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Technology Helps Disabled Intelligence Officer Excel

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2004 – A visually impaired Defense Intelligence Agency employee continues to excel at her work, thanks to technology and the government's willingness to provide "reasonable accommodations."

Intelligence officer Paula L. Briscoe has been on the job with the Defense Department for four years. Before that, she spent two years with the directorate of reserve affairs in the Army Surgeon General's Office.

Since she began working with the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2000, she has had many awards bestowed upon her for outstanding work. It is, however, the folks in DIA's diversity management division who helped her to get where she is today, she said.

"It's a little bit unfair that I'm the one that's given an award when, in fact, it's their hard work that's made it possible for me to do my job," she said.

It's the diversity management division that has helped make the "reasonable accommodations" that Briscoe needs to succeed at her job, she said. Some were as simple as providing a desk area large enough for her guide dog, Jenny, to stretch out during the day.

On the more technological side, she uses a closed circuit TV that projects a magnified document onto a larger screen. She uses this device for writing and reading print documents. She also has a scanner hooked up to her computer that uses optical character recognition software. This is beneficial, she said, in case a document can't be obtained electronically. If that is the case, the document is fed through the scanner and optical character reader software turns the information into a text document that the screen reader, another special device, then reads to her in a human-sounding voice.

But the technology she uses the most, she said is a software package called ZoomText. It can be manipulated to magnify an entire page, a section of the page or will even magnify whatever she rolls her mouse over. It also incorporates a text-to-speech function, which will read anything that appears electronically, she said.

"I love gadgets. But more importantly, gadgets open up a whole world that was really very closed to me growing up," Briscoe said. "I wouldn't be able to do the job that I do without the technology. I would need at least one full-time assistant, possibly two, just to read through the information that I'm able to read through using the computer technology today."

Technologies aren't all that's important in helping her to do her job, though. She said DoD's computer and technology accommodations were fairly well established, but that challenges can come in people's perception and understanding.

"What you really have to overcome when you go to any new job is people's understanding of what you are and are not capable of doing," she said.

That doesn't seem to be a problem for Briscoe and Jenny. She said that everywhere she goes, people try to do little things that make her life easier.

"I think everybody sees me as one of their colleagues and goes a little extra distance to look after me and to make sure that if they want to leave me a note or message, they send it in a larger font or write it bigger."

She added that no one should assume anything of a colleague with a physical disability. Most people, she said, are very willing to explain anything they can, as long as you approach them with respect.

Briscoe has been visually impaired since birth. She was a premature baby and the time spent in an incubator caused scarring to her retinas. She hasn't let her impairment slow her down, though. She has been a licensed scuba diver for 20 years and has just enough sight to really enjoy it, she said.

She earned her bachelor's degree in political science form Frostburg State University in 1989 and her doctorate from the University of St. Andrews' School of International Relations and Economics in Scotland, where she also worked for a time as a chef in a three-star restaurant.

As an intelligence officer with the DoD, she was selected for the J2 Iraq Intelligence Task Force Middle East Working Group in direct support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2002, she received a special achievement award for sustained superior performance, the joint meritorious award and the director's annual agency team award in recognition of outstanding contributions to the Noble Eagle/Enduring Freedom/Global War on Terrorism Intelligence Task Force.

In 2003, Briscoe was given a certificate of commendation for service on a regional working group supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In December 2003, she was recognized, along with 16 other DoD employees, as an outstanding employee with disabilities during the 23rd annual DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and the 16th Annual Disability Forum.

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