By Diane Brady A few weeks ago, after a trivial misunderstanding on a crowded New York subway, an angry woman yanked my finger and managed to break a bone. Things got worse when the emergency-room doctor decided to pull my wedding rings off the rapidly swelling digit. For a week after the surgery, my hand was in a plaster cast before being upgraded to a splint that immobilizes three fingers on my left hand. Thus my introduction to life as a disabled worker.
Suddenly, chores such as typing, opening mail, or carrying both a notepad and cup became even tougher than coaxing a media-shy CEO to say something revealing. Business lunches would begin with expressions of sympathy and debates on the best options for one-handed eating. Deborah Holmes, a hard-charging national director at Ernst & Young, kindly offered to cut my food as I struggled to spear a piece of fish. Pull-on pants and wide-sleeved shirts became my new "dress for success" wardrobe.
As a writer, I had to adapt quickly. Overnight, I became part of a large fraternity of workers who face physical hurdles in doing their jobs. About 300,000 Americans a year suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and other work-related "repeated trauma" injuries besides back pain, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. Moreover, at least 50 million Americans have physical or mental disabilities that impair their ability to function effectively as workers.
SPEAK A STORY. During the buoyant job market of the late 1990s, new technologies from braille keyboards to eye-gaze programs enabling paralyzed people to type helped thousands of disabled workers make inroads into Corporate America, where they had once been barred at the door. But even the most sympathetic boss wants maximum productivity. Deadlines wouldn't shift just because I was typing with one hand, so I decided to try out voice-recognition software that could help me speak rather than write stories.
Several software options are on the market, but our help desk chose IBM's ViaVoice for Windows. It included a headset and a short tutorial program that would enable me to train the system to recognize the idiosyncrasies of my voice. After reading the instructions out loud and a few passages from Treasure Island, I was off. I was amazed at how easy it was to get the system to function reasonably well. That may be because of my flat Ontario accent since our Taiwanese technician said the system did not work so well for him.
But there were glitches. Despite the instructions, I had a hard time telling the software to "go to sleep" or turn off whenever phone calls came in. That meant entire conversations would end up in the body of my stories, with the rapid banter of telephone talk translated into gibberish text. One example: "Yale will you as the loyal fish a malevolent feminine the Wegener of a new over Major's Korea," which popped up during a conversation with an executive at General Electric.
BRAIN POWER COUNTS. I also found myself cheating -- using my good hand to correct words or move the cursor around. Overall, though, the system works so well that I hope to use it later as a fast way to transcribe tapes.
There are other adjustments, of course. Although right-handed, I had not realized how much my left hand comes in -- well, handy. The tight security at our Rockefeller Center building -- with its turnstiles, exit buttons, and electronic passes -- can be tough to negotiate with one hand. It's tougher to sip tea while I work or sort through papers as I write.
But these are hassles that will, of course, pass once the finger heals. Meanwhile, I've discovered that the workplace need not be hostile to those with disabilities. After all, in a knowledge economy, what really matters is brain power. Technology that allows workers to transcend physical limitations is not only empowering to individuals. It's good for business.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the May 12, 2003, issue of BusinessWeek. Associate Editor Brady covers corporate trends from New York