Monday, September 29, 2008

Apple to Aid Blind Users -- Again

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has been quite active in the last couple months. On Friday, the NFB, along with Massachusetts General Martha Coakley, reached an agreement with Apple Inc. to make Apple's iTunes -- the most popular music retail outlet in the U.S. -- more accessible to blind and visually-impaired Internet users.

In September, Apple released, and was praised for, its 4th generation iPod Nano and iTunes 8, which is screen-reader friendly on both Macs and PCs. These new features let blind users manage their libraries as well as purchase and download content from the iTunes store. The new iPod itself is also equipped with talking menus and large font options. On a Mac, iTunes is compatible with Apple's built-in VoiceOver screen reader; on a PC using Windows XP or Vista, it's compatible with GW Micro's Windows-Eyes (and soon, Freedom Scientific's Jaws for Windows) screen readers, which must be purchased separately for around $1,000.

But the NFB wasn't impressed, and took Apple to task to come up with a solution to make iTunes accessible to all screen-access software by June 30, 2009. Apple agreed, and said it will install technology in iTunes that will allow blind consumers to turn on-screen information into either braille or speech so they can search iTunes using keyboard commands. For instance, iTunes will audibly speak whenever a user passes the cursor over important on-screen navigational prompts such as the file commands or movie, music, educational and television titles that are available for purchase and download.

Still, PC screen readers must be purchased separately, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind has said that purchase discounts are available across the U.S. and that the commission itself has bought a large batch of the software and is supplying it free to the blind in Massachusetts. Oh, and Apple will donate $250,000 to the commission to help foot the bill.

Are companies afraid? The NFB already sued Target in August for failing to make its retail website accessible for blind users. Target had to pay $6 million in damages for blind users who were unable to navigate Target's web site, and has agreed to make its website more accessible to screen-reading software.

It's a shame that the NFB is turning so litigious. Apple had already made great strides with its latest versions of the iPod and iTunes. Let's look at the positive side of this. Not only will blind users have more access to this popular social and educational vehicle, but it's a boon for universal design. After all, most American consumers spend all day staring at a computer in the office. It would be nice if they had the option to operate their iPod with "eyes-free" technology such as spoken menus. This would allow them to use their iPods on the go, while driving, working out, reading, knitting, eating, working -- the list goes on.

Perhaps this agreement will lead to more innovation among gadget-makers to consider all of their users, including those with disabilities. Then the voice-activated mp3 player might end up on next Christmas wish list (or the college syllabus).

Friday, September 26, 2008

ADA Bill Passes with Flying Colors

President Bush on Thursday signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, a little more than 18 years after his father signed the original ADA. Bush's father stood by his side as his son signed the bill into law. Barack Obama, one of the bill's co-sponsor's, made a statement saying "it must be a priority for our government to do everything it can to protect and respect the needs of these Americans....Eighteen years ago, enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act was a historic milestone for millions of Americans when it was signed into law. It gave Americans with disabilities better access, more opportunities, and increased independence...While we still have much more to do, this law is an important affirmation of our commitment to Americans with disabilities."

For the record, McCain is a supporter of the 1990 law. Palin, who has a son with Down Syndrome, says she will work to "speed research" up. But it is unlikely that this will include more NIH funding and a reversal of the prohibition of stem-cell research if they make it to the White House. We also need health care plans that won't allow coverage to be leveraged merely for corporate profit.

Obama is the right person to jumpstart the conversation with businesses who can hire PWDs and with technology companies that can make simple adaptions in order for their products to be used universally. I also believe Obama understands from life experience what it's like to be marginalized, but also recognizes that American is a place of tremendous opportunity when you're given the tools to succeed.

And the debate is on again!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Reading Lips" Review

If you would like to understand more about the world of disabilities, you can read the book, Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability, edited by Diane Scharper and Philip Scharper, Jr., M.D. Released in April 2008, Reading Lips is a collection of first-person prose from people with all kinds of disabilities, from deafness to paraplegia. I wrote a story for the book titled Catching Kate, where I describe my experience as a deaf high school cheerleader. I'm not promoting my writing here, rather, I'm promoting a nice review of the book from one of my favorite websites, Disaboom. Read the review here. If you're looking to get a copy of the book you can buy it at here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

ADA Amendment Strikes the Right Balance

Last August, the US Chamber of Commerce, an association of three million businesses, sent a letter to Congress opposing a bill that would amend the Americans with Disabilities Act. Calling it an essential "re-writing" of the Act, the Chamber said it believed such changes would open the floodgates for litigation by "virtually all of the entire working population in the United States " who believed they may have been discriminated against due to disability. "The bill would change the definition of 'disability' so that any individual with an impairment -- such as poor eyesight correctible by wearing glasses -- would be considered disabled and would trigger the employer's duty to accommodate them."

I wrote about disability discrimination litigation for BusinessWeek Online. In a famous 2002 case, Toyota v. Williams, the Supreme Court sided with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, which refused to tailor a job for an assembly-line worker who claimed she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome on the job. In its unanimous decision, the court held that Ella Williams' condition did not meet the ADA's definition of a disability because it had not "substantially limit[ed]" any "major life [activity]."

I agreed with the decision because I believe the ADA is designed to encourage employers to hire the disabled, who may have abilities that are perceived as not being on par as their able-bodied counterparts. (One leg missing is mostly irrelevant when you're smart and educated, but using it as a ploy to get hired is a problem.) In this case, a ruling in Ella Williams' favor might have enticed other U.S. workers to make specious claims, such as passing off an out-of-workplace injury as a disabilities case. There's a place for workplace injury claims. It's the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Today, one year -- and several Chamber-esque tweaks to the bill later -- the ADA Amendments Act passed Congress and will be sent to President Bush to sign. (His father signed the original ADA in 1990.) The revised bill offers better balance between protections for individuals with disabilities and the obligations and requirements of employers.

Under the ADA Amendments Act, the definition of a disability is still a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities." However, the legislation would expand coverage by making changes to the meaning of major life activity under that definition to include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, and most importantly -- any "major bodily function". OK, so basically anything you do while you're alive, but Congress is hoping employees heed the spirit of the law.

I applaud Congress for expanding the ADA to include more life activities. The bill will give protections to those whose disablity is eposodic or may go into remission, such as someone with epilepsy, diabetes or cancer. However, we still needed strong architecture around the ADA or else it risked cancelling itself out. It's a law designed to protect those who need it in the workplace and lifespace. Which brings me back to Toyota v. Williams. I wonder if Ella Williams could win her case under the new parameters.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Love Affair with Assistive Tech

If you haven't heard of Disaboom, you should definitely check out their site. It's a strong community of PWDs who are learning from and interacting with each other. I was the subject of an interview for their Living Forward section that was published today. An excerpt:

Suzanne first fell in love with assistive technology (AT) when she started her second New York City job at Businessweek Online. She was originally hired to cover stock market reports, but was soon asked if she wanted to write a weekly column on assistive technology. “I’ve always had people helping me—sign language interpreters, note-takers, etc.—never technology. It struck me how much independence I could gain through technology.”

Writing about AT was a way for Suzanne to help people with disabilities gain independence. She is fascinated by the way assistive technology can be as simple as a mainstream product used in a special way, but still have a big impact. “Technology has changed my life,” Suzanne states.

A "mainstream product" can be anything off-the-shelf, from an iPod - blind people can load audio content, to wireless headsets - used by the mobility impaired to command a PC. It's up to PWDs to get creative and capitalize on products that are designed to be profit-makers but can also be life-changers.

Kindness in a Can

I was taking the Greyhound bus from Boston to New York earlier this week, and the bus driver decided to stop at Arby's for dinner - my favorite place (NOT!) This is a roast beef chain where, I'm told, the meat comes out of a can. Like Playdoh. I was placing an order of chicken fingers, when Arby's saving grace appeared to me in a laminated sign just above the cash registers. It read something like this:

If you need help with anything please don't hesitate to ask us.
If you're visually impaired we can read you the menu aloud.
If you're hearing impaired we can speak slower or offer you a pen and paper to write down your order.
If you're mobility impaired we can bring your food to your table.

I read this notice a few times, then looked over at the teenagers at the cash register, and then spotted the shift manager. I may be over-generalizing, but I sensed a kindness and camrardarie among the workers that isn't as visible at other chains, like McDonald's. You know, when good business decisions are made from the top-down it really has an affect on employees' attitudes. Watching the workers in play, I could envision Arby's Corporate holding disability-sensitivity training, which is a great step in building awareness and know-how. I didn't need assistance that night with my chicken fingers, but I felt a certain sense of relief knowing that I could ask a teenager at a fast-food chain to sympathize with my cause if need be. Kudos to Arby's, even if it's food comes out of a can.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MTV Knows Drama!

This is interesting. MTV is profiling Deaf teens for an episode of MTV's True Life. In "I'm Deaf," the show follows two Deaf teens, Chris and Amanda, who struggle to thrive in a hearing world. Chris relies "solely on text messages, IMs, and email as forms of communication" and can't hear the sound of his mother's voice. Boy, I remember not having these forms of communication growing up: it was the telephone or nothing. Needless to say, the social calvacade skipped my house. Chris ends up getting a cochlear implant, and it changes his life. Amanda, meanwhile, learns to dance by feeling the vibrations and memorizing choreography -- something I used to do as a high school cheerleader. She hopes to make Baltimore's ballet troupe. What a great inspiration for other teens to see. Though this show already has aired, I'm sure they'll have a repeat. Let's see if we can get MTV to run episodes of teens with other disabilities.