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Assisting the Disabled

July 1, 1996
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article
When a bad fall on a patch of ice three years ago ended Maureen Swatman's career as an air traffic controller, it didn't take away her desire to make the most of life. Left with deteriorating vision, dizziness and blackouts from her head injuries, she could've lost hope for her future. Instead, she turned her life's challenges into new opportunities for herself and others living with disabilities.

Out of her Guelph, Ontario home in Canada, Swatman operates Edge-Ability, a home-based business that helps persons with disabilities overcome obstacles—in their career aspirations and in their lives. She teaches others how to use computers, learn Braille, find resources and identify possible careers. Swatman recognizes that technology can play a key role.

A picture of progress.
"For many people, technology is giving back our lives," says Swatman. She credits the increase in connectivity, by which people can work from their homes and still be linked to the office, as part of this transformation. She explains that many offices, particularly those built years ago, simply can't be adapted to accommodate disabled employees. She sees hope in telecommuting. "Businesses can't always afford to accommodate disabled persons in their offices, but they can accommodate their ability to work remotely."

Rogers Cablesystems, in Toronto, has gone full-out to accommodate persons with disabilities. Its inbound call center, which receives many customer inquiries each day, was designed from scratch to be fully accessible. Throughout the design process, management sought feedback from employees with special needs. Textured tile around the perimeter of the work area helps those without vision identify the dimensions of the room. Adjacent walls are painted in contrasting tones, for those with limited vision. Adjustable desks, two-lane aisles and hydraulic lifts are designed to ease access for those in wheelchairs. These are just a few of the center's features.

"Having a mandate to remove barriers is simply good business practice," explains Joan Simkins, manager, public relations for Rogers. "It opens up the doors to get the best people to work for us."

Reg Sullivan, team manager of the center, who is himself visually impaired, credits Rogers' proactive approach. By providing the necessary tools for those with special needs, disabilities become invisible, and the company can promote on the basis of ability, he explains.

Sullivan uses a speech synthesizer, which works with software to translate print on screen into sound files that a visually-impaired person can hear. Many speech-synthesis systems work with a variety of mainstream software packages, and can be configured to individual users. Sullivan's system costs approximately $1,500.

Who's passing the buck?
An interesting irony is that in today's increasingly high-tech world, where many fear their jobs will be replaced by automation, others are finding technology may be giving them a new chance. Swatman is optimistic that progress is being made. However, she feels that government, industry and support groups all have a long way to go.

"It seems like we're 50 years behind in a lot of ways. Because of inadequate funding, many disability groups don't have access to the business world. The technology is available, but everyone feels that buying it and putting it in place is someone else's responsibility," she says.

Sullivan suggests part of the education process is the responsibility of the person with special needs. "As a disabled person, I need to be able to present and justify ideas and expenses the same as anyone else."

At last count, Edge-Ability's Swatman identified 350 companies in North America that manufacture various specialty equipment. A wide range of hardware and software is available for the computer user which addresses the needs for a variety of disabilities. Some examples:

  • For the hearing impaired: speech amplification devices in specially made telephones, flashing lights (in place of ringers) and vibrating beepers.
  • For the mobility impaired (such as those who are unable to use their arms): hands-free, infrared pointing devices consisting of a receiver, a reflector, and software that can be used in place of a keyboard.
  • For the visually impaired: special monitors, speech synthesizers and electronic Braille devices.

With so many companies manufacturing products for persons with disabilities, what leads Swatman and others to say that businesses aren't doing enough?

April Kerr, director of enTech, a Louisville, Kentucky-based resource center for assistive technology, says part of the problem is that many employers feel they can't afford to accommodate disabled persons. "There's a lot of misconception that the costs of the technology are very high," explains Kerr. "While in some cases this may be true, often all that's required is a minor modification [to existing equipment]."

Accommodations can be simple and low cost.
Kerr explains that for some employees, a simple adjustment to the height of a table, or the purchase of inexpensive voice-synthesis hardware and software, can make all the difference.

Swatman agrees. She says Microsoft is among the leaders in adapting its software to accommodate many disabled persons. Microsoft has built several features into its Windows 95™ operating system, based on research conducted with users, organizations representing people with disabilities, workers in rehabilitation and other vendors who create products for this market. Many of these features might be invisible to the average user, but for those who need them, they're very valuable. For example, persons with limited vision can adjust the sizes of window titles, scroll bars, borders, menu text, icons and other elements.

For hearing impaired users, Windows can send a visual cue, such as a blinking title bar or screen flash, whenever the system makes a sound. This allows users to see messages they might not have heard. More details about Microsoft's accessibility commitment can be found on the company's web site on the Internet.

Such advances bring much hope for the disabled worker and those accommodating them on the job. Ask Deborah Meehan, manager of corporate relations for the Computer Technologies Program based in Berkeley, California. The Computer Technologies Program, she says, trains the disabled for careers in the communication technology field. Meehan emphasizes the costs for assistive technology should be viewed the same way as any other investment in employee performance. "Most companies already make significant investments in their employees, whether for training or for tools. Providing the technology to enhance a disabled employee's performance also should be considered a wise investment, she says."

While Kerr believes it's important to create opportunities for employees with disabilities to enter the workforce, she says it's equally important to accommodate those who already are employed and who become disabled. The problem, she says, is that few companies understand what resources are available. "I would never suggest that companies are trying to drive disabled persons out of the workforce," says Kerr. "Businesses just don't know where the solutions are. Organizations such as ours need to work harder to help employers see the possibilities."

Technology can level the playing field.
Advances in voice recognition and playback technology may change the way we all interact with our computers. The keyboard and mouse may become redundant, to be replaced with voice-activated functions. When this transformation is complete, those with limited motion capabilities will be able to perform identical functions to those with stronger motor skills. Meehan says this will benefit all employees. "Many of the advances that benefit persons with disabilities may ultimately be of value to broader employee populations, by helping to prevent injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome," explains Meehan.

Legislation also is promoting greater awareness and progress. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with known physical or mental disabilities. One element in this accommodation is the provision of assistive technology.

Meehan believes that it's too early to tell what long-term impact the ADA will have on the landscape of the workforce, but she thinks it at least creates a greater "moral imperative" for employers.

Where do we go from here? Kerr feels progress is being made, but we all have additional steps to take. "We need to be further along in understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act, the technology and the resources available."

According to Meehan, "Human resources professionals don't have to become experts in assistive technology. They just need to know how to find the resources." For starters, she advises contacting three California-based groups: The Center for Accessible Technology (510/841-3224), Berkeley; The Sensory Access Foundation (415/ 329-0430), Palo Alto; or Voice Recognition Systems (408/847-2874), Morgan Hill.

Rogers' Sullivan suggests that human resources professionals, and all of management, need to look at their staff needs, and obtain participation from those with special needs. As well, he suggests people should visit trade shows and benchmark with companies that have made strides in accessibility. Says Sullivan, "When people see how productive a disabled person can be, it's often a real eye-opener."

Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, pp. 89-91.

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