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New Assistive Technologies Aid Employees with Disabilities

A person is typing on a purple keyboard.

​It's a new world for employees with disabilities who require assistive technologies to function in the workplace. The arrival of powerful new apps for use on smartphones and tablets, as well as the continuing evolution of older technologies, is allowing workers with sensory or motor impairments to be more productive and efficient than ever.

Technology for the Visually Impaired

Among those benefiting from advancing technology are employees with visual disabilities. Workers who are blind or who have vision loss now have next-generation computer screen readers like JAWS or Window-Eyes available to them. These programs, which cost about $1,000, read the content of computer screens to users and provide speech and Braille output for the most popular computer applications. Free screen readers like Non-Visual Desktop Access also have improved functionality, experts said.

"With a program like JAWS, everything you touch on a keyboard translates to a spoken confirmation," said Janet Fiore, CEO of The Sierra Group, a consultancy in Philadelphia with the mission of reducing the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities. "Those with visual disabilities learn to process that speech output rapidly because the ear can be trained to take in information at very high speeds."

Those with vision loss also can use screen magnification programs that enlarge text or images for easier viewing. Two such programs are ZoomText and Magic. "The software allows you to magnify screens in many ways for better viewing, making a mouse pointer or cursor easier to see and customizing screens for a user's particular vision needs," said Lee Huffman, editor of AccessWorld magazine, a publication of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City.

Huffman said one of the most promising new tools is the OrCam, a device featuring a small camera mounted on glasses that converts visual information into the spoken word and also understands voice commands. OrCam reads printed text on surfaces including newspapers, books, computer screens, restaurant menus and street signs, instantly relaying it to users through a built-in mini speaker. One feature, MyEye, also recognizes the stored faces of individuals.

A bevy of new and improved apps have emerged as well. Color identification apps help workers who are blind decide what to wear to work, and currency identifiers help users distinguish a $1 bill from a $20 bill.

"You simply wave your phone camera over the piece of clothing or the currency, and it tells you what it is," Huffman said. "Five years ago these programs might have cost $125 or more, but now you can download these apps at low or no cost and have all that accessible technology on one device in your pocket."

Technology for the Hearing Impaired

Workers who are deaf or who have hearing impairments also are benefiting from innovations in assistive technologies. One such technology is Ava, a program for use on smartphones or tablets that transcribes what's being spoken in one-to-one or group conversations. Microphones on mobile devices pick up voices, and the Ava software converts those words into text and presents them on a listener's phone or tablet display.

"For someone who is deaf and speech-impaired, there also is a keyboard in Ava that can be used to type out what they want to say and have it projected through speakers on the phone," said Teresa Goddard, lead consultant on the sensory assistive technology team at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) in Morgantown, W.Va., an organization that provides guidance on workplace accommodation and disability employee issues. Ava is free for those using it less than five hours per month and $29.99 per month for unlimited use.

Older technologies for people with hearing impairments also continue to evolve. Hearing aids with Bluetooth connectivity, for example, can be paired with devices called streamers and connected to smartphones to make it easier to hear phone conversations, Goddard said. More-advanced technology connects those hearing aids directly to iOS or Android devices.

The use of video relay service (VRS) also is increasing in the workplace, Goddard said. VRS allows people with hearing impairments to communicate via phone or other video technologies with hearing people by using sign language rather than typed text. "We're also starting to see a migration from text telephone (TTY), where you sit a telephone handset down on a TTY device, to newer technology that is software-based, such as text over IP," Goddard said.

[SHRM members-only resource: Employing Persons with Cognitive Disabilities]

Aid for Motor Skill Impairments

Assistive technology also is providing a welcome boost to workers with permanent or temporary motor skill impairments. Speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking continues to improve, said Elisabeth Simpson, the lead consultant for JAN's motor skills team, enabling those challenged by using keyboards or a mouse to use their voices for anything from creating reports or spreadsheets to searching the Web.

Workers with upper-body limitations attributable to amputations or dexterity and strength issues also have new technologies available to them. One such tool is the X-AR, an exoskeletal arm that supports users' natural range of motion for jobs from assembly operation to laboratory tasks to office work. "For example, someone who does drywall work and just had rotator cuff surgery would be able to use the device to hold their arm up for longer periods," Simpson said.

For organizations concerned about the cost of such devices, Fiore said some states have assistive technology "lending libraries" that allow users to test-drive these technologies before purchasing them. "You can borrow a device for six weeks and try it out to see if it's going to work, which is one way to help you save money," she said.

Need for Accessible Technology

Many assistive technologies depend on the existence of accessible technology to function as designed. For example, computer screen readers often need websites to be designed in certain ways to take full advantage of their capabilities. That means tables, boxes or alt tags associated with images on websites need to be designed for accessibility, said Josh Christianson, project director for the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology.

"Much of the software in accessible technology is designed to interface with assistive tools," Christianson said.

Websites also should be designed for use without a mouse, he said, so individuals with Parkinson's disease or other motor skill impairments can use the arrow keys on keyboards or sip and puff tools to navigate.

Fiore of The Sierra Group said those seeking more information should visit the Worldwide Web Consortium, which features accessibility guidelines and free tools to check if your website is accessible.


Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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