David Brown of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments in New Mexico finds video conferencing the next best thing to face-to-face communications.

Ready and Able

People with disabilities tap technology to equalize their role in the workplace.

David Brown is more than 80 percent deaf, but thanks to adaptive technologies,
such as a hearing aid, headset and telephone amplifier, he has excelled in
the information technology field for nearly 20 years, including in his latest
post as the point man for IT for the Eastern Plains Council of Governments
in Clovis, N.M.

The one challenge he couldn't seem to overcome, however, was an inability
to fully hear during conference calls, an avenue that EPCOG was increasingly
pursuing as a way to save employee travel time and gas money.

"I couldn't distinguish who was actually talking during the calls,
and it was harder to make out everything they were saying, even with the volume
on my headset turned all the way up," Brown recalls. "It was a
real struggle for me to keep up with the meeting and participate fully."

Brown often joked to colleagues and friends that what he really wanted for
Christmas was voice recognition. No one could give him that, of course, but
EPCOG fortunately found the next best thing: a Polycom MGC-50 video conferencing

The system had been originally purchased as part of a pilot project that
would allow far-flung recipients of aid from the Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families program to participate in classroom-based coursework.

Two years ago, employees at EPCOG adopted the technology for their own use,
and Brown's conference call challenges immediately disappeared. The
technology has made all the difference, he says. Now he knows exactly who
is speaking because he can see each person. He can also turn up the volume
much louder than he ever could on the telephone. He can read lips if necessary
and increase his comprehension further by studying a speaker's gestures
and body language.

"It's like having a regular face-to-face conversation now,"
Brown says. "If I have a question, I know when that person is done talking
and I can step in and ask them to clarify their point; or, if they don't
understand what I'm saying and look lost, I know that now. It's
no longer a struggle for me."

IT Aid

Brown's ability to use mainstream technology to his own benefit is
hardly unique. Just as rising waters lift all ships, so too have IT advances
allowed all users to be more effective and productive -- including people
with disabilities.

Created for broad and sometimes industry-specific purposes, digital technologies,
including voice recognition software, touchscreens, video conferencing, smartphones,
screen readers and telework solutions, are now being used by those with visual,
hearing or physical challenges to increase accessibility, independence and
success in the workplace.

"It wasn't that long ago that most people with severe disabilities
were considered unemployable, but that has really changed in recent years,"
says Jody Harlan, public information administrator for the Oklahoma Department
of Rehabilitative Services. "The central reason for this change is technology,
especially computer technology because it has proven to be a tremendous equalizer
for people with disabilities, allowing them to bridge any gaps they might have in their capabilities."

That has certainly been the case for Carol Ann Roberson, assistant commissioner
of training for the New York City Police Department, who is paralyzed from
the neck down as a result of having had polio as a child. She once keyboarded
by holding a pencil in her mouth, but that was before she discovered Dragon

This voice recognition technology from Nuance Communications was first marketed
as a better, less expensive way for physicians to perform dictation, but it
now allows Roberson to perform the same computer and office tasks as effectively
as any able-bodied worker. The application works on voice commands, enabling
her to compose e-mails, create spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations,
surf the web and write and edit reports. She's also able to integrate
Dragon with her office's wireless infrastructure to operate her door
and air-conditioning unit.

"It's just given me a tremendous amount of freedom and ability
to do the job I have to do without waiting on someone else to help me,"
Roberson says.

Marilyn Sanders, a program manager for Oklahoma's Division of Visual
Services who is legally blind, uses smartphone technology to work productively
when she's not at her desk. She stays in touch with her staff while
roaming her office or traveling for work with the help of an iPhone, which
comes bundled with a voiceover application. Sanders can use the integrated
application to take advantage of all of the smartphone's features and

54 million
The estimated number of people living with a disability, up from 33 million
in 2003. The rapid rise is attributed in large part to an aging population.
Source: Survey of Income and Program Participation, U.S.
Census Bureau

"I'm able to use it just like any other manager does,"
Sanders explains. "I can call someone using my address book or look
up information on the Internet, and I can read e-mails sent to me by my staff
and respond or make decisions or give my approval to a request without waiting
to get back to my desk or lug around my laptop. It's very freeing and
speeds everything up."

David Dikter, executive director of the Assistive Technology Industry Association,
says that the digital revolution, along with parallel advances in assistive
and adaptive technologies, has provided a quantum leap for people with disabilities
to work just about any administrative or professional job. And this is not
by accident.

"Increasingly, there are a lot of accessibility features in mainstream
technologies, especially on operating systems like Microsoft and Apple. Many
people are just discovering those features and others are still figuring that
out," he says. "And that's all built in because people need
accommodations on their machines."

Roberson believes that thanks to larger technology breakthroughs, the pathway
to workplace independence for people with disabilities is almost completely
open -- except for one small hurdle: She can't turn on her devices
without assistance. "If someone could develop a way to turn on these
machines by voice, then I would totally be able to do absolutely everything
without having to ask anybody else to do it for me," she says. "Then
I'd be completely independent on my computer or BlackBerry."

Staying Ahead with Telework

Fawn Utley has no doubt that telework technologies saved her career. The
associate information systems analyst for the California Office of Technology
Services has a medical condition for which she could apply and receive disability
payments, but she opted for part-time telework, which allows her to manage
her chronic pain and fatigue issues and continue to be employed in her full-time

"Telework literally saved my life, because it would have killed me
if I'd have had to stop working," says Utley, who works from
home two days a week and at the agency office on the other three.

Utley is one of an increasing number of people with disabilities or other
debilitating health issues who have embraced telework as a solution to the
all-or-nothing dilemma that they have long had to face: keep working and
potentially risk their health or quit their job.

"Telework is definitely a game-changer for people with disabilities
because it offers them the convenience and flexibility they might need to
actually do the work but without the added difficulty or stress of a daily
commute and a 40-hour week in the office," says Chuck Wilsker, president
and CEO of the Telework Coalition, who notes that for many potential workers,
the biggest hurdle is not their disability but transportation. "So
as telework becomes more accepted by employers, I think you'll see
a lot more opportunities open up for people with disabilities to telework
on a part-time or full-time basis."

For Utley, telework provides her the time and flexibility she needs to
rest and take as-needed medications, but she says that she is just as productive
-- if not more so -- on her days at home. One reason is because,
thanks to technology advancements, her computing environment is exactly
the same, no matter which office she's working from. When at home,
she is able to access her agency's networks and applications seamlessly
via either a remote virtual private network connection or Citrix virtual

"Having this as an option allowed me a way to continue to support
myself and my daughter and contribute to my job and to society," Utley says.

Neal Hinkle
Jun 27 2010