When Brad Lyon lost the majority of his vision from a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, he admits to feeling despair about his job prospects. "I did have a tough time adjusting," he recalls. "For a long time, I basically stayed home and collected Social Security."
Not anymore. Thanks to ongoing consultation with the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), Lyon runs Brad's Snack Shack, a food concession and vending machine firm in Charleston.
DRS vocational counselors helped him explore career options and outfitted him with technology to accommodate his sight problems. These include an HP notebook, a screen reader and an iPhone, which features Apple's VoiceOver technology that reads words aloud and responds to gestures. He even has a talking cash register and a machine that identifies the denomination of banknotes.
"I can really do everything I need to run my business: e-mail, Internet, Excel, financial software, whatever," Lyon says. "It's funny, but with the screen reader and some of the other accessibility features, most of the time I can operate a computer even faster than a full-sighted person."
Lyon is not unique in his success. Breakthroughs in assistive technologies and the information and networking revolution have empowered a growing number of people with disabilities in their pursuits in the workplace and the business community -- and they are excelling.
"Assistive technology has definitely evolved with the times," says Terry Courts, an assistive technology specialist with the West Virginia DRS. "Things are faster, more reliable and more portable. And our clients are benefitting from the better technology because they can integrate more easily into the workplace and they're not tied to one place. With the hardware and software that's available now, there's just so much more that people with disabilities can do that was pretty much impossible just a few years ago."
Percentage of the 54 million disabled Americans ages 18 to 64 who are employed
Source: The Census Bureau
Vocational rehabilitation professionals say that assistive technologies have fully entered the mainstream, which eases their mission of helping those with disabilities find or keep a job. Dragon NaturallySpeaking aids a range of people with disabilities, such as those with vision, mobility and cognitive issues, by enabling users to speak and automatically input their words into computers as text. Other options include Kurzweil screen readers, screen magnifiers and literacy software; specialized applications that rely on movement, blinks, and breaths or puffs of air to give persons with decreased motor skills the ability to access and command a computer; alternative keyboards, mice and trackballs; hands-free phones and headsets; and e-books and e-readers. The iPhone and the iPad both have embedded accessibility features, such as VoiceOver and the ability to utilize closed captioning on videos. There are even freeware programs available now that enable more accessibility.
"If someone can move one muscle of their body, we can get them to access a computer," says Tim Bobsin, assistive technology computer systems engineer for the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center within the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services.
A Brave New World
Twenty years ago, assistive technology was exotic, standalone, cumbersome and difficult to operate and maintain. Today, competition and overarching technology advances have resulted in more product choices, lower costs, faster processing speeds and increased reliability, explains Courts.
And because so many of these newer applications integrate seamlessly with mainstream information technology, they're also more convenient, easy to use and intuitive.
Photo: Nicholas McIntosh
"With the reliability that's available, it gives the individual more confidence, it makes everything feel easier and it makes them want to go to work," Courts says. "They know they've got something there that they can rely on to do their job."
Society's embrace of technology and mobility has also aided the vocational rehabilitation mission, says Glenn Wilson, a computer teacher with the West Virginia DRS.
"It used to be, to get speech out of a computer, you had to have a separate synthesizer that you carried around with you," he recalls. "Now all you need is a standard audio card."
The advancements are even improving the employment prospects of those who may have struggled to get or keep jobs in years past, according to Bobsin. Those with cognitive disabilities or traumatic brain injuries have benefitted from global positioning satellite features, alert-and-reminder functionality and other features that come standard on mobile devices such as notebooks and smartphones, for example.
"People are much more familiar with technology nowadays, so it's not such a huge leap to begin using these devices and their applications as a way to not just do a job, but to also accommodate a disability," Bobsin states.
Having these newer technologies available also results in less training time, fewer IT issues, better on-the-job performance by the employee and less frustration, according to Courts.
"There's definitely more opportunity to get an individual working again, and there's less demand on the employer too," he says. "Where it might have taken three months to get an individual trained on everything, now we can cut that down to a month or even a few weeks. Both the employee and the employer end up happier."
But there is still progress to be made, says Nell Bailey, chief executive and operating officer for the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America. She warns that mainstream products that increase accessibility sometimes do so at the expense of functionality, and that fact can get lost in the marketing materials.
"We are definitely happy with a lot of the improvements, but we haven't arrived at universal access as of yet," she states. "We always advise developers to keep that in mind to ensure that they are creating the best product they can for all audiences."
One-time amount an employer pays to accommodate a new employee with a disability, beyond what they would have paid for an employee without a disability in the same job
Source: Job Accommodation Network
A Careful Process
The process to ensure that a person with a disability has just the right assistive technologies to successfully perform their job is long and deliberate, says Jim Corey, assistant director for rehabilitation technology services at the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services' Workforce and Technology Center.
"It's a team effort," he says. "We work with the client, the employer, the HR person, the IT staff, all trying to make sure that everyone is on the same page because it's that interpersonal piece that really is the greatest challenge."
When a client is referred to a rehabilitation facility, they can participate in a variety of services, including guidance and counseling, career assessment, job training programs and job development, as well as assistive technology assessments and training. The team works directly with the employer to analyze the specific job tasks and consult with the IT department about platforms, applications and configuration. Most important, staff members take whatever time is necessary to train the client and ensure that they're comfortable with their new adaptive tools.
"We definitely don't just give someone a product and say, 'Here you are. Go do your job.' We do a lot of training, depending on what they need," says Melissa Day, an assistive technology clinician with the Maryland DORS. Even clients who are familiar with IT face a learning curve, she says.
Go to statetechmag.com/product211 to learn about choosing the right assistive technology products.
The assistive technology team implements the system onsite and provides technical support on an ongoing basis. Once the employee is on the job, the vocational rehabilitation team periodically follows up to ensure that the employee is succeeding in their daily tasks and to step in if changes in health require a re-evaluation.
West Virginia's Courts concedes that the process may seem lengthy, but clients quickly realize that assistive technology will change their life. Once they reach this realization, they become enthusiastic partners during the evaluation and training periods.
"These technologies can help a lot of people with disabilities find a new way of life," Courts says. "People can more easily step into jobs and be confident and productive and find personal fulfillment as a result of that employment and being able to support themselves and their families."
Vocational rehabilitation officials recommend that employers follow this advice to ensure a successful job match:
- Trust the IT staff. Introducing assistive technology is not going to crash the network or tie up all of an IT department's time. IT staff at vocational rehabilitation centers spend a lot of time testing and operating the various technologies in different configurations to ensure that it will be reliable and functional in a standard IT setting.
- Be patient. It will take time for an employee to become familiar with the assistive technology and then apply that knowledge to accomplish the tasks involved in their new position. Vocational rehabilitation specialists will work with both the employee and their supervisor to make the process relatively quick and smooth.
- Know the situation. For a person with a disability, symptoms can change, and when they do, modification of both the assistive technology tool and the job tasks might be required. Meet with the employee regularly to check on their job performance and how they're feeling physically.
- Use your resources. If there are any problems, questions or concerns at any point, call your vocational rehabilitation agency. They're more than happy to help.