The personal computer has transformed the way people communicate and get things done, but the technology has been nothing less than a revolution for people with disabilities.
Training experts crowded around computers at a recent conference in Boulder, Colorado, as 50 featured speakers took turns explaining how high-tech machines can be even more useful when the person using them is deaf, blind or physically disabled.
Technologies help people with disabilities integrate into society
Dean Colby, an organizer of the assistive technology conference, knows the value of these technologies firsthand.
"As a person who's in a wheelchair, such as myself, it's important to have these kinds of conferences and get-togethers so people who are providing people like me with the kinds of technologies they need to succeed in the workplace or go to school or whatever, these kind of people can hook up. 'Cause the technologies are always evolving," he says.
Colby became paralyzed from the chest down after a car crash in 1993 damaged his spinal cord at C-5, which is the fifth neck vertebra. He now holds a doctorate in communications and says computers helped him get it.
"If I had been injured in, let's say 1972, as a C-5 quadriplegic, I think the difference between now and then is just enormous," Colby says. "In particular, just communication and then being able to go to school. You need a computer, really, not an Underwood typewriter. The computing technologies have made it so much easier for persons like me to be integrated into society, really."
New advances help people with impaired vision access computer screens
Voice-recognition software allows Colby to speak commands to his computer instead of typing them. Similar programs help people who are deaf by transforming spoken words into closed-captioned text. The biggest recent advances address the needs of those who can't see computer screens.
Anne Taylor may be blind, but she is a wizard on computers.
"I'm director of access technology at the National Federation of the Blind, and I have to know everything there is to know about screen-access technology," she says.
At this assistive technology conference, she's using a state-of-the-art screen-reading program that transforms computer instructions and information into audio.
The newest technologies include ways to convert on-screen engineering diagrams into raised-relief pages, so that vision-impaired engineering students can trace the printed diagrams with their fingers like braille.
"It's a combination of braille and these tactiles, and that gives her access to the content of the class," says Howard Kramer, coordinator of the conference.
Cost of expensive technologies drops as they are adopted widely
Kramer says providing these special tools can cost time and money, but it's the right thing to do. What's more, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require employers and educational institutions to make reasonable efforts to give people with disabilities the tools they need.
"Even if people didn't want to do it because it's expensive, it's still required by law," Kramer says.
All this technology is expensive, but Kramer notes that the more widely it's used, the more the price comes down. He points to the voice-activated software that allows someone who is paralyzed to use a computer without having to type.
"I can remember when it first came out. It was about 20 years ago. I believe the cost was $20,000, and now a program like Naturally Speaking, you can buy the mid-level product for about $180," he says.
More computers, training needed to take advantage of developments
There have been similar price reductions for screen-reading software, as well as tremendous advances in the technologies behind them. Take the program Federation of the Blind spokeswoman Anne Taylor is testing at the conference. It's called JAWS Tandem. It lets two people in different locations listen to the same computerized voice reading the text and instructions on an Internet site. She says this will help more experienced users train other people.
"This is a key thing here. We don't have enough trainers, access-technology trainers," she says. "So you see a lot of blind people who are familiar with screen-access technology spend time helping each other out. JAWS Tandem is going to facilitate that tremendously."
While the newest technologies are often the most expensive, Eric Damery, with JAWS Tandem, says some of their products are available in developing nations at a lower cost. But he cautions that the software is worthless unless users have personal computers and people who can train them to use the machines.
"If they had all the screen readers in the world, it wouldn't help them if they didn't have the computers, if they didn't have connections to the Internet, if they didn't have the instruction," Damery says. "So you've got to get people there who can support them and help them do it. There's nothing worse than giving people half a tool so they still can't do it."
By partnering with groups that supply personal computers and trainers and by learning from each other, the experts at the assistive technology conference hope to get their special tools to more of the people who need them.