Innovations for People with Disabilities in the Workplace

Innovations for People with Disabilities in the Workplace

Gayle Yarnall doesn't consider herself a gadget freak, but you won't find her at a business meeting without her Voice Mate.

Unless you're blind, like Yarnall, you probably don't use a Voice Mate, a voice-operated personal digital assistant that lets users record and retrieve names, addresses and memos with voice commands. “Everybody's using them,” says Yarnall, president of Adaptive Technology Consulting in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Yarnall recalls attending a meeting with others who are visually impaired. “The one thing we all had in our pockets was a Voice Mate,” she says.

Growing List of Assistive Products

As many consumers buy the latest gadgets, like slick MP3 players and iPhones, workers with disabilities are finding new and innovative assistive technology to accomplish tasks others take for granted, whether answering phone calls from coworkers or reading office memos.

Online stores, such as EnableMart, specialize in software and hardware for workers with disabilities, providing a growing list of items. “There's everything from touch screens to modified keyboards,” says Dennis Moulton, EnableMart's president.

Products come from both startups and established players. IBM, for instance, offers Home Page Reader, special software to read and navigate Web pages for those who are blind or visually impaired. Motorola's pager products, such as the Timeport P935 and the Talkabout T900 -- mainstream gadgets for business and consumer use -- allow individuals with hearing impairments to communicate with colleagues when they're on the road. A small Pittsburgh firm, Consultants for Communication Technology, offers a product called KeyWi2, enabling a PC to operate as a voice synthesizer. The product lets users communicate by employing preprogrammed sentences or “speaking” via keyboard input.

One worker began using the software after having a tracheotomy operation. “The job was a lot of data entry into the computer,” says Jaime Oliva, a partner in Consultants for Communication Technology. “Occasionally, she had to speak to other people.” KeyWi2 offered a way to communicate with coworkers or take phone calls.

Here is a sampling of technologies being used today to assist the workers with disabilities:

Hands-Free Mouse

Those with spinal cord injuries, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and other disabilities often don't have the ability to control a mouse or other pointing device. NaturalPoint's trackIR uses head movements as a way to control what's on the screen. An infrared device atop the screen communicates with a “dot” placed on an individual's forehead. NaturalPoint touts the device's low cost -- just $199 -- and mobility, as it runs off a PC or notebook's USB connection.

Note Taker

HumanWare offers a line of Braille note takers, allowing the blind to take notes with a small, portable device. With its built-in modem and email package, BrailleNote allows the blind to read Microsoft Word documents from colleagues, revise them and then send them back. Output is available in Braille or speech. For Yarnall, BrailleNote offers an easy way to take notes when traveling. “I use it more when I'm on the road than when I'm in the office,” she says. “I use it for taking notes in meetings.”

One-Handed Keyboard

The halfkeyboard, a hand-sized keyboard developed by Matias, includes roughly half of a traditional keyboard's keys, yet it allows for touch-typing with just one hand. The keyboard basically resembles the left side of a conventional keyboard. It preserves the keyboard's QWERTY layout, thereby being appropriate for individuals who are used to touch-typing with a traditional keyboard. Users have clocked speeds of up to 64 words per minute with the halfkeyboard.

Signing for the Screen

SignTel offers Signtel Interpreter, software for translating text -- or even speech -- into sign language on PCs. With a notebook PC, SignTel Interpreter provides a way for individuals who are deaf to participate more fully in meetings, especially when a human interpreter isn't available.

Voice-Operated PDA

Voice Mate is an organizer, but one that's activated by an individual's voice. It is essentially a talking organizer, providing a phonebook, voice notepad, appointment book, alarm clock and calculator. Need a phone number? Just speak the person's name, and Voice Mate will speak the number for you. Voice Mate will even send touch-tone signals to a phone to dial the number.