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Clinton pledges funds for Net accessibility research

The president unveils new initiatives and funding that aims at bridging the "digital divide" for the disabled.

President Clinton today unveiled new initiatives and funding aimed at bridging the "digital divide" for the disabled.

At a presentation in Flint, Mich., the White House pledged tens of millions of dollars in federal and private funds to pay for research into alternative devices to replace standard computer monitors and keyboards used for surfing the Web, as well as loans to make such devices more affordable.

"I think this (event) brings attention to the issue (of accessibility) and helps remind people that designing access to mainstream technology is both practical and important," said Judy Brewer, director of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative, which presented new accessibility technology at the event. "It also makes good business sense."

The W3C is an international standards body that released guidelines last year to make the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

During the past couple of years, Clinton has focused his administration's efforts to close the gap between technology haves and have nots, known as the digital divide. Today's Michigan visit was part of that initiative.

Although the president has been credited by accessibility advocates for focusing on the issue, many say the White House has failed in providing means for people with disabilities to afford new software and computers.

"The technology exists?What doesn?t exist is the wherewithal to acquire the technology and learn how to use it," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind, which has aggressively pushed companies to support accessibility technology, such as electronic braille readers.

Clinton today saw some examples of new computer technology that could help people with disabilities find employment, including the Eye-Gaze system, which allows people who are unable to move or speak to operate a computer and send email merely by looking at different parts of a computer screen.

Chong said the technology for the blind could cost thousands of dollars.

"We want goals?not promises made in the heat of a political election," he said. "We want goals translated into reality."

The president is earmarking $9 million in grants to support 1,200 AmeriCorp volunteer projects that help people with disabilities. Clinton also announced $16 million in grants from the Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research to be used in various programs to promote the accessible information technology through research and loan programs.

E-learning company SmartForce donated $20 million in "e-scholarships" to give about 5,000 people with disabilities access to its online training material.

In addition, the administration received commitments from 45 chief executives of high-tech companies--including America Online, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems--to adopt "best practices" on the accessibility of information and communications products.

The president is also creating a task force to examine Medicare-Medicaid coverage of assistive technology, said Tom Kalil, special assistant to the president for economic policy.

"The task force will take a look at what current programs within the Medicare-Medicaid system currently cover accessibility and what can be done to do more," he said.

The number of people in the United States with disabilities is 54 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.