Academy Award-Winning Actress Marlee Matlin Joins Sen. Tom Harkin, Easter Seals and Microsoft via Video Relay Service for Capitol Hill Showcase Of Assistive Technology Innovations

WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2003 — Technology brought actress Marlee Matlin to Capitol Hill today — virtually — as she joined Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin from Los Angeles via Sprint’s Video Relay Service (VRS) at an event hosted by the office of Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine to discuss the positive impact of technology on people with disabilities. The two joined event sponsors Easter Seals and Microsoft Corp., as well as national disability leaders, government representatives and assistive technology (AT) vendors to celebrate the innovations in technology that are improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and to refocus attention on the fact that much more remains to be done. Harkin and Matlin — who have collaborated since the late 1980s, when they worked to make closed captioning mandatory for television sets, an effort that culminated in the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 — shared examples of ways that technology advances have affected them personally and reiterated the importance of a continued commitment on the part of elected officials and the technology community to work with one another in support of further innovation.

“I’ve experienced firsthand the impact that advances in technology can make in the lives of people with disabilities,” Harkin said. “Today I call on my colleagues in Congress to use the means available to them to ensure that this important segment of our citizenry is given every possible opportunity to use technology to succeed in school, at work and in their personal lives, and that the future continues to yield even more progress in this area.”

Harkin and Matlin’s exchange itself helped to show just how far technology has evolved as the two conversed using Sprint’s Video Relay Service. Introduced last year in collaboration with Communication Service for the Deaf, a private, nonprofit organization, VRS enables deaf individuals who use sign language to communicate with hearing people over standard telephone lines using a telephone, a Web camera and an interpreter. The uniqueness of the VRS, and its distinction from Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), is the fact that deaf people can communicate in their native language, American Sign Language (ASL), instead of typing sequential text messages as they have in the past, using TTY or text-relay services.

“Before VRS it was cumbersome for deaf persons to have truly meaningful conversations over the phone,” Matlin said. “We were able to do things like make appointments or order out for pizza, but VRS enables us to have heart-to-heart talks with people and communicate better with employers and businesses. Thirteen years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) promised equal access to telecommunications for people with disabilities. Today, VRS is furthering that commitment, and I have faith that this is just the beginning.”

More information on Sprint’s Video Relay Service can be found at http://www.sprint.com/relay/ .

Innovations in Assistive Technology

Along with Sprint, three assistive technology companies representing the breadth of innovative technology solutions available today participated in the event to demonstrate just how far assistive technology has come.

  • gh LLC, a West Lafayette, Ind.-based assistive technology company that helps people with visual disabilities access information, announced at today’s event that it is working with Educational Testing Service, the world’s largest private educational testing and measurement organization, to provide a computer-voiced standardized test for people with visual disabilities. Called the Accessible Testing System (ATS), this historic test accommodation marks a significant step forward in leveling the playing field for computer-based testing between people with visual disabilities and their peers without disabilities. Founder and CEO Dave Schleppenbach also emphasized the company’s vision of building accessibility into information sources such as textbooks and publications from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought. More information about gh LLC can be found at http://www.ghbraille.com/ .

  • Teltronics Inc., a Sarasota, Fla.-based technologies company, has invented and patented a software product that facilitates fluent two-way communication between people who are hard of hearing or deaf and the hearing population. The iCommunicator, demonstrated at today’s event by product manager Gail Rosenberg, converts speech to text, sign language and computer-generated speech. It gives people with hearing, speech or comprehension disabilities a level of access that was previously unachievable. The new release of the iCommunicator, version 4.0, demonstrates the innovation that is possible when technology is applied to the challenges faced by people with disabilities. It is the company’s hope that the product will enlighten the general public about the broader issues of equality and accessibility and the requirement for appropriate federal funding to give people with disabilities access to assistive technology. The iCommunicator is distributed by 1450 Inc. More information on the product can be found at http://www.myicommunicator.com/ .

  • ScanSoft Inc. today demonstrated its Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation solution that helps individuals with a range of disabilities control their PCs using their voice and type as fast as they can speak. In addition to its Dragon NaturallySpeaking solutions, ScanSoft provides a range of speech and imaging solutions that can improve accessibility and productivity for individuals with disabilities ranging from repetitive stress injuries (RSI) to vision impairment and quadriplegia. These solutions include ScanSoft’s industry-leading portfolio of text-to-speech (TTS) software, which reads text aloud to users in a human-sounding synthesized voice to provide a natural interface for a variety of applications including screen readers, talking ATMs and voice-activated customer service. ScanSoft’s speech technologies today were showcased in other applications at the event including Teltronics iCommunicator, which is based on ScanSoft’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking technology, and the gh LLC ATS system, which is underpinned by ScanSoft RealSpeak TTS technology. More information about ScanSoft can be found at http://www.scansoft.com/ .

Easter Seals and Microsoft Join Forces to Shine Spotlight on Assistive Technology

Today’s Innovations in Assistive Technology event, co-sponsored by Easter Seals and Microsoft, was part of Easter Seals’ Capitol Hill Day, when hundreds of Easter Seals volunteer and staff leaders from across the country visit Washington to meet with their senators and representatives. Easter Seals and Microsoft planned this morning’s event in the hope that forums such as this will encourage government and information technology industry support of the growing assistive technology industry.

“Today in America, adults with disabilities are able to enter into and succeed in the workplace because of legislation like the ADA,” said James E. Williams Jr., president and chief executive officer of Easter Seals. “More and more, technology is the driving force that is eliminating barriers for the disability community in work and in their everyday lives. The challenge now is to help people with disabilities find meaningful employment and become economically self-sufficient.”

Easter Seals and Microsoft are dedicated to partnering to increase awareness of assistive technology products and make them more available to people with disabilities who are seeking greater independence.

“Since the creation of our Accessible Technology Group 15 years ago, we’ve sought to create products that can be used by all people, including those with disabilities, and to work with assistive technology companies to move the AT industry as a whole forward,” said Jack Krumholtz, managing director of Federal Government Affairs and Associate General Counsel at Microsoft. “The innovations from companies like Sprint, gh LLC, ScanSoft and Teltronics, and in particular their applications in the workplace, underscore the increasingly vital role assistive technology plays in our nation’s economy.”

About Easter Seals

For more than 80 years, Easter Seals has been providing services that help children and adults with disabilities gain greater independence. Its primary services — medical rehabilitation, job training and employment, inclusive child care, adult day services, and camping and recreation — benefit more than 1 million individuals with disabilities and their families each year through one of 450 centers nationwide. To learn more about Easter Seals, visit their Web site at http://www.easter-seals.org/ .

About Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group

For 15 years, Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group has overseen Microsoft’s accessibility efforts, furthering the company’s goal of making its products accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. More information about Microsoft and accessibility can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/enable/ .

About Microsoft

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software, services and Internet technologies for personal and business computing. The company offers a wide range of products and services designed to empower people through great software — any time, any place and on any device.

Microsoft is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.

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