I.T. Times
Volume 2. No 3 Information Technology News of the University of California, Davis Spring 1994

Computers Create New Opportunities for Physically Disabled

by Catherine Curran, Planning, Strategy & Administration

The same technology that pushed the typewriter out of the office is opening doors of opportunities for people with physical disabilities.

Thanks to a number of adaptive computing features, individuals with visual impairments and limited use of their hands can exchange electronic mail, explore the Internet, edit publications, input data, and design databases.

Putting technology - and information - within reach of UCD's disabled population is the Disabled Student Resource Room, an adaptive computing lab located next door to the Center for Advanced Information Technology (CAIT) on the first floor of Shields Library. The Disability Resource Center maintains the lab which is funded by a grant from the Department of Rehabilitation, instructional equipment funds, student registration fees, and donations from Delta Gamma women's fraternity.

The lab houses both Macintosh and DOS desktop computers equipped with adaptive features and "mainstream" programs (e.g., WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Excel). And, of course, there is network access. Students with use of only one hand can enter data on standard keyboards using special system software. Students with cerebral palsy and other conditions which limit control of their hands can enter data by using a voice input program which translates speech into text. Visually-impaired students can use screen enlarging to read text and data. And blind students can "read" the screen with a voice output program in which a computerized voice serves as translator. (Remember Hal?)

"A steady stream of students uses the lab throughout the school year, and it is not unusual to see all equipment in use during midterms and finals," says Bill Cooper, who coordinates lab operations for the Disability Resource Center.

"These students are bright and motivated, and we are seeing that computers can really make a difference in their lives," says Lorraine Beaman, a counselor for the Disability Resource Center.

"Even just two years ago most disabled students had to rely on others to do reading, dictation, and sometimes data input," says Beaman. "Now, technology is giving them independence."

And that independence is giving them new opportunities. Historically, employment opportunities for the disabled were very limited, Beaman notes. Now, almost any job can be made accessible.

"Thirty years ago, people who were totally blind usually worked as medical transcribers, photo processors, or chair carvers," says Beaman. "Now blind individuals are working as lawyers, professors, and research scientists."

Here is a brief look at just some of the adaptive computing equipment and software programs on the market today. The list is not exhaustive and there are many other programs available.