Department: Job Accommodation
Over the past ten years, the personal computer has created a new world of independence for persons with disabilities. This is due to the fact that computers can easily and readily accept peripherals and software to perform very specific tasks. Standard personal computers can thus be fitted with third-party hardware and software to make them accessible to persons with a wide range of disabilities, resulting in increased independence and productivity. This is most obvious in the workplace, where assistive technology has allowed thousands to maintain competitive employment. For example, persons with vision impairments can use speech, braille, or magnification systems to access personal computers independently. Users with motor impairments can augment or bypass the standard keyboard, and even control the computer using voice commands if necessary. These are only a few of the myriad assistive technologies available, resulting in increased employment and independence of thousands of persons with disabilities.
The subject of job accommodations is of great interest among companies and corporations, now that the Americans with Disabilities Act is in force. Under the ADA, public and private organizations are mandated to provide "reasonable accommodation" to new workers or existing workers with disabilities. What is reasonable accommodation? Reasonable accommodation involves making jobs accessible to persons with disabilities, permitting equal access to the fruits of positive labor. Reasonable accommodation is often translated to mean the provision of assistive or adaptive technology, enabling an individual to perform a job independently. Fortunately, there is no shortage of assistive hardware and software on the open market.
Unfortunately, many managers and individuals still cling to the belief that assistive technology is expensive, but nothing could be further from reality. Moreover, this false belief all too often stands in the way of individuals being hired for gainful employment. Current adaptive hardware and software products are no more expensive, in many cases, than standard computer peripherals. In most cases, it is less expensive to adapt a personal computer for an individual with a disability than it is to add a printer to the existing system.
An example is provided to demonstrate this point: The Echo speech synthesizer (Echo Speech Corporation) costs about $150.00, and the TinyTalk screen reader software (OMS Development) sells for about $75.00, resulting in a DOS-based speech access system for a visually impaired computer user for about $225.00. The Echo synthesizer is an external device, and connects to any standard serial port, and is small enough to fit in a coat pocket, thus making it able to be utilized on more than one system. Clearly, an adaptive device that costs around two-hundred dollars will pay for itself many times over if the individual uses the equipment to obtain or maintain gainful employment.
We are very fortunate to live in a time when electronics and computers can make our lives and work much easier. The trend towards less expensive and more plentiful adaptive technology is on the rise, with many mainstream computer platforms incorporating assistive equipment into their hardware or operating systems. For example, the Macintosh has a built-in magnification program, allowing visually impaired users to increase text to a comfortable viewing size. Key enhancement features like sticky-keys are being built into many computer platforms, making it easier for users with motor disabilities. With all these positive trends, it might be tempting to believe that all the problems have been solved, but difficulties still remain vast on the horizon.
One of the most serious problems today is that adaptive technology often lags years behind mainstream hardware and software development. For example, Microsoft Windows was on the market for several years before speech-based screen readers were available for blind and visually impaired users. Now that a handful of speech access programs for Windows have entered the market, Microsoft is testing yet another version of Windows, which may not work with the current crop of screen access systems. This scenario is all too often repeated over and over again, forcing persons with disabilities to play a constant game of technological tag. But these games are for keeps, with the livelihoods of thousands of individuals hanging in the balance. Every software package that cannot work with adaptive equipment represents lost jobs.
In closing, perhaps we can use our college campuses to make the playing field more level. If we educate our future programmers about the needs of users with disabilities, perhaps future software products can be made more accessible and user friendly to all in the process. Mainstream hardware and software companies need to work closely with adaptive vendors, to assure the compatibility of new products with assistive technology. It goes without saying that technology is advancing without limit, and clearly we are capable of solving many of the problems of the disabled community through the application of mainstream and adaptive technology. Clearly, our problems are not with technology, but with politics. Personal computers can be programmed to perform any function on command, at the press of a single key.
If we wanted to make it a reality, all hardware and software could be accessible, right out of the box. This increased access would lead to more jobs and independence in the disabled community. Indeed, it would result in lower taxes, as rehabilitation costs would decrease significantly. A great deal of rehabilitation dollars are spent forcing uncooperative computer systems to work with adaptive hardware and software. If mainstream systems were adaptive-aware, much time and money could be redirected to other pursuits. If we will take the time to build a new information structure, one that is accessible to everyone, we will create a world where every individual can fully utilize their abilities.
Job Accommodation Resources
We will publish in every issue valuable government and private sector resources. The editors encourage you to provide information for publication, as we are constantly searching for useful and interesting material for this section. Please send job accommodation related information to: Joseph Lazzaro, 88 Kingston Street, Boston, Massachusetts, 02111. Internet electronic mail can also be used to submit material to the following address: Lazzaro@Bix.com. We prefer material in electronic format if possible.
The major online services are an excellent source of information regarding assistive technology. CompuServe, Genie, Delphi, and Bix all have conferences and forums dedicated to assistive technology issues. These conferences and forums allow online subscribers to read large message bases of information, and to ask questions of other users and experts in the field. Most services offer software downloads, allowing end users to obtain shareware software, demonstration versions of adaptive software, documentation files, as well as articles and reviews written by end-users. For example, Delphi features the WIDNet service, run by the World Institute on Disability from Oakland California. WIDNet features a large message base that can be searched, as well as databases of information. Software programs are also available for download. The editor of this section is moderator of the Adaptive Technology forumn on the BIX online service. BIX, owned and operated by Delphi Internet Services, features a large base of technically-oriented users. The Adaptive Technology conference on BIX focuses on computers and adaptive hardware and software. Contact the various online services directly for specific information regarding specific availability and pricing structure.
JAN BBS: The Job Accommodation BBS is a free bulletin board service, dedicated to providing information about assistive technology. JAN offers electronic mail and file download areas to its subscribers. The board is a good place to ask questions of the experts, and can be accessed by calling 800-342-5526.
ADA Toll-Free: The Americans with Disabilities Act is a long and complex document, and interpreting it can often be difficult. This is particularly true of managers in the private sector, who are not always sure about compliance issues. For free assistance on the ADA, the nearest technical assistance center can be contacted by calling 800-949-4232.
New COCA Handbook: The Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodations in Washington has published a new handbook that describes how to create and support an accessible information management system. The free guidebook describes how to shop for computers that can easily accept adaptive equipment, and describes how to use assistive technology to overcome information barriers. the guide is available in print and electronic formats. The guide can be obtained by calling 202-501-4906. COCA also runs a bulletin board service, 202-219-0132, where the guide can be downloaded free of charge.
Able Inform BBS: The Able Inform bulletin board offers the nearly comprehensive Abledata database of assistive technology that can be searched online free of charge. The system hosts conference areas and electronic mail for their subscribers. Numerous files are also available for downloading free of charge. For those who have a computer and telecommunications software, the board can be accessed 24 hours a day by calling 301-589-3563. Internet users can also access the bulletin board. Simply telnet to the following address: fedworld.gov. Once there, type dd115, which will take the user to the dial-out menu. Subscribers can also make contact via internet mail at: email@example.com. Readers without a personal computer and modem can access the database by calling an information specialist at 800-227-0216 or 301- 588-9284.
SNAP Program: The AT&T/NCR Special Needs Access Program (SNAP) offers job site evaluations and consulting to private companies. SNAP features system integration of both mainstream and adaptive hardware and software, as well as training and extended technical support. Realizing the need for job site engineering in the private and public sector, SNAP works with everyone from individuals to large federal agencies, offering complete turnkey packages for the disabled end user. SNAP also sells both mainstream and adaptive systems, and will thus take responsibility for the complete system package. The program works with all disabilities, and in all regions of the United States. To contact SNAP, dial 800-762-7123 or 301-212-5659.
Accessible Documentation: Digital Equipment Corporation, Maynard Massachusetts, announces new documentation service to serve visually impaired users. The documentation files are available on CDROM in ISO 9660 ASCII format. The files can be read using a voice synthesizer, braille printer, screen magnification software, or other adaptive technology. In its first release, Vision Impaired On-Line Documentation will include information on the following products: ALL-IN-1, DEC BASIC, DEC C, DEC FORTRAN, DEC Pascal, DEC VTX, DECset, DECtalk PC, OpenVMS, RISC C, ULTRIX, VAX C, VAX COBOL, VAX DATATRIEVE, and VAX Document. Vision Impaired On-Line Documentation, available now in the U.S., may be ordered by calling DECdirect at 800-344-4825. The initial documentation kit sells for $225. A documentation update service is also available, providing three updates annually for $528.
MCB Adaptive Technology Program: Numerous state rehabilitation agencies house adaptive technology programs that can be utilized for job accommodations free of charge to the end user. The Adaptive Technology Program, housed at the Massachusetts Commission For The Blind, is a federally and state funded vocational rehabilitation program that provides assistive equipment to blind vocational rehabilitation consumers within the state of Massachusetts for employment and education. The program works with in-state businesses and schools to facilitate the employment and education of persons with vision impairments. A description of this program is given here for its model status, as an example of a vocational rehabilitation program that provides assistive equipment free of charge to the end user. Readers are encouraged to contact their local rehabilitation agency or commission for the blind for assistance in locating similar local programs. The types of equipment loaned range from low to high tech. The program provides numerous forms of computer adaptations, including speech synthesizers, magnification software, braille printers, closed circuit television systems, optical character reading machines, and other adaptive hardware and software that may be necessary on the job. The program also provides low tech items, such as cassette tape recorders, manual braille typewriters, blank audio tape, talking calculators, and other assistive devices. the Massachusetts Commission For The Blind Adaptive Technology Program can be contacted by calling 617-727-5550 extension 4305.
RESNA Technology Assistance Act: The federal government has funded the Technology Related Assistance Act to streamline the provision of adaptive technology services around the country. Almost every state in the union has now in place an office of assistive technology funded by RESNA in Washington DC. These various programs provide demonstrations of adaptive equipment, training, and advocacy, depending on the state. For more information about specific Technology Assistance state projects, contact Resna at 703-524-6686.
GUI Access: Over the past several years, the problem of accessing Microsoft Windows by blind users has been an issue of great importance. This was chiefly due to the fact that until very recently, Microsoft Windows was not accessible for speech or braille users. There are now three Windows-based screen readers currently on the market: Window Bridge from Syntha-Voice (905-662-0565), Winvision from Artic (313-588-7370), and Protalk from Biolink (604-984-4099). These programs have different capabilities, but allow users to access many features and applications of MS Windows. Development on access to the graphical user interface continues, as companies like Berkeley Systems, GW Micro, Henter Joyce, and Blazie Engineering continue to work on their own access technology for Windows.