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How VoIP Can Connect the Disabled

By Suzanne Robitaille Don Barrett's phone is his best assistant at work. Barrett, who's blind, has a phone that uses spoken voice to let him know who the caller is or to read to him the messages people leave when he misses a call. He can even use voice commands to tell his phone to find a number in his electronic Rolodex.

None of these tasks are possible with a traditional phone, but Barrett is ahead of the game. He's using a PC-based phone that runs on voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) technology. With some extra software, he can also hear his e-mail and voice mail from the Internet. At his job as assistive-technology specialist at the U.S. Education Dept., Barrett says the VoIP gear has greatly improved his performance. "I can decide whether to take a call. For me, that's huge."

While VoIP is creating quite a stir in the telecommuncations field overall (see BW Online, 1/6/04, "Finally, 21st Century Phone Service"), it's an especially promising technology for people with disabilities. VoIP integrates the phone, voice mail, audioconferencing, e-mail, instant messaging, and Web applications like Microsoft Outlook on one secure, seamless network. Plus, workers can use their PC, laptop, or handheld as a VoIP phone from virtually anywhere, with the same phone number, which benefits telecommuters, including those whose mobility is impaired and must work from home.

THE BUILDOUT CHALLENGE. The biggest draw for the disabled is that everything can be accessed through voice, audio, or a combination of both. Deaf employees can place or receive TTY-compatible calls from their computer without the need for a legacy TTY device. TTY, which uses tones to transmit typed conversations over phone wires, is now the main form of phone communication for the deaf and speech-impaired.

With VoIP, deaf workers can read their voice mail from their e-mail program, in a fraction of the time it takes with a TTY, which operates at a slow 45 baud per second. And blind workers can use a Microsoft (MSFT) Windows-based application called a softphone in conjunction with an IP phone to hear audible caller ID, a missed-call log, and line status without the need to memorize or mark buttons on the phone.

Better yet, VoIP is also one of the cheapest technologies available that can help the disabled perform their jobs better. It costs virtually nothing to operate. The biggest challenge now is in the buildout: At the Education Dept. where Barrett works, it's available in about one-third of the offices.

"NO THOUGHT." And most private companies still don't have a clue about how to piece together a VoIP system to take advantage of all its functions. "A typical company that moves to VoIP selects a system based on their business needs and their current technology," says Jim Tobias, president of Inclusive Technologies, an accessible-tech consulting firm in Matawan, N.J. "There may have been no thought given to accessibility at any point in that process."

With VoIP gaining ground in Corporate America, people with disabilities need to make their needs known and make sure companies are aware of all its capabilities. It's estimated that 15% of all phones sold to companies use VoIP technology, a figure that could exceed 50% by 2006, predicts research firm Gartner. In the private sector, employers are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" to their disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Smart managers will think of VoIP as empowering workers with disabilities to perform their jobs better.

However, setting up VoIP to use assistive-technology software isn't necessarily a snap. Just being a technically savvy employee might not be enough. It often takes a trained telecom or information-technology manager to assemble a VoIP system for workers' individualized assistive needs.

STICKIER ISSUES. Fortunately, some VoIP providers understand this and are working with third-party vendors to create accessible solutions. VoIP is run on open standards, which make it possible for assistive technology to work with IP software. A company called Berbee, in Madison, Wis., has built an emergency-broadcast system for the Commerce Dept. dubbed Informacast. The tool simultaneously sends audio streams and text messages to multiple Cisco (CSCO) IP phones, so that deaf and blind workers won't miss important alerts, like fire alarms.

In May, IT industry and disability advocates will meet in Washington, D.C., for followup talks with the Federal Communications Commission. The goal: to suggest accessibility solutions for VoIP. They'll address some of the stickier issues, like TTY calls. VoIP is designed to transmit only human speech, so TTY data is more likely to get distorted, rendering the conversation unreadable.

The FCC has long required telecoms to provide free, round-the-clock access to TTY relay operators who assist the deaf in talking to hearing users. The government pays $1.40 a minute for relay calls. VoIP providers are trying to avoid telecom regulations because these companies bypass the public phone network. For the FCC to sign off on VoIP, however, providers will have to show that they can provide, and successfully transmit, TTY code over an IP network. Any loss of data or quality in a call would, theoretically, breach the ADA.

A push in Washington, along with Corporate America's embrace of VoIP, could go along way in helping people with disabilities become more productive and useful workers. Manufacturers and access providers need to shape the infrastructure to make VoIP perform for those whose vision or hearing are impaired as well as it does for others. Then, blind and deaf workers can experience what everyone else does: ubiquitous access to information, and finally, a handy option for screening their calls. Robitaille covers assistive technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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