Computers open doors for disabled
by Nancy Weil
(IDG) -- The advent of the graphical user interface (GUI) was widely hailed for its positive effect on the computing industry. But for people who are blind or visually impaired, the new approach had a tremendous downside.
For example, many of them lost their jobs when text-based DOS gave way to the rise of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. The technological "advance" that brought graphics to the desktop was anything but a move forward for the estimated 145 million people worldwide who are blind or visually impaired and were doing well enough using DOS. The commonly cited GUI example underscores a point frequently made by people with disabilities and their advocates.
"The disadvantages of disability in the workplace and in society arise from decisions to design exclusively for individuals with a standard mix of cognitive, sensory and physical characteristics," Katherine Seelman, director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, said two years ago, applauding the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for launching its Web Accessibility Initiative.
Changes in the traditional approach to design may seem woefully slow for people with disabilities -- some 49 million in the U.S. alone. But the next couple of years holds great promise, say those overseeing accessibility issues and assistive technology (AT) for major information technology vendors, as well as advocates for the disabled.
"I'm thinking that, really, we may see some incremental improvements on some fronts [this year]. But in 2000 and 2001, we'll really see some changes," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation for the Blind.
IBM's Home Page Reader software that enables Web browsers to talk to blind and sight-impaired users was released in U.S. English last month. The software was first released for Japanese and was developed with research by a blind IBM researcher in the company's Tokyo laboratory. Additional releases in other languages will be out this year.
The software interprets HTML and can speak to computer users to provide information in forms and tables, and give descriptions of graphics.
Dell Computer Corp. started a new service last month that allows deaf, hearing-impaired and speech-impaired users to communicate with company sales and customer service workers using a text telephone.
All users reap the benefits of software, hardware and other technologies "universally designed" with more than the so-called mainstream in mind, say industry observers, who also note the potential boon the emerging market could be for vendors. Consider the 1997 testimony of Steven Jacobs, a senior technology consultant at NCR Corp. before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee regarding just one such example of universal design:
"Text-to-speech technologies have other important business implications. For example, there is little difference between a person who is blind and a person who is illiterate, from the standpoint of not being able to read. Worldwide there are more than 1.1 billion consumers who are illiterate. This can be a real market limiter for companies wishing to market public access information systems on a global basis."
Top vendors -- Dell, IBM, Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. among them -- have made AT a priority. The W3C initiative also pushed accessibility issues into the forefront.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates emphasized his company's commitment to accessibility in a speech last year and tapped Greg Lowney as director of accessibility. Microsoft apparently realizes that by not considering the needs of blind and site-impaired computer users in particular, its introduction of the graphics-oriented Windows had a major negative effect on the lives of many.
The edict from Gates means that Microsoft addresses accessibility issues "in pretty much everything we're doing," Lowney said.
"We realize that some groups are being hit hardest now," Lowney said of the need for more AT on the market. "Historically, people who are blind have the greatest productivity and employability because of computer technologies, and then they have the most sudden setbacks [because of technological changes]."
No one knows exactly how many blind or sight-impaired people lost their jobs when Windows was introduced and became the dominant operating system. But Lowney said that anecdotally, Microsoft was hearing from various employment agencies and others through at least one call weekly that people were losing jobs or were in danger of losing them because they could no longer operate computers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established that people with disabilities must be accommodated with accessibility to jobs, government services, public places and transportation. However, without appropriate products available to help them work, such efforts would be stymied.
Microsoft's goal is to release at or near the launch dates of its mainstream major products versions of its software that are accessible to people with disabilities. IBM is doing the same and has worked closely with Sun for the past two years to ensure that Java is a technology accessible to people with disabilities, said Paul Luther, IBM global marketing programs manager for the company's Special Needs Systems.
"In the coming years, with more and more manufacturers going to a Web-based look and feel, it's really crucial that for people with disabilities we continue to provide solutions," Luther said. "The need will probably be even stronger or as strong."
As Lowney noted, people with disabilities, and blind people in particular, tend to be quick to embrace new technologies that help them with work and life. The first computer systems are a case in point, he said, with blind users among the "early adopters of that technology."
"The computer is so wonderfully adaptive," Lowney said. "You can add features to it to compensate for a wide variety of abilities."
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