Six ways technology can help disabled employees

Five years ago Scott and Jamie Burton started Dolphin Digital Technologies with an unusual philosophy. The Kitchener, Ont., company aims to employ people with disabilities.

By doing so, the Burtons have built a successful technology support service.

“These are the best employees we could hope to have,” says Jamie Burton, Dolphin’s director of business development.

There’s a common perception that businesses sometimes hesitate to hire employees with disabilities, fearing that accommodating their needs will be difficult or expensive. Not necessarily.

TD Bank Financial Group has two assistive technology labs – in Toronto and London, Ont. – that assess assistive technologies and help match employees with hardware and software to help them do their jobs. In four years, says Philip Faubert, senior manager of assistive technologies, the labs have helped 600 employees.

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A growing number of tools and tricks can help. A number of accessibility features are even standard on today’s PCs — “people that just need basics can take advantage of the features inherent in the operating system,” says Brad Boyd, IT specialist – assistive technologies at TD’s Toronto lab.

Here are a half-dozen ways to use technology to help employees with disabilities.

Screen and document magnifiers: Brian Valvasori’s low vision won’t let him read standard-sized text. So the senior private banker at TD in Toronto uses ZoomText screen magnifier software, from Aisquared in Manchester Center, Vt., which can blow up text on a computer display as big as he wants it, allowing him to pan around the screen to see what he wants.

Valvasori has been using screen readers for at least 15 years , and says the technology has become “much more robust” in that time. He also has a document reader that lets him put any paper document under a camera and view a magnified image on his computer screen.

Screen readers: Some people can’t see a screen at all. The usual solution is speech-synthesis software that reads text and system messages aloud. One of the most popular products in this category is JAWS, produced by Freedom Scientific, Inc., of St. Petersburg, Fla. Microsoft Corp. builds a simple screen reader called Microsoft Narrator into Windows, and Apple Inc. offers VoiceOver for the Macintosh OS.

Accessible Web and document design: Screen readers had a simple task in the days before graphical user interfaces. Today, much of what we see on our screens isn’t text they can translate easily. This is one reason why accessible web design has become a big issue. For screen readers to work well, Web sites must use graphics carefully and offer alternative information that screen readers can use – such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) alt tags that describe images.

The World Wide Web Consortium publishes standards for designing Web sites that address these and other accessibility issues.

The popular PDF document format has issues too. Screen readers can read PDFs created properly with newer versions of the Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat software, says John Rae, first vice-president of the Alliance for the Equality of Blind Canadians and first vice-chair of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities, but many PDFs are unreadable. “Don’t use PDFs,” he advises, “or if you do … try to make sure it’s properly created.”

Speech recognition: The flip side of speech synthesis, speech recognition can help not only visually impaired users but those with physical restrictions that make keyboard use difficult. Faubert says that is the biggest disability category, accounting for 60 per cent of employee issues TD’s labs see.

Software like Dragon Naturally Speaking from Nuance Communications, Inc., of Burlington, Mass., lets people who find keyboard use difficult dictate text and commands instead. Such software was famously error-prone in its early days, but it’s much better now. “When I started with the lab five years ago I was sceptical,” says Boyd, but support issues have declined noticeably.

Speech recognition is also available for many mobile devices – and proliferating because it’s also useful for operating devices when your hands are otherwise occupied.

Ergonomic keyboards and pointing devices: Another way to reduce problems associated with too much keyboard and mouse use is to replace the standard devices with models that are easier on the body. TD’s Assistive Technology Labs offers employees a range of ergonomic keyboards and alternative pointing devices like large trackballs and mice with larger, projecting buttons. They make it easier for people suffering from repetitive strain injuries, and might also help prevent them.

How you recruit and how you work together: Not all Dolphin Digital employees even rely on specific assistive technologies, Burton says, but the company’s virtual office setup lets them work from home while collaborating with co-workers. That, she says, opens doors for people who might find it hard to come to a physical office every day.

She adds that a big barrier for many people with disabilities is lack of work experience or formal schooling. So Dolphin created a virtual test facility that lets employees show the company what they can do.

The company still uses interviews – sometimes via assistive technologies – but the testing reduces reliance on the traditional resume and training focus. “What we’ve been able to demonstrate,” Burton says, “is that there are no barriers.”

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