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Making IT Accessible

Adapting IT systems to people with physical limitations is becoming a big issue. The technologies are available today. The key, practitioners say, is to design them into your information system infrastructure.

By Gary Anthes
May 28, 2001 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - "I was not happy," sighs Don Barrett, lead engineer in the U.S. Department of Education's Assistive Technology Program. Barrett, who is blind, recently tried to purchase software from a vendor over the Internet. Using his PC keyboard, he typed and tabbed easily through an online form. But at the end, the Web site required use of the mouse to click on a Submit button. His screen reader could identify the fields to fill out. But because he couldn't see the mouse pointer, Barrett was stymied.


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That frustration is repeated many times every day as people with vision, hearing, motor and cognitive disabilities struggle to make IT work for them. There are an estimated 60 million disabled people in the U.S., 70% of whom are unemployed or underemployed as a result, according the U.S. Census Bureau.
But the importance of IT accessibility goes far beyond providing for people who are blind or in wheelchairs. As the population ages, IT managers need to be aware of how to make technology more usable by people with imperfect abilities. And accommodating people with disabilities - whether mild or severe - brings productivity gains to all, experts say.
"An accessible IT site or service is almost always easier to use by a greater majority of people," says Neil Jacobson, a senior vice president for IT at Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. For example, voice-activated computer input was designed for the disabled, but now many people without disabilities use it.
Jacobson says IT managers should do for disabled employees just what they do for all employees: "Make sure they have what they need." But Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy, says it's the responsibility of disabled employees to tell management what accommodations they need.
Wells Fargo will soon join the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, and the bank has formed an internal group to ensure that its own Web sites conform to accessibility standards. Wells Fargo provides accessibility tools for its employees, including screen readers, text-to-speech tools and screen magnifiers, Jacobson says.
There are as many as 400 people at the Education Department who are either permanently or temporarily disabled, says Craig B. Luigart, the agency's CIO. He gives them screen readers and screen magnification software, speech recognition and synthesis software, alternate I/O devices, Braille embossers and translators, ergonomic keyboards, talking Caller ID and more. Not all of these accommodations are IT-related. Luigart, who must use a wheelchair, has a special desk built higher than standard.
The cost of these accommodations is surprisingly low, Luigart says, especially when designed into a system or product from the beginning. "If you think about this stuff up front, it typically costs about 1% more," he says. And many of the things that make software more accessible are also good systems practices, according to Luigart.


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