Computers for the Disabled
BYTE Magazine, June 1993, #144
Adapting desktop computers to meet the needs of disabled
workers is easier than you might think
Joseph J. Lazzaro
Sal has all the makings of a good telemarketer: He's bright, outgoing, and
persistent. He is also blind. Phyllis wants to hire him, but she has some
concerns. How will he be able to use the company's database if he can't see
the monitor? How will he read office correspondence? And more important, what
will it cost the company to adapt the workplace to accommodate him?
Phyllis must accommodate him, since her company is in the U.S., and
therefore subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA (see the box
"For More Information"). But she needn't worry. The latest adaptive technology
for personal computers provides a cost-effective way to allow Sal and workers
with other disabilities to do their jobs with independence.
Personal computers are directly compatible with many adaptive hardware and
software products. You simply install them as you would any other add-in board
or application. The majority of adaptive products are developed for the
platforms that are commonly used in business environments: MS-DOS, Windows,
and the Macintosh. Fewer products are available for Unix, but development work
is under way due to the influence of the ADA.
When adapting a personal computer, you should pay special attention to
hardware requirements (see the box "Adaptation Needs"). Both PCs and Macs
require at least 25 MHz of processing power to run many adaptive applications,
such as OCR or speech-synthesis programs, in conjunction with mainstream
programs, such as spreadsheets.
Memory is another major consideration. For adaptation, many systems require
a minimum of 1 MB of RAM--4 MB if you're running Windows or if you're attached
to a network. The number of expansion slots is also vital. For instance, if
you have a machine with five slots, you can install a speech synthesizer and
an optical scanner alongside your video and drive controllers and still have
one slot free.
Another important issue is how many serial and parallel ports your computer
has. Many adaptive devices interface to the computer through serial ports,
using standard nine- or 25-pin connectors.
Analyze, Then Adapt
The first task in adding adaptive technology to a computer is to determine
the specific needs of the disabled worker in question. "It's very important to
analyze the job thoroughly," says John Robichaud, a rehabilitation engineer
with the Occupational Rehabilitation Group (Cambridge, MA), "and this goes way
beyond just the PC." Robichaud's company looks at each job in terms of its
component tasks and all the systems at the site used to perform those tasks.
The next step is to focus on the employee's abilities. If he or she has no
vision, then a speech or braille output package is recommended. For someone
with limited but usable vision, a software magnification package may be
appropriate. For a hearing-impaired worker, a Baudot/ASCII modem is a logical
investment. For a motor-disabled user, an adapted keyboard or a Morse-code
entry system is feasible.
To assist with adaptive technology, mainstream companies are providing
consulting services and adaptive equipment to comply with the ADA. The SNAP
(Special Needs Access Program) is a joint project of AT&T and NCR. It offers
engineering consulting services and adaptive hardware and software for fees
ranging from $75 to $125 per hour.
Cortez Martin, civil rights manager for the FAA Technical Center at the
Atlantic City International Airport, used the SNAP to help accommodate a
visually impaired worker. "We gave the consultants a real thumbs-up for their
efforts and the approximately 20 hours of training they provided," he says.
"The software and hardware they suggested made [our] employee more productive
and more efficient."
DEC is using its DECtalk speech-synthesis system to help blind people to
read and nonverbal people to speak. DEC has also created an Assistive
Technology Group. In addition, Apple Computer and IBM have produced and
sponsored assistive technology for their respective computer platforms. Their
developments include everything from graphics-based speech-synthesis systems
to sticky-key software (i.e., programs that electronically lock and hold the
Shift, Ctrl, and Alt keys).
Adapting to a Specific Need
To work effectively, most vision-impaired users need to have their computers
adapted with technologies such as speech synthesis, magnification, braille,
and OCR. Speech-synthesis systems interface to a computer through 8- or 16-bit
slots or through standard RS-232 serial ports. They rely on TSR packages,
known as screen readers, to drive them.
One example of a speech-synthesis system is VertPro from TeleSensory
(Mountain View, CA). This $1795 product can read MS-DOS-based word processors,
databases, spreadsheets, and other text-based software. Window Bridge from
Syntha-Voice (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) is a $695 Windows-based screen
reader. This product can verbalize both MS-DOS- and Windows-based
applications, and it will drive most speech synthesizers.
Magnification software can enlarge text appearing on the screen by up to 16
times. ZoomText Plus ($595) from AI Squared (Burlington Center, VT) and Magic
Deluxe ($295) from MicroSystems Software (Framingham, MA) can both enlarge
text on MS-DOS and Windows applications. Berkeley Systems (Berkeley, CA)
markets inLarge, a $195 Mac-based software package that magnifies most
For braille output, the Juliet printer ($3995) from Enabling Technologies
(Stuart, FL) interfaces to any standard RS-232 serial or parallel port. Juliet
can emboss braille on both sides of a page at a speed of 40 characters per
second. The Reading Edge OCR ($5495) from Xerox Imaging Systems (Peabody, MA)
and the Arkenstone Open Book Unbound ($2190) from Arkenstone (Sunnyvale, CA)
can read printed material to blind people and send the text to a PC.
For users with hearing impairments, there's a long list of available
adaptive hardware and software that you can add onto PCs. For example, SeeBeep
($20) from MicroSystems Software translates IBM speaker output into visual
signals. Computers that are equipped with Baudot/ASCII modems can act as
telecommunications devices for deaf people and also communicate with other
PCs. Examples of this type of modem are the $329 Intele-Modem by Ultratec
(Madison, WI) and the $349 CM-4 from Phone-TTY (Hackensack, NJ).
To adapt equipment for motor-impaired workers unable to type on a standard
keyboard, you can employ adapted keyboards, sticky-key software, head
pointers, and Morse-code systems that bypass the keyboard and enter data
through the RS-232 serial port. In tandem with these add-ons, you can install
software to display a picture of the keyboard on the screen. These products
use a head-mounted pointing device. Examples include HeadMaster ($1195) from
Prentke Romich (Wooster, OH) and the FreeWheel ($1395) from Pointer Systems
With these systems, a motor-impaired person can bypass the physical
keyboard with an external adaptive switch to select menu choices or virtual
keys from an on-screen keyboard. Adaptive switches come in a variety of forms
that can be activated by eye movements, breath control, or any other reliable
Another way of controlling computers is via a Morse-code system. Such a
system consists of adaptive switches and software for people who can't type on
a full keyboard but have the ability to physically push at least one key.
HandiCode ($495) from MicroSystems Software is such a program.
Voice-recognition systems permit people to issue verbal commands to a computer
to perform data entry. Among the available voice systems are two from Dragon
Systems (Newton, MA): DragonDictate-30K ($50) and VoiceType ($1995 plus board).
What's in the Works?
Adaptive technology must struggle to keep pace with the mainstream computer
industry. For instance, numerous DOS-based screen readers exist, but few GUI
screen readers are available. The use of multimedia could prevent blind users
from accessing the information servers of the future unless a method can be
found to translate animation into either speech output or braille. Pen-based
computers could prevent the use of adaptive equipment for two reasons: They
lack expansion slots for specialized hardware, and the heavily visual
operating system isn't friendly to blind users.
Another problem is the long stretches of time between the appearance of
mainstream products, such as spreadsheets and word processors, and those
products' ability to interact with adaptive equipment. Ideally, this lag time
will decrease as companies consider adaptive access early on in the design
On July 26, 1994, companies with as few as 15 employees will be mandated to
comply with the ADA. This criterion will make the ADA applicable to many more
businesses. Because of the implementation of this new law, and the
ever-increasing pervasion and decreasing costs of PCs, the future of adaptive
technology is on a rising curve.
The payoff of the availability of adaptive equipment benefits everyone.
"Building access for disabled people is the same as building better interfaces
for all users," says Janina Sajka, project manager of the World Institute on
Disability Network (Oakland, CA). "By studying the needs of disabled workers,
we have the opportunity to build better access for everyone."
HARDWARE: Both PCs and Macs require at least 25 MHz of processing power to run
many adaptive applications, such as speech-synthesis programs, in conjunction
with mainstream programs, such as spreadsheets.
MEMORY: Many systems require a minimum of 1 MB of RAM--4 MB if you're running
Windows or if you're attached to a network.
EXPANSION SLOTS: With five slots, you can install a speech synthesizer and an
optical scanner alongside your video and drive controllers and still have one
PORTS: Many adaptive devices interface to the computer through serial ports,
using standard nine- or 25-pin connectors.
For More Information
-- By calling the toll-free hot line at The National Institute on Disability
Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR) in Washington, D.C., at (800) 949-4232,
you will be directly connected to your nearest ADA technical assistance
-- You can obtain a free handbook (in either hard-copy or electronic form)
about how to add adaptive technology to personal computers from the
Clearinghouse on Computer Accommodation (COCA) of the Information Resources
Management Service, General Services Administration. Write to: Susan A.
Brummel, Director, COCA, c/o GSA, Room 2022, KGDO, 18th and F Sts. NW,
Washington, DC 20405.
-- State rehabilitation agencies, which are usually located in your state
capital and listed in the phone directory, are a source of free information
on ways to comply with the ADA.
-- DOS-Abledata is a CD-ROM database from the Trace Center in Madison,
Wisconsin. You can purchase this CD-ROM directly from the Trace Center for
$25. You can also access its contents via the Massachusetts Commission for
the Blind's BBS at (617) 451-5327 or via Project Enable (a disability-
oriented BBS) at (304) 766-7842.
-- The Internet has at least two newsgroups covering disability-related issues.
These groups are called misc.handicap and alt.education.disabled. On-line
services such as GEnie, BIX, CompuServe, and Delphi also have forums
dedicated to adaptive technology.
-- The Department of Justice runs a BBS dedicated to providing information on
the ADA. To access it by modem, call (202) 514-6193.
Illustration: A PC for a blind user, equipped with an Oscar optical scanner
and a braille printer, both by TeleSensory. The optical scanner converts text
into ASCII code or into proprietary word processing format. Files saved on
disk can then be translated into braille and sent to the printer. Visually
impaired users can also enlarge the text on the screen by loading a TSR
software magnification program.
Illustration: This deaf user's PC is connected to a telephone via an Ultratec
Intele-Modem Baudot/ASCII modem. The user is sending and receiving messages to
and from someone at a remote site who is using a telecommunications device for
deaf people (right).
Illustration: This motor-disabled person is communicating with a PC using a
Pointer Systems optical head pointer to access all keyboard functions on a
virtual keyboard shown on the PC's display. The user can "strike" a key in one
of two ways. He can focus on the desired key for a user-definable time period
(which causes the key to be highlighted), or he can click an adapted switch
when he chooses the desired key.
Joseph J. Lazzaro is director of the Adaptive Technology Program at the
Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in Boston. He is the author of Adaptive
Technologies for Learning and Work Environments (American Library Association,
forthcoming). You can contact him on BIX as "firstname.lastname@example.org" or on the
Internet at email@example.com.
Copyright 1993 McGraw-Hill, Inc