Discovering the Wonders of Assistive Tech

By , September 21, 2010

Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to join other forward-thinking businesses and hire a worker with a disability. Now what?

Your state agency (click here and select your state from the list) can provide you with a fountain of resources, from skill assessment to providing accommodations. If you’re a take-charge person, the best tip I can give you is to discover the benefits of assistive technology.

In today’s modern workplace, businesses use technology to help all of their employees to be more productive. People with disabilities often use assistive technology, which is any item, piece of equipment or product system that is used to increase, maintain or improve their functional capabilities.

One of the best benefits of assistive technology is that it can make the computer more accessible for people with disabilities. People who are blind, for example, rely on screen-reader software that “reads” computer text and elements out loud, such as Freedom Scientific’s Job Access with Speech (JAWS) JAWS makes the computer completely accessible for people who are blind, while another product, Zoom-Text, magnifies what’s on the computer screen for those who have vision loss, but can still see some things.

Got Instant messaging? There are free programs from AOL, Yahoo! and others that’s extremely helpful for communicating with people who are deaf and hearing impaired Other visual technologies like the Internet, mobile text messages, and e-mail all aid this group in daily tasks.

People with physical disabilities, whose conditions can range from loss of a limb to paralysis, are able to operate a computer using a variety of alternate input devices, or ALDs. These include joysticks, trackballs, arm and wrist supports, foot mice, and switches. Switches come in many shapes, sizes and methods of activation to perform computer tasks when using a keyboard or mouse isn’t possible. Someone might use his or her eye gaze, a puff of breath, or a head movement to control the computer.

Learning disabilities are increasingly common in today’s workplace. Text-to-speech software can read aloud documents on screen while providing features such as word prediction, highlighting and spell-checker. A popular speech-recognition program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking lets a person dictate their words onto a computer. (This is also a great tool for those who cannot physically type.)

Providing the right accommodation is very cost-effective. Most accommodations cost less than $600, and more mainstream companies are today building accessibility right into their devices (like the Apple iPhone.) There are also a variety of tax credits available to help companies offset the costs. Get the facts and details here.

So delve into the world of assistive technology. Your employees with disabilities will be thrilled to know you took the time to figure out the tools they need to succeed.

Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."