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Computer Technology Enables the Disabled

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 30, 1996 – Seville Allen's fingers glided across a silver-studded black strip below a computer keyboard. On the computer terminal above, words and sentences magically appeared.

Of course, it wasn't "magic." Allen, who is blind, merely used a Braille display connected to the computer and mounted beneath the normal keyboard.

"The technology is used throughout the Defense Department," said Allen, who first used the device five years ago when she began working at DoD's Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program.

The program pays for DoD agencies to make computers and telecommunications accessible to disabled employees. It also funds sign language interpreters, readers and personal assistants for long-term training; helps solve accessibility problems through adaptive technology; and trains and educates managers and employees.

Allen demonstrated the Braille keyboard at the program's technology evaluation center to Tony Coelho, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Coelho toured the center, tucked into a small room off a busy Pentagon corridor, April 22. His hosts were Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Dr. Stephen Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

A former congressman, Coelho introduced legislation for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against disabled Americans and requires businesses to accommodate disabled employees and customers. Coelho, who has a seisure disorder, and Dorn cosponsored a program to recruit disabled college students for summer jobs throughout the federal government. The computer/electronics accommodation program also provides accommodations for any student placed through this program.

Besides the Braille display, Coelho saw a scanner and a computer that operate when a person talks to it. He also saw software that magnifies text on-screen for sight-impaired employees.

Program Director Dinah Cohen and her staff demonstrated how technology "can extend the productive years of people who might not otherwise be able to work." She said DoD will hire 150 disabled college students this summer "for just about every area from business majors to help out with acquisition processes to engineers." Many who come to work during the summer, she said, later come back as regular employees.

"My first federal job was at the Naval Research Laboratory," she said. "We hired a lot of electrical engineers, physicists and computer scientists. Now, some of them are supervisors employing our summer hires."

The program's primary objective, however, is to increase the number of employees with disabilities in the DoD work force. Only 1.3 percent of DoD employees are registered as disabled, Cohen said. Because many people don't let their employers know they have disabilities, the actual number is probably higher, she said.

"We want to increase the number [of disabled employees in the DoD work force] to 2 percent," Cohen said. "But that's just a goal, not a limitation," she added. "What's more important is to keep people productive as long as possible."

To add disabled employees to the DoD payroll, Cohen said, the program targets the people who do the hiring.

"We want to show managers how to successfully meet federal computer and telecommunication requirements for employees with disabilities," Cohen said. "We demonstrate how the equipment works, then cover the cost as employees move into these technology enhanced environments."

Covering the cost can be a big deal: The Braille display costs around $13,000, Cohen said.

But competition drives costs down, and with a half-dozen companies now building voice-activated systems, that technology has dropped below $2,000 per unit. Since 1991, the computer/electronics accommodation program has filled 9,000 requests, she said.

"We're seeing more people with job-related injuries -- carpal tunnel syndrome, for example. If we can keep them productive, we will save DoD a lot of money, because they're not going out on workman's compensation or being forced into early retirement."

Qualifying for the assistance isn't difficult, Cohen said. Employers have to submit a form detailing and confirming the employee's disabilities and the type of accommodations required. There's no long approval chain, she said.

"We're successful because we don't elevate this above the first- and second-line supervisors," she said. "They're the ones who know the employee. If they think some technology will make this employee more productive and keep him on the job longer, that's the justification we need."

Details of the program and information on how to obtain and file requests for aid are available on the World Wide Web at http://www.ha.osd.mil/hpcap2.html#Start. For information about the summer hire program, call (703) 681-3976 or the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities at (202) 376-6200.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSeville Allen of DoD's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program demonstrates use of a Braille display device attached to a personal computer. The device allows blind employees to "type" text. It is one of a host of applications the program demonstrates and assists DoD agencies with installing to accommodate employees with disabilities. Douglas J. Gillert  
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