Task force to make IT accessible to disabled

The Clinton administration has convened a new public/private task force to help design products that would enable people with disabilities to use technology more easily.

Responding to criticism that the government has not done enough to help disabled individuals gain access to information technology so that they can land jobs in the public and private sectors, the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities has formed the Technology Task Force to jointly act with government agencies and private companies to address the needs of disabled individuals.

The task force will try to set standards for the design and development of future technologies. The task force's goal will be to boost employment opportunities for the disabled in government and the private sector by making IT, such as the Internet, accessible.

"Only three in 10 working-age adults with disabilities are employed," said John Lancaster, executive director of the people with disabilities committee. "If they don't have access to information technology, they're going to be shut out [from] more jobs than they already are."

Lancaster was one of several witnesses testifying before the House Subcommittee on Technology last week to discuss the roles of the government and the private sector in advancing assistive technologies for persons with disabilities.

House members and witnesses said assistive technologies— devices that improve the lives of individuals with functional limitations— have not gained enough recognition from either the federal government or private companies.

"There is an absence of coordination at the federal level and cooperation in the private sector," said Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), the subcommittee chairwoman.

Witnesses said the government and corporations should foster partnerships and work together to remove barriers that people with disabilities face in joining the work force.

David Bolnick, accessibility program manager for Microsoft Corp., said Microsoft and other businesses must work with the government to further the goal of improving the lives of people with disabilities.

Oracle Corp., IBM Corp. and AT&T have already signed on to work with the government on the Technology Task Force.

The administration also has created a number of small private/public projects. The High School-High Tech (HS-HT) program, for example, coordinates internships with local employers for young students with disabilities. More than 90 percent of the children participating in HS-HT went on to higher education, often in a technology-related field.

The Technology Task Force will provide support for undertakings such as HS-HT while working to develop new programs. "We still have a long way to go," Lancaster said. "We haven't covered the waterfront."

In addition to government ventures, some private efforts are under way to develop technologies for the disabled. Lancaster said there are great incentives for the private sector to address the needs of persons with disabilities.

"There are 400,000 information technology jobs to be filled right now," he said. "The private sector needs these people. They're crying for them."

-- Lisagor is a reporting intern for Federal Computer Week.

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