Feds, industry pushed to develop technology for disabled

Vendors and federal officials last week told a House subcommittee they have been pleased with technology transfer programs involving federal laboratories and private-sector companies but they agreed that private and public officials need to communicate better.

At a hearing last week of the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Technology chairwoman Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) praised the efforts of agencies and companies that have produced products that make PCs and other tools accessible and easier to use by people with disabilities. These technologies frequently are developed by the government and adapted by industry for other uses inside and outside of government.

Morella said about 1 000 mostly small or medium-size businesses manufacture "assistive technology" products. She said the transfer of federal technology to these companies has been successful but she said she would like to see an even greater collaboration between the government and the private sector.

"[The companies] could benefit from the same access partnership and collaboration of activities with the federal laboratory system that has become far more commonplace in fields such as automotive manufacturing aeronautics and energy and environmental research " she said.

"A Lack of Awareness"

Dan Brand chairman of the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer told the subcommittee that federal lab personnel suffer from "a lack of awareness" of the needs of companies that manufacture assistive-technology products.

"We need to know what the assistive-technology needs are that are out there " said Brand who also serves as associate director of the Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicological Research. "It's a matter of getting the word out on what the need is and how we can help."

Industry witnesses said they would like better access to information on the technologies developed by federal labs.

David Hershberger vice president of product development at Prentke Romich Co. Wooster Ohio said he prefers the term "technology collaboration" rather than "technology transfer" to describe the partnership government and industry should pursue. He agreed that small companies such as his have extensive knowledge of the technology needs of people with disabilities but they do not have the money to develop the products on their own.

"We don't have the funds the federal laboratories have " Hershberger said. His company's primary products use PC technology to allow users to generate speech by using keyboards joysticks or other methods.

Brand said federal labs have been working to address the problem by improving their World Wide Web sites mailing out newsletters and other publications and by placing at labs "technology transfer representatives" who publicize the advances to the private sector.

Bruce Webbon chief of commercial technology at NASA's Ames Research Center told the subcommittee his agency has been working on a "technology inventory" that would serve as a public database listing all of NASA's technology development projects.

Katherine Seelman director of the Education Department's National Institute of Rehabilitation and Research said the program could be improved through greater sharing of personnel.

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