A tight labor market gives the disabled the chance to make permanent inroads
Business Week: March 20, 2000 - Special Report
The Gap's emporium of affordable chic in midtown Manhattan throbs with New Economy action. Salesclerks sporting headsets race across the store to wait on tourists and time-starved New Yorkers. Stockboys heave huge boxes overflowing with clothes. At the center of this retail hubbub is Gap's "wild man in a wheelchair," supersalesman Wilfredo "Freddy" Laboy, a fast-talking, goateed 36-year-old who lost his legs when he fell off a freight train at age 9. Freddy dances across the store, popping wheelies and spinning himself around to the bouncy pop music. Little kids stare as he hops off his chair and onto the floor to grab a tangerine-colored T-shirt and then pulls himself up on his stump to reach for another pair of khakis. Instead of using the elevator, he prefers to horrify colleagues by scooting himself down the stairs. "It's faster," he says.
Freddy loves the Gap, and the Gap loves Freddy. But just six months ago, the story was altogether different. An amateur wheelchair basketball star who pulled himself through the New York City Marathon, Freddy was used to letting nothing stand in his way. But even with New York City's unemployment level at record lows, he couldn't find a job. Once prospective employers caught sight of his legless torso, they lost interest. Still, on a whim, Freddy wheeled himself into the Gap last October. To his astonishment, they hired him. "I finally got accepted somewhere because they didn't just see the wheelchair," says the married father of three. "They saw me."
Freddy may well be at the cusp of a huge change rocking the world of the workplace, marking the first time in history that people with disabilities have been poised to enter Corporate America en masse--many of them with the help of wheelchairs and seeing-eye dogs.
Facing the worst labor shortage in modern history, recruiters are tapping the kinds of workers they would have easily blown off just 10 years ago: prepubescent wireheads, grandmothers--even convicted murderers. Next up are the disabled, who may prove to be the last great hope--if only because they're the only labor pool that hasn't been completely drained. At the same time, groundbreaking technology is creating ways for people with disabilities to better perform jobs, helping to erase the deep divisions that once existed between them and everybody else.
Sure, a few companies have a long record of hiring workers with disabilities. In the 1980s--still the Dark Ages of the movement--Marriott International Inc. was doing the unheard-of: paying adults with Down's Syndrome $7 an hour to work 40 hours a week cleaning rooms and sweeping floors. But that was the exception. Despite the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), passed a decade ago this July, only 25% of the country's 15 million disabled who are also of working age are employed. Of the 75% who aren't working, Harris Polls indicate that two-thirds of them wish they could be. Says Paul H. Wehman, director of the rehabilitation research center at Virginia Commonwealth University: "The dirty little secret of the welfare-to-work movement is that people with disabilities got left out."
That may be about to change. Never before has it been so easy and made so much economic sense for companies to invest in workers with disabilities by making accommodations for them. "We can use new technologies to contribute to society in ways that weren't really possible when I started 25 years ago," says Michael Coleman, IBM's vice-president for global operations. Coleman, who lost both his hands in Vietnam when he was trying to defuse a bomb, is IBM's top-ranking disabled worker. He is also chairing the company's task force to find ways to employ more workers with disabilities.
Crestar Bank has already found ways to make that happen. New-fangled voice-activated technology means that callers to the bank never know that customer-service representative Chris Harmon is a quadriplegic. He is so disabled that the recruiter who hired him had to stick a pen in his mouth so he could sign the employment application. At the company's Richmond (Va.) call center, he simply tells his computer what to do and the information appears on the screen in a flash.
Crestar is one of a growing list of businesses that is mining the ranks of the disabled to solve labor crises they say would otherwise have been catastrophic. Turns out that what began as a last-ditch maneuver to stem this worker draught has yielded an unexpected boon that veteran employers of people with disabilities have long known about: The disabled are often more proficient, productive, and efficient than "normies," according to researchers.
A 30-year study by DuPont revealed that job performance by workers with disabilities was equal to or better than fully functioning peers. The disabled had a 90% above-average job performance, with safety and attendance records that were far above the norm, too. Perhaps most enticing to human-resource heads pulling their hair out over the dot-com-induced worker exodus is the fact that people with disabilities can often be far more loyal to the employers who gave them a break and are therefore less likely to be lured away by a boss dangling a bigger paycheck.
"At a Loss."
But until recently, the disabled were actually penalized for finding a job because even a minimum-wage gig flipping burgers or mopping floors meant the automatic loss of Medicaid benefits. That huge barrier to employment fell in December when President Clinton signed the Workers Incentives Improvement Act, clearing the path for states to change Medicaid laws to let the disabled hang on to much-needed benefits while entering the workforce.
The move comes none too soon. Already, temporary agency Manpower Inc. is raiding the ranks of the disabled to fill its employee rolls. The National Disability Council reports a 50% jump in requests for workers with disabilities from companies as diverse as Merrill Lynch & Co. and Microsoft Corp.
In fact, Microsoft is so eager to hire such workers that the software company is spearheading the Able to Work program, a consortium of 22 businesses scrambling to find the best ways to place disabled people in jobs. Says Microsoft's director of diversity, Santiago Rodriguez: "Until now, the whole country has been at a loss as to how to do this."
To many advocates for the disabled, this confusion is a disappointment. The ADA was passed with great hopes of creating jobs and access for America's disabled population of 54 million. It prohibited employers from refusing to hire qualified applicants who also had disabilities. It also mandated that the disabled have access to telecommunications equipment and public transportation.
But the barriers standing between most people with disabilities and a good, solid job haven't exactly been wiped out by employee sensitivity training courses and curb-cut accessible sidewalks. Those and other strides have helped, but problems still abound. Cities such as Chicago and New Orleans face lawsuits for failing to bring their public transportation systems into compliance.
There are also, disability advocates say, still too many lawsuits like the one brought on behalf of a mentally retarded janitor, Don Perkl, who loved scrubbing toilets for Chuck E. Cheese in Madison, Wis. A district manager, a lawsuit alleges, fired him after saying "we don't hire people like that." The pizza parlor's local manager and two other employees quit in protest because they claimed the perennially upbeat Perkl was doing such a stellar job. Last year, a jury in federal court in the Western District of Wisconsin agreed with them, slapping the company with $13 million in punitive damages--the largest ADA award ever for a single plaintiff. A judge is still reviewing the jury's verdict. Chuck E. Cheese claims that Perkl "wasn't dismissed due to his disability but because he couldn't perform the job," says company spokesman Jon Rice.
Lawsuits On The Fringe.
Plenty of other lawsuits brought under the ADA have caused critics to question its scope. Some worry that the act is not broad enough, pointing to a recent Supreme Court ruling that established that people with treatable disabilities don't qualify for protection. Others say the ADA is straying into the realm of the absurd, noting such cases as the employee with bad body odor who argued she should be protected from getting fired because her glandular problem qualified her as disabled.
But most of the country's workers with disabilities face challenges that are far more clear-cut: They are deaf, blind, paralyzed, or emotionally impaired. Some have been burdened with disabilities since they were born. Others, like Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. principal Jeffrey Schaffer, are new to the minority--a group that one in three people will be a part of during their lives. Three years ago, Schaffer's car was in a head-on collision with another vehicle that swerved into his lane on a windy back road in West Virginia. It took paramedics an hour to cut him from the wreckage.
After learning he would be confined to a wheelchair, Schaffer says, the thought of returning to work was the thing that kept him going. "Getting back to work was critical to my sense of well-being," says Schaffer from the bed of a hospital where he has just undergone his sixth operation since the accident. "Work ends up being a defining characteristic for self-worth."
For worker-starved companies, spreading that kind of self-worth around is looking more and more like the only answer to today's labor-shortage woes. Still, the real test will be when the economy cools and companies can afford to get picky about choosing between applicants with disabilities and everyone else. By then, though, it may be a lot harder to tell the difference.
By Michelle Conlin in New York
Where the Door Is Open
Some Companies that Offer Job Opportunities for the Disabled
BOOZ, ALLEN & HAMILTON
Advanced policies for employees with AIDS. Has National Task Force on Disability.
Sponsors Special Olympics and is considered a model of high-tech accessibility.
Founder Charles Schwab has dyslexia, and his sensitivity to the issue pervades the organization. Special efforts to recruit people with disabilities, especially the blind.
Offers disabled customers special services and recruits disabled workers through partnerships with the Virginia Rehabilitative Services Dept. and the National Association of the Deaf.
Stated commitment to including people with disabilities--works with more than 100 local diversity councils.
Participant in Able to Work program, a consortium of 22 companies that finds ways to employ the disabled. Good track record on turning its own high-tech innovations into perks for employees with disabilities.
Aggressive recruiter of disabled workers, including students.
JOHNSON & JOHNSON
Runs a comprehensive disability management program that helps employees return to work after they have been disabled.
Took the lead in establishing Able to Work program last year.
Long legacy of hiring and training disabled workers.
A quarter of a century ago, only the exceptional employer hired a person with a disability. Most execs felt the disabled worker would flounder at even the simplest of tasks. And change has been slow. Even today, only 1 in 4 disabled adults have jobs--despite strong laws prohibiting employment discrimination and the tightest job market in modern history.
But a revolution in the development of specially adapted machines--known as assistive technology--is creating some dramatic changes. Spearheaded by the likes of Microsoft (MSFT), Intel (INTC), Pitney Bowes (PBI), Toshiba, IBM (IBM), and Apple Computer (AAPL), as well as niche players such as HumanWare and Dragon Dictate, this effort includes new products that can help disabled people better see a computer screen, hear a telephone call, talk to others when they lack speech, and do word processing when they cannot type. ''Accessibility is a fundamental part of our software design process,'' says Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steven A. Ballmer.
These breakthroughs expand the universe of opportunity for the 54 million disabled people in the U.S.--a group the Americans with Disabilities Act defines as having a physical or mental impairment that limits life's major activities. Companies that make these products are banking not only on an exploding market for the disabled but also on an aging workforce. As baby boomers grow older, they are discovering that one-third of all Americans will have a disability at some point in their adult lives. As they remain in the workforce longer, they, too, will benefit from the innovations being cranked out today. Over time, the new technologies could make the workplace of the 21st century a lot more diverse.
Assistive-technology gadgets range from the most basic to machines worthy of a William Gibson sci-fi novel. Among them: computers displaying information in extremely large print for the sight-impaired or in braille formats for the blind; software that converts text into computer-synthesized speech; telecommunications relay products for the deaf that allow them to read what is spoken on the other end of the phone; improved prosthetics that replace a lost limb; and eye-gaze programs that allow paralyzed individuals to type on a computer screen simply by gazing at different points on the monitor.
All this hasn't been lost on companies looking to find fresh talent and keep the people they already have. After Joseph Martin, special counsel to Bank of America (BAC), was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1994, the company purchased the $16,000 Eyegaze System made by LC Technologies Inc. to enable him to keep working even though he had lost control of his arms and legs.
Simply by looking at control keys displayed on a computer monitor, Martin is able to direct a laser beam to various points on the screen. The laser prompts commands, whether to type a letter or a number. This enables him to dial a phone number, operate a PC, or log on to the Internet. All he needs is control of one of his eyes and the ability to keep his head still. For giving speeches, Martin downloads what he has written to a portable voice synthesizer made by Sentient Systems. He operates the voice synthesizer with a simple click-switch with the help of the one finger on his hand that he can still move around.
Phone services are also taking on new dimensions. Deaf author Frank Bowe, who writes about the disability movement, does his research and interviews with a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD). These kinds of interpretive and speech-to-speech services that enable communication between a deaf and hearing person now offer special operators who will read the message typed by a deaf person to a hearing person who doesn't have a TDD. Bowe uses coded signals transmitted through a wire or radio communications systems to type in a telephone number. The message is relayed by liquid-crystal display to the operator. Bowe then types in his message, and the operator makes the call. TDDs can now store messages, record them, and leave them. There are even wireless TDDs that perform like cell phones.
Then there's voice recognition technology, which is still plagued with glitches, though systems are improving every year. When it's running smoothly and widely available, this innovation will go a long way toward empowering those with disabilities to compose on a PC using their own voices.
Even the Good Old-fashioned Photocopying Machine is Getting a Disability Facelift.
One of the most versatile products in years is Pitney Bowes Inc.'s Universal Access Copier System. The sleek, braille-labeled machine is outfitted with speech recognition and has oversize graphic-user interface and copy selector buttons that can be controlled with a mouse, fingers, or pointing stick. For wheelchair users, the copier is lower to the ground than conventional machines, making it a cinch to wheel right up to.
Of all the new technologies, though, it's the Internet that has the greatest potential for empowering the disabled in ways never before imagined. MCI WorldCom Inc. (WCOM) Senior Vice-President Vinton Cerf, who is partially deaf and is one of the founding fathers of the Net, anticipates the day when people with poor sight will be able to navigate an audio page that in some respects will be better than today's visual page. ''The potential is there,'' says Cerf. For people with cognitive impairments, such as learning disabilities, the Net will soon offer simpler appliances that require less technical knowhow than what's required today to boot up a typical PC.
The bottom line: The Internet and other technologies are removing many of the can'ts that kept disabled people out of the office for so long. For worker-starved companies, the breakthroughs come not a moment too soon.
By John Williams in Washington
Artificial Eyes, Turbine Hearts
Mechanical body parts could someday make disabilities irrelevant in the workplace
Getting a makeover is about to take on a whole new meaning. In the not-too-distant future, doctors will be able to do as much under the skin as beauticians now do on top. For the many people with disabilities or chronic diseases, technology is on the verge of unlocking a whole new world.
Scattered across the globe, dozens of research teams are working on computer chips that will be implanted in the brain or spinal cord to give artificial vision to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the victims of stroke. Other laboratories and companies are developing products that will regulate bladder function for the incontinent, restore movement to the paralyzed, and give back muscle control to people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). Artificial kidneys and blood vessels are being tested in several labs, including the McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development at the University of Pittsburgh. At the University of New Mexico's Artificial Muscle Research Institute, scientists are developing polymer-metal composites that could serve as replacement muscles for patients suffering such afflictions as muscular dystrophy.
Name almost any disability, and there's probably research under way to overcome it. Most magical of all, though, is the drive to restore vision in the blind. Already, Dr. Mark S. Humayun, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions in Baltimore, has implanted light-sensitive chips in the eyes of some 15 patients. These tiny silicon retinas provide a very crude, 15-pixel image. A somewhat better, 64-pixel image is provided by an artificial-vision system that relays scenes from a miniature videocamera to a small electronic-circuit card inside the skull of Jerry, the blind man wearing the strange-looking eye glasses in the picture above. (He asks that his last name not be used.) Jerry's vision system was developed over four decades by William H. Dobelle, CEO of Dobelle Institute Inc. in Commack, N.Y. ''My next version will be better still,'' he says--with 512 pixels. Still, that's a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of pixels on a TV screen or computer monitor.
Image quality will keep getting better as semiconductor technology continues to pack silicon chips with more power. In 10 years it might be good enough that users will blend into the crowd. In 20 years, the acuity of artificial vision might rival that of a biological eye, says Dr. William J. Heetderks, head of a National Institutes of Health program focused on developing electronic implants. In fact, fully functioning artificial eyes should be ready by 2024, predicts Ian D. Pearson, a researcher at British Telecommunications PLC's BT Laboratories in England.
Long before then, other manmade body parts will be helping people to overcome disabilities. Artificial hearing implants, offering better sound than today's cochlear implants, may arrive sooner--perhaps within a year. Electronic implants to stimulate the muscles in paralyzed limbs should be ready by 2002, says Pearson of BT Labs. Artificial lungs and kidneys may follow by 2015, although some researchers optimistically predict 2010, when a permanent artificial heart may be ready.
Advanced prototypes of all these spare body parts already exist in research labs. The history of such efforts, after all, goes back almost six decades to the kidney dialysis machine, which was invented in 1943 in the Netherlands by Dr. Willem J. Kolff. Known today as the father of artificial organs, he came to the U.S. in 1950, developed an artificial heart at the Cleveland Clinic in the mid-1950s, and in the 1960s formed an artificial-organ research program at the University of Utah. Many others followed; Dobelle, for one, started his artificial vision work under Kolff's tutelage.
Probably the Utah group's most famous product was the Jarvik heart, named after Robert K. Jarvik, who developed the original design in the late 1970s while he was an engineering student at Utah--building on the work of at least 147 of Kolff's students. Since then, mechanical-heart designs have leaped into the Space Age. Several of the latest versions have tiny turbines for pumping blood--borrowed from the turbines that pump fuel in the Space Shuttle. Supercomputer simulations at NASA and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center honed the turbine designs to make them superhumanly efficient. For now, these pumps are used only as ''bridge'' devices to sustain a patient until a human heart is available for transplant. But researchers are confident they'll eventually be permanent replacements.
Moreover, artificial organs no longer need a connection through the skin to an outside power source. In 1991, researchers at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute developed a so-called inductive system that ''broadcasts'' electrical power through the skin. Patients can move about freely using a battery pack. A similar system also transmitted signals through the skin, activating an artificial-vision brain implant. So blind people may not need a hole in their head like Jerry has.
Americans who want Dobelle's system may have to fly to Zurich, where he has a clinic. Stringent U.S. Food & Drug Administration safety rules make it uneconomical to introduce artificial-organ technology at home, he says. That's why Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, director of Pittsburgh's McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development, will head to Israel to perform the first human implant of a new turbine heart. ''The U.S. standard is that we're not going to use devices that might do harm, no matter how gravely ill the patient is,'' he says. To Kolff, who's now 89, that doesn't make sense, and he has been lobbying Washington for a change. Some 95,000 people will die this year ''without a chance,'' he laments, because only a couple thousand donor hearts will probably be available. Dr. Steven J. Phillips, an assistant research director at the National Institutes of Health, also believes the FDA could ease up. ''Europe's safety record with our new devices is actually better than our own--and they're saving more lives,'' he notes. He also worries about so much of the research migrating to Europe because of its encouraging climate.
Yet ultimately, most of these gadgets may be replaced. Biotech engineers will figure out how to tinker with genes and prevent or cure blindness, heart disease, and other afflictions. But it won't happen for at least 20 years, says Griffith. That leaves a big gap for mechanical body parts to fill. Soon, ''making a new you'' could take on a whole new meaning.
By Otis Port in New York
Spare Body Parts for Tomorrow - Artificial Organs And Their Availability Dates
ARTIFICIAL BRAIN CELLS -- 2017
ARTIFICIAL BRAIN -- 2035
ARTIFICIAL-VISION BRAIN IMPLANT -- 2001
ARTIFICIAL EYE IMPLANT --- 2024
PERMANENT MECHANICAL HEART IMPLANT -- 2010
SYNTHETIC MUSCLES -- 2019
LUNGS AND KIDNEYS -- 2015
DATA: BRITISH TELEPHONE LABS
Commentary: A Kind Act Indeed
On July 26, 1990, when former President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was on the White House lawn, standing between Senators George Mitchell (D-Me.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.). I had been invited because of my work as an advocate and writer on disability issues. And with a little elbowing I squeezed my way up to the front. There was an exhilarating feeling in the air. Disabled people everywhere truly believed the law would change America.
I, too, was full of hope. As someone with a stutter, I got the door slammed in my face when I first went to look for a job in the 1960s. Managers from IBM, Sears Roebuck, and Esso (now Exxon) would look me in the eye and say: ''I won't hire you because you stutter.'' After many painful rejections, I wondered if I would ever get a job. My college education seemed like a waste of time.
That dismissive and ignorant attitude still exists. Last year, an editor asked me: ''Do you write the way you stutter?'' Despite the best economy in decades, 75% of American adults with disabilities who are of working age remain jobless.
Fact of Life.
Still, I see a more receptive, inclusive America now--more willing to see me as a co-worker and a person and less as a guy who takes a bit longer to say what's on his mind. That wouldn't have happened without the ADA. By mandating change, the federal government made accessibility features in public buildings and in workplaces a fact of life. With more of the disabled in the mainstream, the prejudices are starting to erode.
Now, other barriers must fall. Most older buildings can be made accessible, but many aren't. Public transportation is much improved for the disabled, but still has a way to go--for example, officials should be cracking down on bus drivers who decline to call out stops for the blind. We need stronger educational programs that integrate disabled students with the rest and a public-private partnership to create jobs by providing assistive technology to disabled persons.
The myth lives on that accommodating disabled workers will bankrupt small businesses. Fact is, 80% of job accommodations cost less than $500 per employee, according to the Jobs Accommodations Network. And people with disabilities aren't immobile but can now travel like every other global-economy worker--since trains, buses, cabs, and planes are more accessible. Airports have telecommunications devices for the deaf. Travel schedules are now even produced on cassette tapes for the blind.
ECONOMIC BOOST. Yes, these measures cost money. Accessibility features for a new building add an average 2% to construction costs. But such costs are offset by the economic advantages of an expanded market of disabled consumers, who now number 54 million, with $175 billion in disposable income, according to the Commerce Dept.
Along with their improving status comes a better public image. McDonald's (MCD), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), and Snap.Com use sign-language interpreters in their TV ads. American Airlines (AMR) features a one-legged skier, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) a blind computer programmer. General Motors Corp. (GM) shows a man in a wheelchair fishing--with one of GM's accessible vans waiting nearby.
As physical barriers have fallen, psychological ones are under attack. These days, corporate diversity training includes sessions on disability awareness and employment. And for the first time in history, temporary-employment agencies are placing people with disabilities.
It's a long way from the days when disabled people were considered to be possessed by demons. Now that we have cleared the first hurdle with the help of the ADA, let's keep going. Putting disabled people to work will save taxpayers money, help the full-employment economy, and, most of all, give many good people the sense of esteem that can come only from a job.
By John Williams
John Williams writes a weekly column for Business Week Online. He can be reached at JMMAW@aol.com.
Vinton Cerf on How the Net Aids the Disabled
The cyber pioneer sees a whole new world opening up, especially as broadband becomes more common
MCI-WorldCom Inc. Senior Vice-President Vinton Cerf, who is partially deaf, is one of the founding fathers of the Internet. With this year marking the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Cerf recently sat down with Business Week Online Assistive Technology columnist John Williams to talk about the Net's benefits for people with disabilities. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What will the Internet do in the future that it's not doing today
to help people with disabilities?
A: I think the technology will improve in some dimensions -- not so much Internet technology, per se, as improvements in natural-language technology. Already, there's the potential for sending video over the Net adequate for signing. This is perhaps only a couple of years away at most, though it's only feasible when high-bandwidth connections are available.
There will also be improvements in converting spoken word to text -- if the speaker works with so-called "trained" software, the probability is quite high that the translation from spoken word to written format will soon show 95% accuracy, even with a large vocabulary of words. Obviously, the Internet can also help to integrate e-mail, paging, real-time TTY [tele-typewriter, a device which allows people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate through a special operator], and voice-to-text messaging.
Q: How will the Internet aid people either with visual impairments or
A: Improved standards for audible Web-page design may make it possible to navigate specially designed audio pages better than today's visual pages. Standards for Web-page design for enlarged formats, high-contrast formats, and so on, are also likely.
Q: What about people with speech impairments?
A: With trained speech [software that recognizes a particular speaker], I think it is entirely possible to produce good quality speech.... This would be the next step after today's text-to-speech capability, so well demonstrated by physicist Stephen Hawking [who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a muscular degenerative disease].
Q: How can the Internet benefit people with cognitive impairments, such
as learning disabilities?
A: I think you will see simpler Internet-enabled appliances that don't require as much knowledge to use as a typical PC.
Q: And for people who have some form of paralysis?
A: The additional development of eye trackers and a variety of alternative pointing and clicking devices will likely augment what is available today.
Q: How about online teaching for disabled people? How do we judge its
A: I think it highly likely that house-bound students will be able to achieve quality education over the Internet. Even field trips with appropriate portable Web-cams will be feasible. This will become mainstream, because even those without disabilities will find it valuable to be able to attend classes remotely. Of course, the individual must put the education to work. In some cases, it may not be easy, but I know from experience that perseverance pays off. Any education degree is a stepping stone to a higher plan or goal in life. Successful people never lose sight of their goals. They stay focused and motivated.
Q: What's your latest project involving accessibility issues?
A: The Internet Societal Task Force (ISTF). The initial focus is on accessible Web-page design for people who have various impediments [that don't allow them to] use conventional Web pages.
Q: What would you most like to see the Internet and World Wide Web offer
disabled people that's not there now?
A: More consistent application of accessibility principles to Web-page design. More organized presentation of information about assistive devices. Better education in the use of assistive-technology devices. More information on availability of devices and services -- and application of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the Web.
Q: Do you believe in the future that most communications will be done
via theWeb -- including telephoning, teaching, writing, entertaining, and
A: I think we will see the Internet grow up to become the most important telecommunications substrate for the 21st century. That does not mean that the other media will disappear. But the Internet will adapt to and support and carry these media. I also expect to see a lot more interaction and integration among these various media by way of Internet-enabled devices and services.
Q: Do you believe too much emphasis is put on communicating through
A: You can never overemphasize the value of communication, Web-based or otherwise.
Q: Does your own hearing impairment or your wife's former hearing impairment
[she has had a cochlear transplant] motivate you to work on access issues
for disabled people?
A: Yes. I've worked to make the Internet more useful for people with disabilities -- particularly hearing disabilities, as a consequence of my own hearing limitations and my wife's, although she [now] hears astonishingly well. She is still profoundly deaf when the implant is not operating. Of course, my service on the board of Gallaudet University and participation in the ISTF offers opportunities to learn more about the challenges facing people with disabilities in their use of the Internet.
Q: Do you think the Web offers entrepreneurial opportunities for people
with disabilities? What are they?
A: There is no question in my mind that starting a Web-based business is no harder for a person with disabilities than for someone who doesn't have them. The real issue is having a good business idea and a good business model in the first place! There are many places to get assistance -- banks, universities. There are even business plans available online. Stick to your goals, and somehow you will succeed.
Have any thoughts on the Net and the disabled? Let us know at BW Online's
Assistive Tech Forum. Or, if you have a question about assistive technology,
write to John Williams at JMMAW@aol.com
Copyright 2000, by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved