Homeward Bound – computing tools for the disabled – Technology Information

Joanne Cleaver

Workstyle trends and adaptive technologies are putting the disabled to work

WORKING AT HOME IS REGARDED BY MOST AS EITHER a perk or lifestyle choice, but for workers with disabilities, it’s often the only way to earn a living. The number of disabled Americans who are unemployed–75 percent–nearly equals the number who wish they were working–72 percent–according to the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Those numbers are discouraging, but they’re poised to make a remarkable turnaround. Three trends are working in concert to launch disabled people into the workforce: A record-high demand for skilled labor; advances in adaptive technologies–hardware devices and software programs that let the disabled perform common business tasks like searching the Web or using the telephone; and perhaps most important, an ever-increasing awareness and acceptance of workstyles such as telecommuting and flextime that let workers train for and perform full-fledged careers from home.

Admittedly, adaptive gear such as wheelchair ramps and text-enlarging software utilities have helped small numbers of disabled workers compete for jobs over the years, but the need to commute to a traditional office has arguably kept three-quarters of America’s disabled workers on the sidelines.

Only now, with the advent of ubiquitous Internet access and innovative computing and Web-based technologies–including instant messaging and speech recognition–is it possible for significant numbers of disabled workers to do their jobs seamlessly from home. Also benefitting are workers who battle physical ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome, and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments–many of whom find working from home a viable alternative to accepting long-term disability or losing their jobs outright.

Making Strides

“Employers are pretty open when it comes to flexible work hours, and they’re gradually becoming more willing to participate in work-at-home situations,” says D.J. Hendricks, assistant project manager for the Jobs Accommodation Network, a service of the President’s Committee. “The concerns managers have [about disabled workers] are the same ones they have about any telecommuting arrangement,” she adds.

Disabled employees, even more than able-bodied telecommuters, need to get to know their office-bound supervisors and coworkers, advises George Creamer, a senior product consultant for ABS InfoLink Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based software development firm that hires disabled programmers to work both on-site and remotely.

Creamer says colleagues need to understand the specific issues stemming from a coworker’s disability–why, for instance, it takes a bit longer for an employee to pick up the phone, or why it’s necessary to schedule virtual meetings around scheduled physical therapy appointments.

“As a nondisabled person, I don’t think of Ed Isaac [profiled later in this feature] as a quadriplegic,” Creamer says. “I just call him on the phone and send him stuff. He’s one of our most productive people.”

Here’s how four workers have tapped adaptive technologies and their own on-the-job smarts to create telework arrangements that, as Creamer puts it, “make the disabilities a nonissue.”

When the Boss Is Away

Marian Vessels has an unconquerable spirit. Paralyzed from the midchest down as the result of a car accident 25 years ago (“I’ve spent more of my life in a wheelchair than not”), Vessels nevertheless pursued a career as a community health educator, then went on to develop programs for employing disabled workers for the state of Maryland.

Three years ago, Vessels took charge of the ADA Information Center of TransCen Inc., a job training outfit in Rockville, Md. Accustomed to the two-hour daily commute, Vessels occasionally worked from her home office, but only to tidy up paperwork after a day in the field.

Things changed in early 1997 when Vessels was diagnosed with breast cancer. Facing a grueling regime of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, the boss scrambled to figure out a way to keep her small staff functioning. Vessels appreciated the irony: An illness, not her paraplegia, was forcing her to originate fresh adaptations.

“Because my office has only five people, you don’t just say, `I’m going to take a six-month leave and get healthy,'” she explains. Instead, Vessels moved her office essentials–a small library of books, CDs, and Web bookmarks–to her home office, and invested in a wireless telephone headset so she could maneuver her wheelchair around the office while on the phone with staffers and clients.

Moreover, Vessels trained her staff on how to handle incoming calls, meetings, and appointments. “We developed protocols about what people would be told,” she says. “It’s important for a caller to know that I’ll call back, not that I’m off-site. The office would take messages and relay them via e-mail, voice, or fax. [Clients] don’t want to know that the [boss] is home sick, so we didn’t advertise that.”

Once her chemotherapy sessions began, Vessels put her trust in the system. She took several sick days to cope with the worst of the side effects, then began easing back into work a few hours each day. The wireless headset proved to be a great help, allowing her to communicate with staff members while lying in bed or propped in an easy chair. And, to her surprise, Vessels discovered that with more autonomy, her employees made excellent judgment calls, passing on only inquiries that demanded her expertise. In the end, Vessels’s forced stint as remote supervisor helped make the office more efficient.

Now fully recovered, Vessels says that she regularly recommends telework as part of an employer’s package of accommodations for a disabled worker.

Vessels’s Tools:

* Corel Word Perfect

* Novell NetWare

Job Smarts:

* When a coworker is coping with an intense illness or medical treatments, use nonintrusive methods of communicating, such as e-mail and faxes, and page the employee only for emergencies.

* To protect an ailing worker’s privacy, use the three-way calling and teleconferencing capabilities available through most local phone services for client meetings, staff updates, and planning sessions.

* Help employees who use wireless headsets to create efficient portable workspaces, so the essentials–notebook PC, sticky notes, pens–are always on hand no matter where they settle down to work.

Calling All Programmers

When David Lerman lost his hearing at age 33, he was part owner of an audio-visual production company. Although the only fragment of his career that he could salvage was his proclivity for technology, it turned out to be all he needed.

At the same time Lerman was learning to reorient the way he operated in the world, he was getting hooked on CompuServe. It didn’t take Lerman long to take some programming courses and land a job at an Atlantic City hotel as a computer operator–“my own little Dilbert world,” he says wryly.

By early 1998, Lerman became sick of the two-hour commute to Atlantic City and began perusing various online career bulletin boards. Posting his resume at a site devoted to IBM 400 series computers (www. news400. com) “resulted in a lot of e-mail,” he recalls, including an inquiry from Alternative Resources Corp., an IT consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill.

Lerman’s desire to work from home didn’t faze the ARC recruiters, who know firsthand that disabled workers who prefer to telecommute are a reliable, eager workforce. ARC hired Lerman to work on a long-term project updating the IT infrastructures of Florida, Texas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin municipalities.

To collaborate with clients, Lerman uses a two-line phone with a voice carryover system–a computing/telephony device that lets him hold a conversation with a hearing person. To use it, Lerman speaks into the phone normally; to understand what the other person is saying, Lerman reads a text version of the comments transcribed and transmitted to his computer by a silent operator.

Lerman encourages hearing-impaired workers to learn how they can use technology to telework; he recommends contacting Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People (www. shhh.org).

Lerman’s Tools:

* AT&T two-line voice carryover service

* E-mail and instant messaging via AOL

Job Smarts:

* Before launching into a phone conversation, Lerman first explains the voice carryover technology to those unfamilar with it, either at the onset or via e-mail prior to the call.

* By working primarily on long-term projects with the same group for months at a time, Lerman avoids having to train a stream of new clients and colleagues on his carryover system.

Goodbye, Killer Commute

Before Ed Isaac began teleworking, his job as a specialty software developer consumed nearly every moment of his waking hours, and all his energy. A quadriplegic, Isaac needs help getting up, groomed, and dressed–an hourlong routine that’s repeated in reverse at the end of every day. Add to the strain the long drive to the ABS office in San Jose, Calif., one hour each way with his wife at the wheel.

But now, Isaac works as a senior programmer from his home office. He uses a mouthstick and Dragon Systems Inc.’s NaturallySpeaking software to operate his PC and work on software projects, then sends his finished work to ABS by way of a 128Kbps ISDN line and Lotus Notes.

His new setup is a far cry from the old IBM keyboard jerry-rigged with open paper clips that Isaac used as a freshly minted programmer in 1983. Built-in functions of Windows 98, particularly its one-finger typing option, enable Isaac to manipulate the mouthstick rapidly to browse the Web and manipulate applications.

The arrangement works so well that Isaac recently relocated to the Sierra foothills, 160 miles away from the ABS office.

Isaac’s Tools:

* Dragon NaturallySpeaking software

* Mouthstick for typing and navigating Web pages

* Electric wheelchair

* Pentium II desktop PC with ISDN modem

* Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino groupware

Job Smarts:

* Factor in the strain your disability has on family members. Daily chauffering was “a huge stress on my wife,” Isaac recalls, but now she’s able to help him be more productive in his home office.

* Use AOL’s ICQ, Microsoft NetMeeting, or other virtual conferencing software for impromptu meetings.

* A fast Internet connection lets Isaac meet colleagues online and use a mouthstick or other keyboard alternative to convey ideas via the computer in real time, without transmission delays slowing down exchanges.

Going With the Flow

Roberta Davis has plenty of help at home–mainly in the form of her service rottweiler, Orion, who brings her anything she points to, retrieves shoes and dropped items, and even tugs her wheelchair over rough spots in the pavement when the pair are out and about.

Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1980s, Davis has sampled several different careers, from child psychologist to paralegal. About two years ago, she hit on a winning formula: Davis oversees ongoing research and tracks important legal and marketing trends for San Francisco attorney Randolph Tom.

Davis says the effects of MS are erratic–her energy level can zoom, then ebb, or she might find herself lying in bed, typing into a notebook computer resting beside her. Because she and Tom have agreed on weekly as opposed to daily deadlines, Davis works as much as she can each day toward her weekly goals. While much of her research gets filed in Tom’s databases, Davis often collaborates with him via phone to pour fresh findings into Microsoft PowerPoint presentation- and reproduction-ready formats.

Although her disability is out of Tom’s sight, Davis makes sure that it’s never far from his mind: “If you’re virtual, [colleagues and bosses] can’t see if you’re limping that day,” she says. “They can’t see if your sun sensitivity has you cramming your errands into an overcast afternoon and that’s why you’re not home when they call.”

When Tom occasionally complains about Davis’s turnaround time for research, she replies, “Hey, lighten up. I’ve got MS!”

Davis’s Tools:

* eFax.com, a fax-to-e-mail service that converts incoming faxes to digital files that can easily be manipulated into word processing or desktop publishing formats for presentations and reports

* Special nonfluorescent lighting

Job Smarts:

* Davis keeps attorney Tom’s assistants apprised of her current physical condition, treatments, side effects, and energy level, so they’re not alarmed if, for example, a home health aide answers her phone.

* Though medication-induced insomnia sometimes motivates Davis to work in the dead of night, she makes sure Tom understands that doesn’t mean he can conduct business with her at all hours. “An invisible illness is doubly so when you’re working at home,” Davis says. “Don’t set a precedent of working constant hours, because employers get used to it.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Technology Lends a Helping Hand

The Web is a rich resource for finding adaptive technology information and tools. Whether you’re an employer interested in hiring disabled workers, or a worker looking to use technology to increase your efficiency and independence, start here.


* Technical Glossary of the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (www.utoronto.ca/atrc/reference/tech/ techgloss.hhtml)

* A-Z to Deafblindnesssite (www.deafblind.com)

* The IBM Web Site for Human Resource Professionals (www.austin.ibm.com/sns/hr/index.html)

* The rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (www.resna.org)


* Input devices: Freedom of Speech Inc. (store.yahoo.com/fos), Keyboard Alternatives & Vision Solutions Inc. (www.keyalt.com), and ORCCA Technology (www.orcca.com)

* Voice-recognition software: Dragon Systems’ Naturally Speaking (www.naturalspeech.com), L&H VoiceXpress (www.lhs.com), IBM ViaVoice (www-4.ibm.com/software/speech), and Philips FreeSpeech 2000 (www.philips.com)

* Other tools: Prentke Romich Co. (www.prentrom.com) offers remote control computer systems that can be mounted on a user’s head or operated by mouth.

* Innovation Management Group Inc. (www.imgpresents.com) provides an onscreen keyboard, mouse, and joystick.

* R.J. Cooper & Associates (www.rjcooper.com) sells software that enlarges ccursors and control functions

* Software from Henter-Joyce Inc. (www.hj.com) magnifies screen images and reads popular software applications.

Frequent contributor JOANNE CLEAVER follows teleworking trends from her home in Wilmette, Ill.

COPYRIGHT 2000 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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