Many of us depend on the use of computers to do our jobs. We’re much more productive than before they were available, don’t you think? But imagine you’re blind and can’t see the screen or have a mobility impairment that precludes your use of a mouse. For many of us the PC, a tool most of us take for granted, is a challenge to use. This article talks about making computers and other technology accessible to people with disabilities.
The 2000 census reported there are over 54 million Americans with disabilities. And according to a study commissioned by Microsoft in 2003, “In the United States, 60% or 101.4 million working-age adults are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to difficulties and impairments that may impact computer use. In Virginia, for example, that translates to about 2.5 million workers likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology.
We’re all familiar with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act that requires our sidewalks and buildings to be accessible to people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities. But even though this federal law states that all technology must be accessible to people with disabilities, very little has been done in that area.
While working on a State of Virginia technology accessibility standard I had the occasion to observe a lady, who was blind, use the computer to access a local university’s computer system. She couldn’t use the mouse because she couldn’t see where to place the cursor on the screen. So she memorized the exact steps and places she had to tab to and enter information and even though she used an accessibility tool that read what was on the computer screen and spoke to her, it was extremely difficult for her to do even simple tasks, mainly because the website wasn’t designed to be accessible. My heart was touched by that experience and because of that, Virginia now has one of the best technology accessibility standards in the country and maybe the world.
So what is the problem? Why can’t people with disabilities use our technology? While Microsoft has done a good job of providing hbasic tools such as the ability to magnify text on the screen for the sight impaired, the ability to display the keyboard on the screen for use with a mouse or other pointer for those unable to use the keyboard, and provides a reader tool for the completely blind, there are many software programs that our organizations either develop or buy that are not accessible to the disabled. We don’t design them like that on purpose, I think we’re ignorant of the needs of disabled people and of the laws.
And it’s not just computers and their programs.
- People who are deaf cannot understand a speech or other presentation that’s presented only aurally;
- people who are color-blind cannot discriminate between color-coded options;
- people with specific physical limitations cannot use a software application that requires use of a mouse; and
- people who use wheelchairs cannot operate a fax machine or copier if the controls are positioned too high or too far for them to reach from a seated position.
So why should we care about providing accessibility to our technology? Besides the moral and legal reasons, there is benefit to all of us for doing so.
- Accessible technologies allow people with sight, mobility, cognitive or hearing impairments to be a productive part of the work force.
- A Department of Defense case study encourages managers to use assistive technology to keep temporarily disabled employees working while they recuperate at home. A typical home installation of a workstation and assistive technology costs about $5,000 versus $28,000 for an average worker’s compensation claim.
- Moreover, spending on accessible technology returns value to all who use it. In addition to the direct value to those using the technology, the employers are able to keep great employees, recruit from a larger pool of candidates, and enhance team collaboration and communication among all employees—including those with disabilities.
The next time you use a computer, try closing your eyes while signing on, or try to perform some work without the use of the mouse. And remember the blind lady student who had so much difficulty performing simple tasks using her school’s computer. And then, if you get an opportunity to support the funding and implementation of accessible technology in your organization, do so without hesitation. Thank You.
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Remember, home computing is a blast…keep it productive and enjoyable.