Riskon in the News

April 1, 2002 Risk & Insurance
"No Limitations for the Disabled"
By Tom Starner

Workplace-related assistive technologies are providing
disabled employees with the tools to be more effective workers.

As the first blind employee at Earthlink, the large Internet service provider based in Atlanta, David Redman was a pioneer. But Redman says that without assistive technology (AT), he would not have had the opportunity to start work as a support specialist at Earthlink five years ago.

"Earthlink looked at my resume, tested, interviewed, and hired me," says Redman, whose wife, Margaret, also blind, has worked at Earthlink. "But before starting the job, both Earthlink and I brought in the different types of technology I would need. We were pretty much flying by seat of pants, but we figured out how to make it work." Within a few months of Redman's arrival, Earthlink had six blind people within its ranks.

In the ensuing years since the Redmans joined Earthlink, technology has continued to make advances in helping people with disabilities to be even more effective employees in a wide range of jobs. From powerful screen readers to refreshable Braille terminals, from voice synthesizers to accessible Web sites and online forms, companies are creating, and smart ones are using, innovative technologies built on past successes. Simply stated, assistive technology works with a computer or operating system to accommodate specific disabilities.

"The state of assistive technology is really good right now," says Barry Honig, founder and president of Riskon, a New York City executive recruiting firm. Honig, who is blind, says that from the speech synthesis software he uses to the entire Windows accessibility environment, technology is creating a wide-open avenue to success. "With today's assistive technology, a disabled person has almost no limitations in terms of what he or she can do," he says. "Of course, they have to be hired first."

According to Joy Relton, who is blind and works as a systems analyst in Unisys Corp.'s Assistive Devices Lab, current statistics reveal that about 20 percent of the population is or will become disabled in their lives. With the baby boomers getting older, hearing and sight in the general population aren't expected to improve in the years ahead. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there currently are 54 million people with disabilities in the United States.

"We've become much more computer dependent today, and that's food for the disabled," says Relton, who regularly tests new workplace-related assistive technologies.

"Companies need to realize that a larger percentage of employees and customers will be disabled, or employees and customers will have a family member who needs assistive technologies on the job."

To give the disabled a boost, in mid-June 2001, the federal government enacted Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. In a nutshell, Section 508 requires federal agencies begin their commitment to ensure that their Web sites, IT, and telecommunications equipment are accessible to users with disabilities. Even though Section 508 applies only to federal Web sites (not private sector sites), many experts believe that the law will drive increased AT in the private sector as well. For example, Web sites or portions of Web sites provided under contract to a federal agency must also comply. The stakes are high, as the federal market for technology vendors is $40 billion annually. Currently, there are about 167,000 federal employees with disabilities.

"It's a carrot-and-stick idea," says Relton. "If the federal government wants to buy, it has to meet these standards. So we at Unisys have to offer products that meet the standards."

Unisys isn't alone, as big name vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Adobe, Compaq, and some not so large companies such as Crunchy Technologies, Hi/Software and others, are doing their best to remain government technology vendors of choice.

According to Mike Wagner, vice president of sales at iCan! Inc., a solutions and services company that, among other things, provides consulting to businesses looking to hire disabled workers, Microsoft has taken the clear-cut lead when it comes to assistive technology.

"The newest thing, and the only really big news, is Microsoft's latest operating system," Wagner says. "Microsoft continues to lead the way in accessibility. Without an accessible operating system, you can't build other products that will work."

Before the release of Microsoft's latest OS, Windows XP, AT users waited up to 18 months for devices and applications to support newly released operating systems. In the development of Windows XP, Microsoft worked with assistive technology vendors so that software such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, on-screen keyboards, and hardware such as one-handed keyboards and augmentative communication devices addressed a wide range of disabilities and were available when Windows XP hit the shelves.

Companies including Ai Squared, Dolphin Computer Access, Freedom Scientific Inc., GW Micro Inc., Interactive Solutions Inc., NXi Communications Inc., Tash Inc. and many others currently have, or soon will have, assistive technologies available that support Windows XP.
"Freedom Scientific and Microsoft worked together during the development phase of Windows XP to ensure that users who are blind or have low vision will have the necessary assistive technology that will seamlessly integrate with the new operating system," said Eric Damery, vice president of business development for software at Freedom Scientific Inc., which makes the popular JAWS for Windows screen readers and OPENBook 5.0., a scanning and reading software.

Apart from Microsoft XP's latest advances on the operating system front, there are improving technologies that allow the disabled to be productive in the workplace.

The Visually Impaired

Considered by many experts as the toughest workplace challenge, people who are either blind or visually impaired have several options open to them.

As mentioned, Freedom Scientific, of Carlsbad, Calif., offers its JAWS for Windows screen reader, a text-to-speech solution for blind or visually impaired workers. Using JAWS and other screen reader programs, a blind user can have virtually as much functionality as a sighted user and can perform the same tasks as fast, or in some cases, faster than a sighted person with the use of keystrokes. The JAWS text-to-speech (TTS) software engine is clear and accurate, and the speed of speech can be adjusted to the skill level of the user. JAWS also offers functionality with the Internet using Microsoft's Internet Explorer. JAWS supports the World Wide Web, e-mail, chat, and instant messaging.

A related product, Accelio's Verbal-Eyes online forms service enhances opportunities for the disabled who use screen readers/magnifiers, voice input, on-screen keyboards, and keyboard switches.

If Verbal-Eyes detects that a user is running a screen reader, it will automatically take action by dynamically determining what is required to activate its speech function and begin speaking to the user. If a screen reader is not in use, Verbal-Eyes remains inactive. Using Verbal-Eyes, anyone can fill out a form online.

Accelio, formerly Jetform, also offers ReachForm, an XML-based electronic forms solution for self-service on the Internet that helps people using assistive technologies. The program allows people with disabilities to use Web-based electronic forms, regardless of their operating environment. When activated by a user, a unique form transformation known as accessible HTML (aHTML) changes the electronic form format from its typical left-to-right, top-to-bottom configuration to a vertical column. Both of these Accelio applications make it much easier for visually impaired or blind users to complete online forms.

At Fonix, the focus is on Pocket PCs, those minicomputers about the size of a PDA. Based in Salt Lake City, Fonix offers a low-cost ($49 per program) suite of text-to-speech applications including TimeTalk Alert, iSpeak! and SpeakThis!. TimeTalk Alert turns Pocket PCs into voice-enabled devices that will tell users when their next appointment is or the time of day in quarter-hour increments, as well as read e-mail that comes over a Web-enabled Pocket PC. TimeTalk also comes with Voice Commander, a speech recognition application that allows users of handhelds such as the Compaq iPAQ to launch applications or tasks using voice commands.

According to Kirk Feller, Fonix's vice president and general manager for consumer applications, the company's recent purchase of DECtalk TTS technology from Force computers signals a strategic move into the assistive technology market.

"Our focus had been on the automobile market, but we really are starting to see how our products fit into the AT arena," Feller says.

Hearing Loss

While TTY (also called Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf, or TDDs) terminals used for two-way text conversation over a telephone line have long dominated the technology arena for deaf or hard of hearing workers, there have been some new tools to improve the situation.

One such product, called NXi Text Services (NTS), gives deaf callers the ability to converse directly with anyone else in an organization. With NTS, callers also can "dial" into an organization with any Web browser.

NTS, from Salt Lake City-base NXi, works in combination with the company's NexTalk for Networks client software. Using the two applications, employers can take advantage of existing computer networks to provide organizationwide communications services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, as well as internal text communications, for all employees. In short, every desktop with a networked computer can be accessible to TTY calls to and from deaf employees.

Another vendor, Phonak Group, based in Switzerland, has been a leading manufacturer of hearing aids for many years. According to Laura Voll, Phonak's marketing director and a certified audiologist, Phonak offers two product lines to help the hearing-impaired in the workplace: digital hearing aides and wireless communications.

Phonak's main technology is a digital hearing aide that reduces background noise using directional microphones to suppress noise. It's called audio zoom, meaning wherever the user looks the sound will be picked up. Voll says the digital hearing aid works very well in the retail workplace, for example, where employees typically converse with customers in noisy environments.

"Digital hearing aids process sound the same way the human ear does," Voll says.

Another technology that is proving adaptable to the work environment is Phonak's wireless communication technology, which uses the FM frequency to transmit sound directly into a hearing aid. For example, Voll says a graphic artist who had hearing disability need to know when printers in a different room had finished a print job. By placing a wireless remote microphone near the printer, the designer could hear the "ding" indicating a print job was completed.

Voll explains that the receiver plugs directly in the hearing aid, so the wireless device could also be used in business meetings, or training classrooms. Another alternative use is to plug the receive directly into a computer or telephone, so the user can take advantage of the hearing aid via a direct input, as opposed to speakers or a phone receiver.

"A call center employee or tech support person can hook the transmitter right to the telephone, which then transmits directly to the hearing aide," she says.

While Phonak typically doesn't work directly with employers, it receives plenty of anecdotal evidence that today's advanced hearing aids are helping deaf people be more productive.

"We have an example of a hearing-impaired customs inspector on an Alaskan shipping dock. When people would come off the boats, he had them speak directly into the communications transmitter," she says. "I cut the background noise completely out."

Upper Body Disabilities

Keybowl Inc. in Winter Park Fla., launched in 1997 with a single product in mind: An ergonomic computer keyboard that avoids the hand, finger, and arm stress associated with work on the traditional flat keyboard, as well as several "ergonomically" designed keyboards. The result is the orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard, which isn't really a keyboard at all.

The orbiTouch design was born out of the idea of providing a solution for people who are unable to use traditional keyboards for several reasons, including repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), overuse injuries (caused by any activity that involves repeated and rapid movement), carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), and upper extremity disabilities (UEDs).

The orbiTouch user creates a keystroke by sliding two domes into one of their eight respective positions. By using a combination of those positions, users can "type" whatever letter they desire, as well as mouse strokes.

"It's one of the coolest new assistive technologies around," says iCan! Network's Wagner. "For people with upper body mobility issues, it can be a great help."

Earthlink's Redman says today's rise of technology-based jobs, in tandem with the rise in new AT innovation, is giving the disabled the best chance they have ever had to get into the ranks of the employed in larger numbers.

"Five years ago, I knew most of what I needed and I got some of the equipment from state rehabilitation services," he says. "I also brought my own equipment to make sure I was very employable.

"Whatever money has been spent on technology, I'd say it's been well spent. I think I've got a great ROI," he adds with a laugh. "Hiring a disabled person usually turns out to be a win-win situation for everyone."