Adaptive tech breaks auditory, visual and dexterity barriers

Mark Dubnick like millions of other people surfs the Internet and uses the latest technology to traipse through offerings on the World Wide Web.

In his case however it's not the slick graphics that attract him. Because he's completely blind Dubnick doesn't get much out of the cyber-effects that most people expect on their Net journeys.

"The World Wide Web is a problem Windows is a problem and the Mac is a problem " said Dubnick a senior staff fellow at the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The population of disabled federal workers is sizable. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the end of fiscal 1995 there were almost 175 000 reported disabled people in government some 7 percent of the total workforce.

As with other disabled federal workers Dubnick's challenge is finding ways to use computers and other tools that nonhandicapped people take for granted.

Finding the most effective devices and technology to help do that is one of the biggest barriers. Ironically the Internet is proving to be one of the best new aids to doing so.

"I found the information on my own " said Ravelle Lutz a program management specialist at the Customs Service who became disabled with carpal tunnel syndrome in 1994. "At the time there was very little information available on adaptive technology. My husband helped me search the Internet - of course doing all the keying."

Lutz is now no longer so dependent on others for keyboard tasks as she uses a voice recognition system manufactured by Dragon Systems Inc. Newton Mass. to input commands. DragonDictate software comes packaged with a microphone. The software costs $395 to $1 695 depending on the number of words a user wants recognized.

"Without it I would not be able to work. This is clearly an accommodation for my disability " she said.

The General Services Administration's Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA) is actively encouraging the development of Internet-based applications and working to ensure that people with disabilities are not shut out of information sprawled across the Web director Susan Brummel said.

"We are thinking about the types of tools people with disabilities are looking for on the Internet " she said.

Because the Internet allows for the formation of virtual communities and gives workplaces greater powers of collaboration it can be a boon to people with disabilities.

"Even if people don't know the word `access' or think of blind people the Internet has become the surprise collaborative tool of the age " Brummel said.

But equality does not reign on the Internet and even those who are not severely impaired have some difficulty using the Web. Bronna Cohen another NIH employee suffers from repetitive strain disorder and also relies on a voice recognition system to operate her computer.

"The World Wide Web is very point-and-click-oriented and I personally have some pain sometimes when I use my hands " said Cohen a computer specialist. "The temptation to point-and-click is strong but I try to discipline myself to use my voice."

The average agency or company is unlikely to imagine situations such as those of Dubnick or Cohen when designing Web sites.

CITA and others within the government therefore have started an awareness campaign choosing to lead by example.

"It is easy in this high-tech fast-moving world of the Internet to build information that excludes " said Paul Fontaine a computer specialist at GSA who has worked with the White House the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service as well as internally at GSA to ensure that federal information posted on Internet servers is available to everyone.

"The temptation in a lot of cases with Internet information servers is to use high-resolution graphics sound animation and other things that look pretty " he said. "Graphics are not accessible to people who are blind."

It was these sorts of considerations that led to a delay in the White House's unveiling last year of its Internet server.

"I was involved with the initial team that installed the server at the White House " Fontaine said. "It was very important to the White House staff that the server be accessible. There were quite a few design changes since I had gotten involved just as the server was about to be released to the public. "

On behalf of CITA Fontaine is also involved in giving people with disabilities a voice in broad initiatives such as electronic commerce.

"I am not suggesting that people build ugly or nonfunctioning sites" and products he said. "The challenge is to build systems in which the flesh of the system is not restructured for the elegance of the system."

In fact GSA's CITA representatives and those from DOD's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) constantly push the idea that accommodation can be a design asset.

"We encourage people who are designing things to think along the lines of dual use and the potential for use by people with disabilities " CAP director Dinah Cohen said.

"There is a need to always move adaptive technology toward better integration with mainstream technology " she said. "As we design future systems we need to think of the users that may not see hear or understand information. They really need systems to be user-friendly."

Last August CAP opened a technology center in the Pentagon where dual-use technology is being promoted as a way of providing for people with disabilities.

Using the dual-use philosophy PW WebSpeak a Trenton N.J.-based company recently designed a "talking browser" for use on the Web.

"Basically what we have done is design a visual display much like Netscape and Explorer that has an auditory output and large-character display - a simplified display for people with low vision or dyslexia and learning disorders " executive vice president Ray Ingram said.

Accessibility champions within the government are using such examples of dual use to strengthen the motivations for considering disabled employees when products are being designed.

"Businesses say there is not enough of a [disabled] population to worry about " CAP's Cohen said. "But why not have that business? Why cut yourself off from that population when all it takes is an understanding of how to do things right?"

All these arguments for example have been laid at the feet of software giant Microsoft Corp. a source of much discontent among disabled users.

"In Windows 3.1 there is now an awful lot of technology but along comes Windows 95 " said Ophelia Falls director of the Agriculture Department's Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment Today (Target) Center. "Microsoft thinks in three to four years it will be fully accessible. But what does that do to someone with a sight disability now?"

That is a question for which NIH's Dubnick has an answer. Through an elaborate setup of accessible devices he routinely works on sophisticated equipment such as Silicon Graphics Inc. supercomputers. But he can be thrown into a tailspin by a routine Windows applications.

"Windows is partially graphics and partially text. A variety of vendors making MS-DOS speech software have moved into the Windows environment " he said. "Now I can kind of work in Windows but some applications are just impossible. Also no commercial vendors are updating MS-DOS programs.... Blind people are always a day late and a dollar short in terms of computer access."

Federal employees with disabilities have a particularly hard time keeping up because the federal government works hard to keep the most current equipment in the hands of its workers and technology is always moving forward said Marc Stenzel vice president of sales and marketing at TeleSensory Inc. a Mountain View Calif. company that specializes in adaptive equipment for blind or visually impaired individuals.

"What happens is that computer technology in the government is so closely tied to the marketplace which changes so rapidly that disabled solutions are easily left behind " he said. "Agencies make wholesale decisions to upgrade and access devices are not available. Managers forget that. But big agencies are getting better and disabled people tend to be very vocal."

Through such visibility the Windows dilemma is showing signs of easing said T.J. Cannady computer/telecommunications accessibility program manager for the IRS which is considered a leading agency in providing accessible technology. In 1994 it ran the $13.5 million Disabled Employee Acquisition Contract exclusively for its disabled employees.

"The biggest trend that I see this year is that although we are still buying DOS-based accessibility products more and more people are getting Windows-based accessibility products or are expressing need for Windows-based products that may be available in the near future " he said.

Sensitivity however is a crucial ingredient according to David Coangelo supervisory attorney in the National Labor Relations Board's Division of Advice. A quadriplegic shot during a robbery 22 years ago while in law school in downtown Washington D.C. Coangelo has benefited greatly from his agency's awareness especially because it recruited him despite his special needs.

"We have a very good employee-assistance program here at NLRB and they are very good at trying to collect resources and adaptive technology for the disabled " he said.

Before getting a voice recognition system Coangelo relied extensively on assistants to perform almost all manual requirements involved in research and writing - the two main ingredients of his job.

"I do the writing now by myself [as well as] the research much of which is done via on-line computer services " said Coangelo who has no mobility beneath his shoulders. "My agency is kind of small and has always been ahead of the curve on any accommodation that can be reasonably made for me here at work."

Though rare these days any disabled employee subject to anything less than the willingness shown to Coangelo's requests is likely to languish in terms of job performance.

Said NIH's Cohen: "I've heard of situations in which an office tells an employee with a disability `You don't really need to use a computer that badly.' That is death for a federal employee these days."Jones is a free-lance writer based in Arlington Va.At a Glance

Status: The needs of disabled workers are gaining more attention but the use of adaptive technology is still an afterthought in most offices.

Issues: Accessibility needs to be considered at the product design stage and the Internet is both a help and a hindrance.

Outlook: Mixed. Adaptive technology is becoming more available but agency apathy is still a barrier to adoption.COMMON ADAPTIVE PRODUCTS

For individuals with dexterity impairments* Voice recognition systems: Peripheral devices that enable the operation of PCs through voice commands. Compatibility with many software packages allows access to spreadsheets database management systems and word processing applications.* Alternative keyboards: Tailored to specific disabilities keyboards can be over- or undersize and operated by hand- or mouth-held wands. Devices such as keyguards are designed to improve keystroke accuracy.* Alternative input devices: Software that displays a keyboard image on a computer screen and allows the user to type by pointing lightweight devices at the computer monitor.For individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing* Teletypewriters (TTYs): Products that allow a person to use the telephone by sending and receiving written messages over phone lines. PC/TTY modem boards allow TTYs to access other computers and receive messages from remote locations.* Signaling devices: Products that work through visual signals or vibrations to alert users to auditory signals such as telephone rings or computer beeps.For individuals with visual impairments* Scanners/readers: Computer devices that convert text into synthesized speech that can be saved or prepared for Braille production they are compatible with applications such as word processing spreadsheet and database packages.* Print enlargers: Devices that enlarge by four to 60 times the image of a computer screen through the use of closed-circuit TV.The General Services Administration has published detailed guidelines for designing Web pages with accessibility in mind. They can be found at http://www.gsa.gov/coca/WWWcode.htm. For information send e-mail to Paul Fontaine@gsa.gov.

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