A portal to new freedom

A blind man needs a job and a way to get to work. A child with a disability requires special education and transportation. A woman in a wheelchair must find accessible housing near the office where she has been offered a job.

The federal government funds programs that can help meet their needs, but finding out about the programs hasn't always been easy. In October, a new federal Web site is expected to make it much simpler to get information.

The Labor Department is pre.paring to launch www.Disability.Direct.gov, a portal designed to direct Internet users to local, state and federal information about services available to people with disabilities.

The site is part of President Bush's New Freedom Initiative, which is intended to increase education, employment and housing opportunities for Americans with disabilities.

Unlike most federal Web sites, DisabilityDirect will focus heavily on the local level where services are typically delivered, rather than on the federal level where they are funded, said Dick Griffin, the project's manager at Labor.

Users will begin by entering a ZIP code. That automatically screens information to the user's locality. Next, users select a category of services or information and are presented with details about programs and services available in their areas.

Helpful tips—such as telephone numbers, travel instructions and suggestions on steps to take—will also be offered, Griffin said.

"We've worked very hard to make this as easy as possible," he said.

Making the site easy for the public to use was only part of the challenge, Griffin said. It also had to be designed for easy use by those who will supply information for the site. For the most part, they will be local, state and federal employees trained to provide services to people with disabilities but most likely not trained to operate Web sites.

To a degree, the DisabilityDirect site will be automated. A search engine developed by Autonomy Corp. will comb the Internet for information and programs that would be useful to people with disabilities.

Unlike search engines that work by finding keywords, the Autonomy engine analyzes Web content for concepts. It will develop lists of relevant Web sites for DisabilityDirect managers to evaluate for inclusion in the public site.

The Autonomy engine "minimizes the need to have employees and DisabilityDirect partners manually categorize, tag and insert hypertext links between related content," said Richard Gaunt, Autonomy's chief technology officer. "For example, as new information is created by a local government, our software analyzes the main concepts and then automatically categorizes it and inserts links to related content in real time."

In a sense, the Labor Department is creating a virtual private network of disability service providers, Griffin said. It will be invisible to the public and will reside behind the DisabilityDirect Web site that the public views. It will help agencies collect and arrange information in a way that links services people with disabilities are likely to need—such as job training and transportation, or employment and housing.

The virtual private network could grow to include tens of thousands of agencies and programs offered at municipal, state and federal levels, he said.

"It's not enough for agencies to do the stovepipe thing anymore," Griffin said. "We're all aware that we've come across a threshold in the information environment. Technology has built bridges between agencies."

Information technology now makes it relatively easy to link housing information from the Department of Housing and Urban Development with employment information from the Labor Department and transportation information from local transit agencies, he said.

"That triad—housing, employment and transportation—is a show stopper" for many people with disabilities, Griffin said. "The big issue here is getting people to work. There are 54 million people with disabilities in this country, and 70 percent of them are unemployed or underemployed. Our objective is to break the barriers down and create opportunities."

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