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Tech update

Gratifying careers in assistive technology
Accessible and assistive equipment helps technically minded folks with disabilities learn and do their jobs. Creating the technology is a fascinating and useful way to make a living

By Laurel McKee Ranger Rafferty Contributing Editor

According to the 2000 census, there are more than 50 million people with disabilities in the U.S. These folks represent a huge critical mass of consumers that can benefit from assistive technology. Yet strange as it seems, people with disabilities have been treated as a marginal market by most companies.

Now a change is in the works. As of June 2001, Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make sure that the electronic and IT equipment they purchase is accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

This requirement gives business-oriented segments of industry a tremendous incentive to rethink their products to serve the expanding market. And it offers new opportunities for engineers prepared to design software and hardware with accessibility at its core.

ATIA: tremendous change
The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) promotes alternate access to IT for people with sensory and physical disabilities. ATIA director David Dikter explains that the group focuses on “helping our industry grow the market, raise awareness, provide professional development and serve as a collective voice to industry and government.” The organization’s yearly conference showcases emerging assistive technologies.

In the five years since ATIA began, Dikter has seen tremendous change, much of it spurred on by Section 508. “Many software companies are working with the assistive technology industry to provide better products,” he says. “Screen readers, for example, have become more robust.”

ATIA is also getting involved in developing interoperability standards, to help assistive IT users interface with existing mainstream technology. “We’re just beginning to address that now,” says Dikter.

CSUN spotlights cutting-edge technology
The Center on Disabilities at California State University-Northridge (CSUN) works in cutting-edge assistive technology. Each March, its super-popular International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities draws people from all over the world, filling two big hotels at Los Angeles Airport.

Bud Rizer directs the center. He notes that over the last ten years, assistive and mainstream technology have begun to merge.

“It used to be an ‘us and them’ situation, but now we’re working together. It’s not only that accessibility is mandated. Companies are beginning to see the value in it.

“Future engineers will have to become more comfortable with the issue of accessibility and disability,” says Rizer.

Michael Takemura.
Michael Takemura.

At HP, part of the universal design
At Hewlett-Packard (HP, Palo Alto, CA), accessibility program office director Michael Takemura explains that where possible, accessibility features are embedded as standard in the company’s products. “We determine the requirements for users with disabilities and incorporate those into the design,” he says.

“PC, notebook, Pocket PC, software, it doesn’t matter. We try to build accessibility into every product, as well as quality, serviceability and manageability. It’s part of making more elegant engineering solutions. Our engineering community has been very receptive and enthusiastic about this.”

Takemura is on the boards of both CSUN and ATIA, and takes part in ATIA’s standards work. In many cases, he notes, accessibility features that are essential for people with disabilities turn out to be very handy for everyone.

Take, for example, something as simple as the one-hand latch on a laptop. A lifesaver for folks with mobility problems, it’s also nice for cell phone users trying to make a few notes while they talk. “It makes sense that if you make things accessible to the most extreme cases, you make them more accessible to everyone,” Takemura says.

Another part of HP’s accessibility initiative is working with the vendors who produce assistive technologies, like Freedom Scientific and Madentec. “We partner with them to ensure compatibility,” Takemura notes.

“We try to help them develop their products with the latest technology in mind, like USB, BlueTooth or wireless. We help them use industry standards. It lowers their cost and helps them get their products to market faster.

“It helps HP as well because their products can interface with ours. And most of all, people with disabilities get access to the latest technologies to help make their lives better.”

Takemura, who became a wheelchair user as the result of a car accident, is very sensitive to the potential pool of talent represented by assistive technology users. “We need to focus on employment, flexible work and telecommuting.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he says, “but around 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.” HP’s “accessible design” philosophy is an important step toward a solution for many.

Dr Jacqueline Downing: “We all have to be on board with accessibility.”
Dr Jacqueline Downing: “We all have to be on board with accessibility.”

HP’s Dr Jacqueline Downing works with human factors
Jacqueline Downing, PhD, is a senior human factors engineer at HP. She’s officially a member of the personal printing group (Vancouver, WA), but she lives in Los Angeles, CA and does a lot of her work remotely by phone and Internet. She keeps in touch with facilities in the U.S. and worldwide to ensure that HP products like printers, scanners, cameras and copiers are accessible to the broadest group of consumers.

“We just finished a big project as part of our effort to support the HP accessibility policy,” she notes. “We developed an online tool that gives HP engineers accessibility design requirements for hardware, software, Web, documentation and even some testing.” This tool, she says, can be used across the board in designing all HP products.

It’s also Downing’s responsibility to see that the accessibility team is aware of the latest requirements in various countries. “We all have to be on board with accessibility to sell to the worldwide market,” she says. “We’re also doing research to see if the government standards are enough, or if there are greater needs beyond 508.”

Downing started her career path with a 1982 BA and a 1984 MA in human factors psychology from CSUN. When she finished the masters she went on to a 1989 PhD in human factors engineering at Virginia Institute of Technology.

After graduating, Downing began working as a senior human factors engineer at HP. Two years ago she moved into her present position, with its emphasis on accessibility. She’s pleased, because her background in aging and vision – the topic of her PhD dissertation – gives her a good understanding of the problems facing the blind.

Downing says she tries not to get too involved in the technology of the products she’s evaluating because she wants to look at the products like a typical user. “My goal is to make it easy for all users,” she explains.

Shon Saliga.
Shon Saliga.

Accessibility is a strategic initiative at IBM
IBM (Armonk, NY) has had a focus on accessibility since 1914, says Shon Saliga, who directs the company’s worldwide accessibility center in Austin, TX. At the start of the last century, the company’s business machine products were all manually operated, of course. Electric machines came along later.

“As we moved into computers in the 1960s, we created a research division that worked on technical accessibility as well as other areas,” Saliga recounts. A great deal of early work on speech recognition technology and text-to-speech conversion came from that group, he notes.

The work still goes on. Like HP, IBM works with other companies in addition to doing its own assistive R&D.; For example, says Saliga, “We’re working with Crunchy Technologies to improve our Home Page Reader and take it to the next level.”

In fact, assistive technology is a strategic initiative at IBM – “a huge business opportunity,” Saliga declares.

JAWS user Guido Corona is an advisory software engineer at IBM’s accessibility center, working in sales enablement.
JAWS user Guido Corona is an advisory software engineer at IBM’s accessibility center, working in sales enablement.

Guido Corona of IBM: evangelizing accessibility
Guido Corona, who is blind as the result of retinitis pigmentosa, is an advisory software engineer at IBM’s accessibility center. He works in sales enablement in the marketing organization.

“I evangelize the sales force on accessibility,” he says. “I provide information on the legal environment, and I explain why we are doing this.”

Corona is part of a team, “but the fact that I’m blind myself brings an extra element of authenticity,” he says. “I sometimes go to a client site with the sales force to show them about accessibility firsthand.”

Born in Italy, Corona immigrated with his family to Canada in 1976. “I was a voracious reader, but as my vision got worse I had to read more slowly. I did manage to get through university without major technical assistance.” He completed a degree in CS at York University (Toronto, Canada) in 1982 and went to work for IBM in Canada. Two years later he was completely blind.

“I found I was losing the cursor on my computer screen. It went quickly, in three or four months. But I had heard about a speaking PC program – one of the first – which IBM had in development at the time and eventually released as ScreenReader for DOS. I started playing around with the prototype in November of 1984, and by February of 1985 it was the only way I could use the computer.”

In 1998 Corona transferred to the accessibility center. For nine months he commuted from Toronto to Austin, then became a permanent resident, moving his family to Texas.

Corona was initially drawn into technology through music composition. He took up computer science to help with his twelve-tone techniques. “There are numeric principles to it and it can be very tedious, so I thought it could be done by computer. I took a CS course toward that end and I was hooked.”

To do his own work, Corona uses JAWS, a product of Freedom Scientific (St. Petersburg, FL) which offers both auditory and Braille output of online content and desktop apps on a standard laptop. He also has Kurzweil 1000 document recognition and reading software for printed matter and the IBM Home Page Reader for surfing the Internet.

The biggest challenge for a blind user, he says, is that adding assistive technology to mainstream technology may multiply complexity. “You have to master one or two extra layers on top of the general technological one. It tends to make the system less stable. I’m hoping that architecting accessibility into the original design will eliminate a lot of these problems.”

At Oracle, Connie Myers emphasizes accessible design
“A cross-organizational approach helps us deliver consistent accessibility throughout all our product families,” says Connie Myers, accessibility program manager at Oracle (Redwood Shores, CA). At Oracle, she says, a team of people is dedicated to making Oracle’s products accessible.

Although she manages highly technical programs, Myers isn’t an engineer. Her 1981 MBA is in finance. “But I got it at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, and engineering is in the air there,” she says with a smile.

Myers worked in finance at technical companies – Xerox, Amdahl and Digital Equipment. In 1996 she joined Sybase (Emeryville, CA) as a project manager in an engineering group. “I was the only nontechnical person in the group,” she notes.

In 1997 Oracle recruited her into a new division. “I was given a project of helping customers migrate to new versions of some applications. It involved listening to customer concerns and responding to them. The task force model we created was very effective and we wanted to handle accessibility issues in the same manner.”

Don Raikes: JAWS expert at Oracle
Don Raikes, an accessibility specialist at Oracle, has been blind since he was eight years old. He works remotely out of his home in Tucson, AZ, providing technical consulting for development teams to ensure that products are JAWS-accessible.

“I also do some development of testing tools, mostly for my own use at work,” he says. “And I do some bug evaluating and a lot of training of developers on how to use JAWS with their applications.” He has also written FAQs and white papers on JAWS use.

Although he works for Oracle, the need for interoperability involves a good deal of cooperation with other companies. “I’m on the beta test list for Freedom Scientific’s new version. I’m also beta-testing Sun Microsystems’ AccessBridge, which allows JAWS to understand Java applications.”

AccessBridge, Raikes explains, is an interface between Java and the assistive technologies. “Our application suite is written and delivered via Java applets. I’ve spent the last six months getting these systems to work together and dealing with bugs and incompatibilities.”

Raikes grew up in Montana and got his 1983 BS in business admin with an MIS concentration from the University of Arizona. He started working in the Tucson, AZ division of Hughes Aircraft (Canoga Park, CA) as a software developer in 1984. In 1992 he moved to Avalon Software Systems (Tucson, AZ) as a developer. In 1996 he joined the Arizona Republic newspaper as a developer to maintain their business apps, and in 2000 he went to work as an accessibility specialist at Oracle.

He got that job because of his experience at the newspaper. “We were switching over to Oracle and I found I couldn’t use it. I wrote to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and told him he was losing part of the market.

“Oracle challenged me to help them make the product accessible. They set me up here at home. I’m part of a team of three people and I meet with others throughout the company. We’re spearheading a variety of accessibility issues, not only visual impairment but mobility issues and hearing impairment.”

JAWS user Chris Hofstader is VP of software engineering at Freedom Scientific, the company that makes JAWS and other assistive software.
JAWS user Chris Hofstader is VP of software engineering at Freedom Scientific, the company that makes JAWS and other assistive software.

VP Chris Hofstader: JAWS and more at Freedom Scientific
“I use JAWS on the job,” says Chris Hofstader, VP of software engineering at Freedom Scientific, the company that makes JAWS and other assistive software. “I couldn’t be an executive in a fast-moving high-tech company without it.”

Hofstader explains that, using JAWS, he makes up all his own PowerPoint presentations. “I don’t get any special consideration for being one of the two blind execs here,” he says. “Nearly half the staff here are blind. The test department is largely blind.”

Like IBM’s Corona, Hofstader has retinitis pigmentosa. It doesn’t stop him from managing all the company’s software projects, including JAWS; MAGic, which provides online magnification for low vision; and VERA (Very Easy Reading Appliance), which is used to scan and read books.

Then there’s Connect Outloud, a scaled-down version of JAWS that allows e-mail and Web-browsing access. “I have a Braille letter from a kindergartener telling me how great his Connect Outloud is. He’s my favorite customer,” Hofstader says.

When Hofstader was eleven, his dad, an Exxon exec, was researching a book at Lawrence Berkeley Labs (Berkeley, CA). “I had the run of one of the top labs in the world, and the grad students let me hang out and write programs on the computers.

“I guess we should all be grateful that it wasn’t an atomic physics lab that I was playing in,” he says with a smile.

Hofstader began his career in 1979 at Lincoln Savings (New York, NY) as a programmer in the mortgage banking division. Then he went on to work for a consulting firm, Computer Horizons Corp (New York, NY), programming for bank clients. While working, he finished his BSCS at New York University in 1982.

Evenings when he wasn’t in school, he was lead singer with the Corporate Pigs, a punk rock group. “I was living in the Village and it was great,” he remembers. “Then I moved to Boston for the PC scene, making big money working directly for clients. In 1985 I took the summer off and went to India and Nepal.”

A series of jobs led to a position with Turning Point Software (Alston, MA) in the fall of 1989. “This was a major step,” he says. “It wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle.”

The president, Ken Tepper, was brilliant, Hofstader thought. “He was my mentor. I was already an excellent programmer, but he taught me to be a software engineer and brought my skills up to a professional level.”

Hofstader started his own software company, Ignis (Cambridge, MA), in 1994. “We made little image files. Our first contract was with the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.”

Two years later Ignis was bought by Starfish Software. Hofstader planned to take time out to do a master of liberal arts at Harvard, but gave it up for a job with Henter-Joyce, which merged with Blaizie Engineering and Arkenstone to become Freedom Scientific.

Technician Julie Cleveland works with Eyegaze, from assembling the systems to loading the software and training the users.
Technician Julie Cleveland works with Eyegaze, from assembling the systems to loading the software and training the users.

Julie Cleveland works with Eyegaze at LC Technologies
Julie Cleveland is a technician with LC Technologies Inc (Fairfax, VA). LC offers the computer-driven Eyegaze system, which is of tremendous benefit to quadriplegics and people with degenerative diseases like ALS. It lets them operate a computer, control lights and appliances, and use the phone and call button – all by tracking where they focus their eyes.

Using visual keys displayed on a screen, Eyegaze users can surf the Net, or type in words to operate a synthetic voice system if they’re unable to talk.

Once the system is calibrated to the user’s eye it’s very accurate, Cleveland says. There’s even a dot that operates like a mouse and can be dragged by eye control. Experienced users work up to typing about three characters a second. That’s about a minute and a half to type this paragraph. Not fast, but at least doable.

Cleveland has a 1999 BS in math from William and Mary College (Williamsburg, VA). She taught high school math for three years, but when an opportunity opened up at LC Technologies she grabbed it. Her father is one of the founders of the company, and she’d already had experience programming systems there.

Working in the small company, “I cover a lot of ground,” Cleveland says. She’s in charge of inventory, solders parts and sometimes puts together an entire system.

At the keyboard, Cleveland has developed inventory spreadsheets and done graphic design for a game that can be played with Eyegaze. “I worked on integrating the graphics with the eye control using C++.”

She also gets involved in installation visits to the customers’ homes, loading the software programs into the system, making adjustments and training Eyegaze users and their families in how to operate the system. “I also provide some tech support on the phone.”

Cleveland gets great pleasure from seeing her efforts improve people’s lives. “Parents send us stories their kids have written on the Eyegaze system. It’s uplifting. I like to feel I make a difference.

“It’s also a great working environment. Everyone who works here wants to do something good for the world. I expect to be here for a very long time.”

Hugh Roberts ensures Web accessibility at Crunchy
Crunchy Technologies (Arlington, VA) was founded in 1999 by Hugh Roberts and some colleagues from Netscape (Mountain View, CA). The small company develops accessible packaged software products and custom apps for business and government clients. Roberts is CTO, and one of the architects of Crunchy’s PageScreamer, which is a tool for making Web content and desktop software accessible to users with disabilities.

“The PageScreamer suite helps developers create online documents that are open to assistive technology,” Roberts explains. “Two of our tools go through Web content, identify accessibility violations and assist in making corrections.”

Roberts, who is black, was born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. as a teenager. He got his BS in aerospace engineering from North Carolina State University in 1990, and was working toward a masters in math when AT&T; (Basking Ridge, NJ) enticed him away.

Although Roberts was always fascinated with flying, he moved into computer technology for better opportunities. In college, a year-long stint at an airplane maker gave him lots of hands-on experience coding and working with simulators. He sharpened this up in five years of computing and networking at AT&T.

In 1997 Roberts joined Netscape as a technology and account support manager. He was asked to join the core team when Crunchy was launched in 1999.

The startup company was initially intended to offer straightforward professional services – Web apps development, relational database management, e-commerce expertise and the like. An early job for the Justice Department soon added another line of work. It turned out that one of the folks who would need to use the Crunchy product wouldn’t be able to do so, because of mobility and vision problems.

“I decided to research the situation,” says Roberts. “Looking into it helped us grasp some of the issues revolving around assistive technologies. In the end, another engineer and I came up with the original design for our suite of products.”

Roberts’ job includes overseeing sales engineering, advising R&D; and running Crunchy’s IT and security infrastructure. “Right now we’re considering wireless technology. We do a lot of brainstorming.”

Like many who work in assistive technology, Roberts finds his work particularly rewarding. “We were all beginning to use the information highway, but there was a potential user base that wasn’t able to access it.”

Roberts knew something about the problem because two people in his extended family have disabilities. “But it wasn’t until I started working in this industry that I really became aware of the issues.

“I’m excited that accessibility issues are coming to the forefront with developers. Things are being designed with accessibility in mind. Engineers are doing it properly from the start.”

Ulala Kelleher.
Ulala Kelleher.

At Canon, accessibility is a major consideration
Ulala Kelleher is a government policy and compliance analyst in the Arlington, VA office of Canon USA (Lake Success, NY), which makes high-tech copiers and similar equipment. “For the past two years Canon has been focusing on making our current product line and software compatible with available assistive technology,” she says. “We try to implement universal design.”

She notes, for example, that copier paper drawers can be difficult to open for people with mobility problems. “Ours now feature pushbutton operation and an optional handle for the document feeder. On our new panel displays, the contrast can be reversed so low-vision and colorblind users can read more easily.”

Newer models, she adds, have remote copying capability compatible with screen readers and magnifiers, so blind and visually impaired users can use their computers to operate the functions. Wheelchair users find it helpful as well.

Because the engineers who work on the accessibility features are in Japan, it’s Kelleher’s job to make recommendations based on user comments. “I’m the clearinghouse for the feedback. My group makes the recommendations and I forward them on to our engineers in Japan,” she says.

Robert Sinclair.
Robert Sinclair.

Key strategy at Microsoft
At Microsoft (Redmond, WA), Robert Sinclair, group manager for accessible technologies, leads the design and development of assistive technologies for the Windows platform. Because Microsoft software is basic to so many business systems, interoperability with assistive technologies is essential, he declares.

“We spend a lot of time researching accessibility problems, partnering with organizations like Freedom Scientific to reduce the burden posed by technology on assistive technology.”

 

Assistive technology can be a rewarding career. Microsoft’s Sinclair, for one, sees a great many roles in the field. “Careers in accessibility cover a broad spectrum, from the marketing team to testers, developers, program managers who work on design and requirements, and people in consulting roles who understand the issues,” he says.

D/C

– Laurel McKee Ranger is a freelance business writer headquartered in Randolph, NJ.