Devices help the blind cross tech divide

Specially designed gadgets help people with visual and other physical limitations stay connected.

Jerry Swerdlick runs a 15-employee company that resells computers and devices that aid people with visual, hearing, learning and other physical disabilities.

Business is really booming these days, Swerdlick said, as more and more manufacturers are building so-called assistive technology gadgets to address a wide range of special needs groups.

And while he takes bigger and bigger orders from his clients, the mere fact that he is able to spend many hours on the computer is a testament to how far assistive technology designs have come in recent years.

That's because Swerdlick is legally blind.

Disability technology

"I can't see out of one eye and I've got 20/2400 vision in the other. When the doctor asks me to read the chart on the wall, I tell him, "I can't even see the wall much less the chart,'" Swerdlick joked.

He started his company, Electronic Vision Access Solutions (EVAS), in Westerly, R.I., 26 years ago. In the early days, he went door to door with his wife selling a camera that when hooked up to a speech synthesizer could read aloud what appeared in print. EVAS has gone on to improve its speech synthesizers and contribute bits to things like software that makes print appear larger.

In July, EVAS started work on what will be the first of four one-year contracts with Dell to provide technology for disabled veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 1,000 veterans participating in rehabilitation programs for the blind will receive customized Dell OptiPlex computers, monitors, printers and scanners. The PCs are shipped with both large print and Braille guides for quick, easy setup and outfitted with software and peripherals.


What's new:
More companies are making technology easier to use for people with disabilities.

Bottom line:
With baby boomers retiring, an already multibillion dollar industry is growing. People with visual, physical, hearing or learning disabilities now have plenty of products to choose from to help them interact with gadgets and the Internet.

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Swerdlick's EVAS is part of a $5.4 billion assistive technology industry, according to the Smithsonian Institution. That's nearly double market estimates six years ago.

The market itself is broad. Some of the devices that are becoming increasingly common include Braille-based handheld devices with text-to-speech technology, tactile keyboards with oversize characters, and pointing devices that control PCs with a movement of an eyebrow.

An aging population in industrialized countries combined with a government effort to satisfy more special needs groups is lighting a fire under this industry, which adds 10 to 20 new companies every year, Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) executive director David Dikter said. The Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group advises companies and government agencies.

"I think what is happening in the handheld market is pretty dynamic with its huge focus on the blind, visually and hearing-impaired," Dikter said. "A person who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's or even had a stroke can find technologies that allow them to have speech output. That is powerful, if you think about it. If you are 50 years old and your disability caused you not to be able to speak, this technology creates an independence that lets them go into a bank."

There's a huge need for these products. The World Health Organization estimates that between 750 million and 1 billion of the world's 6 billion people deal with some form of speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive impairment.

In the United States alone, more than 54 million people have some sort of disability, according to census figures released in 2002. That's likely

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