By Suzanne Robitaille
Technology is a great enabler, but for America's 54 million citizens with disabilities it's more than that -- it's a lifeline. Assistive technology gives these people a better shot at success, via innovations that help the blind "read" magazines, the deaf "hear" college lectures, and those with cognitive or mobility impairments to write, talk, and use computers.
Without such equipment, the disabled might have to rely on kin or Medicare. In fact, many already lag behind in school and the workplace, victims of a visible chasm of social disadvantage: One out of five adults with disabilities hasn't graduated from high school, vs. fewer than one in ten of those without disabilities. Unemployment rates for the disabled of working-age hover at around 70%, more than 10 times that for people without disabilities and of the same age.
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While plenty of technology is now available to help these people -- hundreds of companies manufacture thousands of products for them -- much remains to be done before they're plugged in, hooked up, or logged on. The primary obstacle to that may be that assistive technology can be prohibitively expensive: A personal computer configured for a disabled person's use can cost as little as $2,000 or as much as $20,000, depending on the user's needs. Most employers aren't in the habit of spending that much for a laptop, so for the forseeable future, the push to make assistive technology widely available must come from Washington.
For instance, schools that accept federal aid are now required to provide individualized education programs, or IEPs, for their special-needs students and to purchase technology that will enhance their learning experience. In the workplace, employers often will foot the bill for assistive technology in the name of a "reasonable accommodation" that's required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Private insurers will pay for some assistive technology that falls within the definition of Durable Medical Equipment -- wheelchairs, hospital beds, or oxygen tanks that are prescribed by a physician. And unemployed or low-income individuals can get such equipment through Medicare.
Two other federal statutes also are helping to push the envelope: Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires makers of telecom equipment to make sure the disabled can use their products and services. And Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires most federal agencies to use only "accessible" electronic and information technology -- including making their Web sites usable for the disabled.
Meanwhile, the federal government's involvement is spurring companies to develop cutting-edge technologies. IBM, for instance, is testing Netscribe, software for the deaf that translates a professor's spoken lecture into a text document that can be printed or viewed online, complete with corresponding graphics and slides. Netscribe's bugs are being worked out in real-life experiments at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at a few U.S. universities. If the product proves successful, IBM hopes to sell it to schools -- and perhaps also launch it as a virtual conferencing tool for companies.
IBM says Netscribe is a hit with mobility-impaired students who can't take handwritten notes and with foreign students who might not fully understand every word of a lecture and want to revisit the transcript.
Another imaginative approach comes from Xerox (XRX ), which has launched a digital copier that lets the blind and visually impaired make photocopies without assistance, using a PC that runs Xerox's Copier Assistant software and is connected to a Xerox copier. Copier Assistant uses text-to-speech technology to talk the user through the copying process -- and sells for only about $500. It may never be a huge revenue generator, but Xerox is hoping to capture the business of some of the 12 million Americans with visual impairments. It's also aiming for the aging boomer population, which in theory would prefer to talk to a copier rather than press buttons and might like an enlarged on-screen user interface.
To hold down its development costs, Xerox partnered with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired-Goodwill Industries in Rochester, N.Y. -- a new approach that big companies are using to get ADA-compliant products onto shelves quickly. Thanks to that partnership, in which Xerox created the product while the the agency tested it, the new software took only about nine months to finish.
It may take years for such advances to lower the unemployment rate of the disabled to something below Depression levels and to raise their education standards above those of developing countries: It has already been 13 years since the passage of the ADA, and both problems persist.
Yet momentum is building to bring more assisitive technology to market. And as it arrives, it will create more work opportunities for millions of disabled people, lessen their financial burden on society, and help do away with the stigma that's attached to them. Technology gives the disabled a chance to function more autonomously, in school and in industry. And in a society that values hard work and independence, that can make it a great equalizer. Still, Washington needs to keep up the pressure for assistive technologies -- and employers and the wider public should give the disabled a chance to show what they can do.
Robitaille covers assistive-technology issues in New York