Telecom Act requires aid for disabled

Little-known rules require firms to make computer technology accessible to the disabled.

3 min read
CompuServe reached out today to help visually impaired users access its service, and many major corporations may soon follow suit--not because they want to, say advocates for the blind, but because a little-known provision of the federal Telecommunications Act requires companies to make computer technology accessible to disabled people.

CompuServe asked Henter-Joyce to help redesign its service to make it easier for blind people to navigate after the company noticed an increase in the number of visually impaired users, according to Eric Damery, Henter-Joyce vice president of sales. "CompuServe came to us because they are finding that more and more blind people are using their service," he said.

The CompuServe package is based on Henter-Joyce's $795 Jaws software that works with a voice synthesizer to read Web pages to users and to execute voice commands for opening files and other basic tasks. The CompuServe package is designed to work well with the online service's interface and will cost only $495 when it ships in late August.

The support of online companies like CompuServe is critical because they have such a large impact on the market, according to Liz Greco of the American Foundation for the Blind. But she gives credit for today's announcement not to CompuServe, but to the political pressure from the visually impaired community that resulted in a clause in the Telecommunications Act requiring companies to provide access to computer technology to blind people.

"It's too bad that it took advocacy efforts to make sure that the folks with the resources are thinking about access for all people, but if that's what it takes then it's better than nothing," said Greco.

Although Henter says that some 40 percent of blind people with jobs work with computers of some kind, the CompuServe announcement highlights the fact that the Internet is leaving out blind people.

"While the Internet's World Wide Web and Microsoft's Windows 95 have increased popular interest in personal computers and in the information superhighway, we Americans who are blind or otherwise visually impaired are being forced onto a side road," wrote Carl Augusto, president of the AFB in an April 3 op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Ted Henter, founder of Henter-Joyce, doesn't think it has to be that way. "I became blind in a car accident," he said. "It was very frustrating, and it took me awhile to get over that frustration. I did it by getting into computers, and at first I adjusted to the fact that I wasn't going to have access to most information, and I wasn't going to live with or accept that," he said.

Henter acknowledges that the graphical aspects of the Web are still lost to him, but he says that software like Jaws makes the bulk of the Internet available to him. "I finally feel equal to everyone else," he said. "I can now read the newspaper online when you get it on your doorstep."

Before this type of technology was available, the blind often had no choice but to settle for three week old papers by the time they were transcribed into Braille, according to Henter.

"I expect the blind employment rate to skyrocket once blind people become aware that this technology exists," Henter said.

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