are focusing on.

His advice to vendors echoes what many government technologists advise: Know the agency, know its mission, and research its needs.

“It’s easiest to work with us when you make it easy for us to work with you and, during that first conversation, if we get the feeling of ‘This is happening,’” he said.

Johnson wryly offered an example of what not to do, citing a long email pitch he recently received from a vendor who thought DOR was the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

*Industry Insider, Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government are part of e.Republic.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.