- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2001

President Bush sat behind a 37-inch podium in the White House last month intended to put him at eye level with the wheelchair-bound members of his audience and said, "Wherever a door is closed to anyone because of a disability, we must work to open it. Wherever any job or home or means of transportation is unfairly denied because of a disability, we must work to change it."

With that announcement, Mr. Bush introduced a five-year $1.4 billion plan for disabled persons called the New Freedom Initiative. The tax incentives, low-interest loans and grants of the initiative were included in Mr. Bush's budget proposal two weeks ago.

He could just as easily have been announcing that 21st century technology would become a primary means to resolve civil rights issues for the disabled.

One of the budget items would expand access to a variety of "assistive technologies" such as text telephones for the hearing impaired, infrared computer pointers for persons unable to use their hands and lightweight artificial limbs and wheelchairs.

Part of the money would create a fund for low-interest loans to help people buy telecommuting equipment. Another budget item would use tax incentives to encourage employers to provide assistive technologies to their disabled workers. Still another item would provide grants for research and development of new assistive technologies.

The idea of using technology to help disabled persons live and work independently goes back at least a quarter of a century. About that time, computer technology started to be used for prosthetic devices, some of which could be purchased with Medicaid benefits. Disability rights became a first-tier issue for the government with passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA, which requires that all public buildings be made accessible to handicapped persons, was a highlight of the first President Bush's administration.

"At one time, the definition of disabled was that you couldn't do anything," says Joe Karpinski, spokesman for the Senate Health and Education Committee. "It's been a progression and this is just a continuation of making it possible for people with disabilities to become active participants in a non-disabled world."

The Health and Education Committee is drafting a bill intended as its own version of the New Freedom Initiative. Like Mr. Bush's proposal, it would provide low-interest loans for assistive technology and grants for research and development.

Whatever form the final bill takes, it is expected to glide through Congress. When Mr. Bush announced his proposal last month, ranking Democrats and Republicans showed up at the White House ceremony to support it.

"It should have bipartisan support," Mr. Karpinski says.

Perhaps the most novel and controversial part of Mr. Bush's proposal wraps religion, disability policy and computer technology into one package. Faith-based organizations would act as clearinghouses for the assistive technology grants, assuming they include social work in their community services.

The possible involvement of church and state is raising the biggest questions about whether Congress will modify Mr. Bush's proposal.

"It remains to be seen," says Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who said he supports the president's plan in principle. "In a general sense, so-called faith-based initiatives are criticized by some Republicans and Democrats."

Nevertheless, Mr. Manley says, the time is right for Mr. Bush's idea.

"These issues do engender bipartisan support on Capitol Hill," he says. "Many of the proposals in this are Democratic initiatives, such as fully integrating disabled Americans into the work force."

Mr. Kennedy is working on his own proposal that would expand Medicaid benefits for assistive technologies.

So far, no Republican or Democrat has ventured to emerge as a major opponent to such disability rights issues.

It's about time

Doris Ray's first impression of Mr. Bush's New Freedom Initiative was that it was about time.

Miss Ray is outreach coordinator for the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia in Arlington, a community resource and advocacy center for disabled persons. She also has been legally blind since she was born without irises in her eyes.

Now 52, she says she owes her job, her independent lifestyle and even the mortgage payments on her condominium largely to assistive technologies.

Until she was 39 years old, she had enough residual eyesight that she was able to work as a librarian with a defense contractor. But then a disturbing cloudiness crept into her remaining eyesight. Her doctor diagnosed her with glaucoma and cataracts.

The only way she could continue to live independently was with a video magnifier that allows users to hold printed words in front of a camera that magnifies and displays them onto a portable screen. She also needed magnification software installed into her computer.

She had to struggle with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired for financial assistance to purchase the technologies. Ironically, the income from her job made the state vocational rehabilitation agency reluctant to help her pay for devices. The video magnifier, for example, costs $2,800.

Only after she argued successfully with state officials for a rule change that eliminated income restrictions on assistance did she obtain the video magnifier.

"I cannot read the printed word without assistive technologies," Miss Ray says. "At home that means being able to read my mail and do my bills and all those things that you need to do to maintain financial order and maintain your home. Before I had this machine, I would not have been able to read the prescriptions for glaucoma medications."

The low-interest loans in Mr. Bush's New Freedom Initiative are intended to eliminate similar barriers.

The potential number of people who could benefit from the program is enormous.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 36 million Americans of working age who are disabled. About 77 percent of them with non-severe disabilities are employed. Most, however, work in lower-income jobs, which explains why their homeownership rate is in the single digits. Only 26 percent of severely disabled Americans hold jobs, compared with 82 percent of the non-disabled working-age population.

The Washington-based National Organization on Disability estimates that about one-fifth of the 3.5 million people living in the Washington metropolitan area suffer some form of disability.

The definition and degree of disability often are a matter of interpretation. The Census Bureau refers to disabilities generally as an impairment that interferes with normal life functions, activities or social roles.

"In other words, wearing glasses would not count but losing an eye would," says Brewster Thackeray, spokesman for the National Organization on Disability. "It's definitely tricky because some disabilities have greater impact than others."

Only a small percentage in the disabled community even need assistive technologies. However, that small percentage amounts to at least the 9 million people with disabilities so severe they require personal assistance to carry out daily activities. About 80 percent of them depend on relatives to perform routine tasks for them.

Other parts of Mr. Bush's plan that could benefit disabled persons include:

• Increased state spending for education of disabled students.

• Support for 10 pilot projects to develop transportation plans accessible to the disabled.

• Creation of a national commission on mental health to determine how the nations health services delivery system could be improved for disabled persons.

Mr. Thackeray says, "There's great potential for people with disabilities to be integrated into the work force as well as education and everyday life. We're very excited that assistive technology is included in the proposed legislation."

One of the more progressive Washington-area employers for disabled persons is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. The organization tries to hire disabled persons as a matter of policy. In addition, the disabled workers at Goddard have formed their own support group, with regular meetings and a newsletter.

Progressive employer

Marco Midon, a 34-year-old electrical engineer, is one of them. His recent projects have included designing radio systems to operate robots that do maintenance and carry out routine tasks on the international space station.

Mr. Midon is blind. He uses specialized computers that convert his typing into words that are synthesized into voice messages. Other software converts written messages other people send to his computer into audible words.

"My problem is that when stuff comes out on the screen I don't know what it is without a screen reader," Mr. Midon says.

One of his most valuable pieces of equipment is a "type-and-speak." The 11/2-pound portable unit is essentially the same as a Palm Pilot. It organizes data and contains a clock, an alarm, a calendar and a calculator, all of which use voice messages to tell him the information he requests by typing in commands.

Without the assistive technologies, Mr. Midon acknowledges he could not do his current job. "They are as important as you can get."

Mr. Midon says he supports legislation that could help other disabled persons gain the technology they need to hold jobs.

"In theory, I agree with it," he says. "The more control the person who is receiving the technology has, the better."

Disability industry and advocacy groups say one of the most interesting parts of current proposals is the technologies that still remain to be developed. No one knows how far they can go to endow the disabled with independence, but few doubt the possibilities.

Andy Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, says, "Technology can often play an important role in allowing people to function independently, not rely on other people."

Currently, industry groups sometimes spend large amounts of money to research and develop a new product. Even if they patent a new whiz-bang, computer-age device, the payoff can be modest.

Mr. Bush's plan would reimburse industry for some of its development costs.

"We're all very small companies in this field," says Tilden Bennett, president of DynaVox Systems LLC in Pittsburgh. The company manufactures three devices that help mute people communicate. By touching symbols on a screen, the portable device will convert the signals into a synthesized voice, allowing users to "speak" to other people.

With 140 employees, DynaVox is one of the largest companies in assistive voice communication technology.

"I would say that most small companies would not enter into something they thought would not be very successful," Mr. Bennett said. "Most of them started out as mom-and-pop companies."

An example of the problems sometimes faced by industry comes from the speech-recognition company Lernout & Hauspie, which owns the software for the Dragon NaturallySpeaking program. Thousands of amputees and paralyzed persons rely on the voice recognition program to write letters, operate Internet services and to make telephone calls.

They describe the program as the best on the market. In some cases, their careers depend upon it.

Lernout & Hauspie, however, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Investors are fleeing and the Securities & Exchange Commission is investigating. Disabled persons who use their programs would be the biggest losers if the company goes under.

Often, only the largest companies can absorb the development costs of new products for the disabled as well as the losses if they fail. Microsoft Corp. is the biggest provider of accessibility technology. Their products include on-screen keyboards and text-to-speech software. The computer giant spends more on research and development for handicapped-accessible products than any of its competitors.

However, the competitors point out, Microsoft has the luxury of such financial benevolence whereas other companies do not.

"There's not enough volume in this field that a Microsoft or IBM would be interested," Mr. Bennett says of voice communication for mute persons. "It's a niche market."

The grants and subsidies offered under President Bush's plan seek to minimize the risks for smaller companies and reduce costs for their customers.

"It would be wonderful because it would allow us to try things that haven't been tried before without worrying about whether it was going to work," Mr. Bennett says. "We could end up with some revolutionary new technology that could help those people."

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