Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Chris McMillan does not let his partial blindness stop him from from hopping on the Internet.

The 32-year-old systems engineer at Alva Access Group Inc., which develops software to read text on Web pages, has six computers in his West Haven, Conn., home and uses software that speaks, reading text to him.

Others aren’t so lucky.

The digital divide a term normally used to describe the barrier preventing minorities and the poor from having access to technology can also separate the visually and physically impaired from the computer age, Mr. McMillan said.

President Clinton has spent the week traveling around the country to shed light on the disparity in computer access between the nation’s wealthy and underprivileged.

But Americans with disabilities also face barriers preventing access, due in part to the fact that many technology tools aren’t designed so people with disabilities can use the equipment, said people attending yesterday’s federal government information technology trade show at the Washington Convention Center.

“If you don’t have the tools to do your job,” Mr. McMillan said, “how are you going to stay employed?”

Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday urged the technology industry to make design changes to hardware and develop software to accommodate the 30 million Americans with significant disabilities.

Those changes could increase the number of people with physical or visual disabilities in the work force.

“The employment rate of people with disabilities has not kept pace with improvements in technology. Seventy-five percent of the 30 million adults with significant disabilities are underemployed or unemployed,” Miss Reno said at the trade show.

Even while companies like Mr. McMillan’s Alva Access Group and St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Henter-Joyce Inc. are making screen readers to help the visually impaired “read” Web pages, other barriers exist that keep the disabled from being able to perform some jobs, the attorney general said.

The culprits include printers and fax machines with screens that can’t be read by people in wheelchairs because screens are placed on top of the devices.

Barriers exist outside the workplace, too. Common objects like automated teller machines present difficulties for the disabled and also need to be designed better, said Craig B. Luigart, chief information officer for the U.S. Department of Education who suffers from the neurological disease primary lateral sclerosis.

Mr. McMillan and others are hoping an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act will help move people with physical and visual impairments into the work force. The amendment, due to take effect in August, will require federal agencies to improve access for workers and the public to government technology and electronic information. Web pages will have to be equipped with software that reads text to users.

Changes to other commonly used equipment are likely to occur as America’s baby boomers age and more people suffer from functional disabilities brought on by aging, Mr. Luigart said.

“Disabilities are a transparent issue. Most people don’t think about them, and I don’t think at anytime that anyone has intentionally designed things so people with disabilities couldn’t use them. But with the graying of America, I think we will see more awareness of the issue,” Mr. Luigart said.

In addition to raising awareness about the need for equipment that is accessible to physically and visually impaired people, employers also must be made aware that people with disabilities are ready and willing to work, said Matt Ater, director of assistive technology at the District-based Columbia Lighthouse For the Blind, which provides worker training for the visually impaired.

“If employers understand blind people can work, they will hire them,” Mr. Ater said.

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