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DIGITAL MANAGER
By John M. Williams
FEBRUARY 10, 2000


Making Your Company More Accessible to Disabled Staff and Clients

Electronic forms and talking Web sites help as much as ramps and wide doors

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It is very well to say that computers make it possible for many more disabled people to work for themselves or others. Yet the conventional Internet and computer technologies most people take for granted are useless if you can't see or control your hands well enough to use a keyboard. Sad to say, something as basic as an inability to fill out forms makes it pretty tough to launch a business — or even take an ordinary job at a company, small or large. U.S. government figures show that 74% of persons with severe disabilities between the ages of 21 and 64 don't work.

This dismal statistic may not resonate with nondisabled small-business owners — until they consider the tight job market. Just making internal forms electronic and accessible may enable them to hire a much-needed, skilled worker — who happens to be disabled. Another consideration — accessible materials on Web sites make their services available to more clients.

FutureForms has been in the forefront of adapting business forms to work with assistive technologies, such as screen readers (which read out loud the contents of a computer screen) and software that converts speech to text. "We believe everyone has the right to participate in the information-technology revolution, and we intend to see that blind, visually impaired, and people who can not use keyboards participate in the benefits of information technology," says Bill Sahlberg, director of marketing at FutureForms, a unit of Pummill Business Forms of Grand Rapids.

The company's interest in making accessible forms grew out of work it did for a blind attorney, says Sahlberg. That made the company aware there was a large potential market in tools for disabled staff that weren't billed as "accommodations" — a term that scares employers with its connotations of inordinate expense and lawsuits. FutureForms' says its goal is to create universal documents that can be plugged into assistive software, so that no one needs to request special forms to do his or her job, participate in employee programs, or order a company's products.

Companies or government agencies generally contract with FutureForms to create electronic versions of their paperwork, Sahlberg explains. The company will provide the tools for customers to create their own material, but most find it far easier to let FutureForms do the work. FutureForms' uses several formats. Companies can have software-filler programs installed on each employee's PC. Open the program first, call up a directory of forms within that screen, select one, and fill away. More popular — and more useful — are forms that open up within a browser on a Web or intranet site.

The forms can be configured to work with any of the major screen readers — WindowEyes, JAWS (Job Accommodation with Speech), or Microsoft Speech, all for Windows — as well as such speech-recognition products as Dragon Dictate, a product of Dragon Systems, based in Newton, Mass., and various keyboard switches. (The latter are modified keyboards for people with limited use of their hands.)

FutureForms recently released a product called Verbal-Eyes that works with its forms and those of other designers, who can use it under license. Verbal-Eyes acts as a bridge between the forms and the assistive technology. When a user opens a form created with Verbal-Eyes, the software automatically determines whether any of the three major screen readers listed above are in use. If it locates an active screen reader, Verbal-Eyes tells it to read the form. If there's no screen reader, the user just completes the form normally. The software is simple to install, says Sahlberg, requiring no special skill.

How much does it cost for a business to make its forms electronic and accessible? FutureForms' fees start at $500 and can run up to a couple of thousand per form, depending on how complicated and long the documents are. In some cases, state rehabilitation agencies will share the cost of making forms accessible with the company that hires a client. For companies that want to use Verbal-Eyes with existing forms, licensing fees range from around $50 a form for 2 forms to $2.00 a form for 1,000 forms.

Another technology helps those who have severe visual impairments or can't use a keyboard tap the Web. Everypath, a Santa Clara (Calif.)-based company will, for a monthly fee, convert the information on a company's Web site so it can be delivered by voice over an ordinary telephone. The company's fees range from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the amount of traffic and the number of pages. This is essentially the same technology that delivers Web information to mobile devices with tiny screens. To access a site that has been "Everypathed," the user dials a phone number and asks for the URL. The software calls up the site and responds: "What do you want?" The user specifies the information he or she needs, and a female voice "reads" it.

By making Web-site information accessible over ordinary telephones, a company's services can reach millions of disabled people — potential clients, entrepreneurs, and employees. And the technology isn't only useful for the disabled. Voice capability also extends a site's reach to those who don't have PCs or don't have access to one at a given moment.



Williams writes a weekly column for Business Week Online on assistive technology. For information on assistive technology, write to him at JMMAW@aol.com. You can also discuss these issues on BW Online's Assistive Tech Forum



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