Overcoming obstacles

"I don't see any disabilities being too difficult to accommodate," said

Ophelia Falls as she strolled among eight high-tech workstations.

Screen readers, video magnifiers, speech-recognition software and text

telephone machines were poised to prove her point. So were Braille keyboards,

one-handed keyboards, split keyboards, even flexible rubber keyboards, ergonomic

chairs, alternative pointing devices and a multitude of mice.

"Multiple disabilities may be a challenge, but none of them are impossible,"

Falls insisted. She runs the Technology Accessible Resources Gives Employment

Today (TARGET) Center, the federal government's largest center for demonstrating

accessible technology. It's located, of all places, in the Agriculture Department.

Managers and procurement officials from a variety of government agencies

go to the center to learn what they can do to accommodate disabled employees.

Federal Webmasters visit to find out if their Internet creations meet accessibility

requirements. Government lawyers drop by to discover how their agencies

can prepare for impending accessibility rules.

The lesson for most is, "it's not as hard as you think," said Falls,

who founded the center and USDA's Accessible Technology Program in 1992.

Technology is improving and its price is falling so fast that what was an

expensive technical challenge a short time ago often is cheap and easy today,

she said.

Consider speech-recognition software. It used to cost $10,000 to buy

a program that had to be trained to recognize the user's voice and was finicky

about pronunciation and ambient noise. But today, $600 buys a program that

requires less training and comes in versions attuned to medical or legal

lingo. Screen readers that make it possible for blind and visually impaired

people to use graphics-heavy computers have dropped in price to less than

$2,000.

Next spring, federal agencies must provide disabled workers with accessible

computers, office equipment and Web sites, and over the next five years

agencies are under executive orders to hire 100,000 workers with disabilities.

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