Education increases access for visually impaired

In an effort to become Year 2000-compliant and to provide its visually impaired workers with easier-to-use technology, the Education Department is rolling out Microsoft Corp.'s flagship e-mail software to its 5,000 desktops agencywide.

Microsoft Outlook and the companion server software, Exchange, replace Lotus Development Corp.'s cc:Mail and Notes, the e-mail products that the department has been using.

Hazel Fiers, deputy chief information officer of the department, said Education's information technology review board made the decision almost a year ago to standardize with Outlook but only signed the agreement in March. "We wanted to have a Y2K-compliant mail-messaging system," she said.

The agreement not only helps make the department Year 2000-compliant, but it also will put a single standard in place, making sharing of documents easier and bringing efficiency to systems operations, according to Fiers. Additionally, Education leaders wanted to have an e-mail system that would work well with special software for reading text on computer screens and converting that text to Braille or computer-generated speech for visually impaired workers, Fiers said, and accessibility was the deciding factor in choosing Outlook.

Education has installed Outlook on most of the 3,500 desktops at its headquarters. Next month, the department will begin rolling out the software to its offices elsewhere in the nation, she said.

Lisa Ruff, senior technology specialist with Microsoft's federal division, said two factors make Outlook a product suitable for use by visually impaired workers. The first factor involves a Microsoft software interface known as Microsoft Active Accessibility, Ruff said. The interface enables software "screen readers" to work with Microsoft products. The other factor, Ruff added, is that systems administrators can customize Outlook for visually impaired users - simplifying the look or "view" of a page on a computer screen and removing graphic elements such as icons, making it easier for screen-reading software programs to translate the page into Braille or computer-generated speech. "The Department of Education is going to be able to install the same client to every desktop, but they can customize what they call the 'view,' " Ruff said. "They can create standard views for those who are disabled."

Microsoft spokesman Keith Hodson said Education is getting the Microsoft products through ASAP Software Express Inc.'s General Services Administration schedule. He also said the agreement calls for 500 copies of Microsoft Project, a program for planning and managing projects.

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