REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 16, 2002 — David Engebretson is blind. When he goes on job interviews, he has only two choices: either haul his laptop computer along to take notes and keep track of his appointments, or rely exclusively on his memory. Beginning next week, he’ll have a third and much better option when Freedom Scientific launches the PAC Mate, a lightweight, handheld device — designed specifically for people who are blind or low vision — that offers full Microsoft Pocket PC functionality.
New PAC Mate device lets users who are blind hear documents, images and Web content.
Engebretson, who became blind only recently, after gradually losing his vision over the past 10 years, says devices like the PAC Mate are beginning to close the technology gap for people with disabilities, and expanding their career and lifestyle options.
“The PAC Mate gives people who are blind exactly the same level of functionality and interoperability that sighted users have with their Pocket PC devices,” he says. “As a newly blind person, I’m starting to discover all of the assistive technology that’s available for people with disabilities, and I’m really excited about it.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the United States, the kickoff for year-round programs that call attention to the high rate of unemployment among Americans with disabilities and highlight their skills. One in five Americans has some kind of disability, and 50 percent of those are unemployed. Among people with severe disabilities — those that prevent them from walking, seeing, hearing or performing other basic life functions — unemployment stands at 70 percent. Yet surveys clearly show that most unemployed people with disabilities want to work, and already have skills that would allow them to make important contributions in the workforce.
High unemployment also results in other problems for people with disabilities. For example, 71 percent of people without disabilities own their homes, but fewer than 10 percent of those with disabilities do. In 1997, over 33 percent of adults with disabilities lived in a household with an annual income of less than US$15,000, compared to only 12 percent of those without disabilities.
The challenges faced by Engebretson and 54 million other Americans with disabilities are attracting attention and inspiring action at the highest levels of business and government. President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Initiative is aimed at “tearing down the remaining barriers to equality that face Americans with disabilities today.”
“Infrastructure to support employment for people with disabilities should be a goal of public policy,” says Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a national membership organization that promotes political and economic empowerment for U.S. children and adults with disabilities. “Unemployment among people with disabilities is a problem that employers, educators and public officials really need to be aware of, and start working much harder to correct.”
While applauding the President’s efforts, Imparato says that federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security Disability, which are meant to help people with disabilities, often undermine their efforts to enter the workforce. “As long as people have to swear that they can’t work in order to get benefits, it will be hard for them to get work ,” he says.
Mylene Padolina, Program Manager of the Diversity Group at Microsoft, says Microsoft actively recruits, trains and promotes employees with disabilities.
“The business advantages of employing people with disabilities are compelling,” she says. “People with disabilities are productive, strongly motivated, and often demonstrate high levels of creativity and problem-solving, sharpened by their need to find alternative ways of performing daily tasks. Recruiting and hiring people with disabilities is part of Microsoft’s commitment to workforce diversity, which enables us to attract and retain the most qualified employees.
“And if 20 percent of the population has disabilities, then the same is true for 20 percent of potential Microsoft customers,” she says. “Employing people with disabilities helps us serve our customers better.”
Doug Ferry, a Microsoft employee with disabilities, leads a team of developers working on Microsoft Office for the Macintosh. He is paralyzed from the shoulders down due to a bodysurfing accident 13 years ago, when he was 20. Despite the severity of his disability, Ferry doesn’t require much accommodation to do his job, just a custom desk with room for his wheelchair and an automatic door opener that makes it easier for him to enter and leave his office.
“Microsoft has been great about helping me configure my office to get a wheelchair around in it,” says Ferry, who has worked at Microsoft for more than four years. “Within a few days after I started work, there was someone in my office asking what they could do to help me do my job.”
Ferry uses a mouthstick, a wand he holds in his mouth to tap the keys on his keyboard. He says he appreciates the dual command functionality in the Windows operating system, because it’s often easier for him to use key commands instead of mouse commands to get things done. He also uses two other accessibility features of Windows: Sticky Keys, which allows him to perform commands such as CTRL/ALT/DELETE by pressing each key separately; and MouseKeys, which allows him to move his cursor using his numeric keypad.
“Using those few things, I can do anything on the computer that I need to get done,” he says. “That allows me to do my job. I don’t need anything beyond that.”
Ferry says he is treated like everyone else at Microsoft by the company and by his fellow employees. When he got a new wheelchair recently, nobody noticed, which made him realize that his coworkers don’t really think of him as “the guy in the wheelchair.”
“At Microsoft, my work speaks for itself,” he says.
Andrew Imparato of the AAPD explains why Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility issues is so important to the disability community.
“Microsoft is an industry leader in so many ways, so what they do has a ripple effect worldwide,” he says. “People know that Microsoft recruits for talent and knowledge — only the best and the brightest — yet they are also a noted employer of people with disabilities. That example is extremely valuable.”
One of the events associated with National Disability Employment Awareness Month is National Disability Mentoring Day, which is taking place today (Oct. 16). Microsoft is a national sponsor of the event, which pairs students and job seekers who have disabilities with people in a variety of different jobs for a day. Imparato says the event last year attracted 1,500 students from 32 states and the District of Columbia. This year, more than 3,000 students are expected to participate, coming from 42 U.S. states, D.C., and from as far away as Europe and New Zealand.
Madeline Bryant McIntire, director of Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group, says that Microsoft’s commitment to people with disabilities also shows in its products — applications and operating systems with built-in accessibility features that make it easy for other companies to develop assistive and accessible technologies.
“At Microsoft, we realize that information technology is one of the most important workplace tools for people with disabilities,” McIntire says.
“Microsoft is leading the industry’s effort to develop accessibility features in software and hardware products to enable new levels of job productivity for people with disabilities.”
Glen Gordon, chief technology officer for Freedom Scientific, agrees. “As technology has become more powerful, it has served as the great equalizer. With better adaptive technology available to people with disabilities, mainstream technology is no longer out of reach.”
The PAC Mate device that Freedom Scientific will launch next week is the first PDA device for people who are blind that uses off-the-shelf technology, supports a wide range of third-party applications, and interoperates with most other hardware devices. Using Microsoft Pocket PC technology in combination with the JAWS screen reader, both of which run on the Windows CE operating system, Freedom Scientific created a Pocket PC device for blind users that is equivalent to similar devices for sighted users. JAWS converts objects and text to speech, so that users who are blind hear rather than see documents, images and Web content.
The user interface for sighted users of Pocket PC devices is a touch screen, but that would be useless for people who are blind. Instead, the user interface on the PAC Mate is a Braille keypad, function keys similar to those on a standard computer, and a cursor cross, a star-shaped key that allows users to move the cursor up, down, left and right. The infrared, serial and USB ports provide support for a wide range of functions and peripheral devices. Overall, the PAC Mate is about 10 inches wide and 6 inches high (25.4 cm by 15.24 cm), and weighs less than 2 pounds (.9 kg), making it smaller, lighter and easier to carry than a laptop computer.
“Users tell us that this is what they’ve been waiting for, a handheld device that gives them access to a wide range of third-party applications and doesn’t limit them,” says Gordon, who has been blind since birth.
Assistive technology often provides only a partial solution for people with disabilities, often due to proprietary technology developed by the manufacturer that limits the scope and flexibility of the device. PAC Mate is the first handheld device for blind people that that lets them download the same application as a sighted person and use it with little or no modification.
“Many applications commercially available for the Pocket PC can be used for the PAC Mate,” Gordon says. “Before this, most assistive technology was proprietary, every company had its own software, and very few applications and devices would interoperate.”
Some of the more interesting third-party applications now being developed or tested for use with the PAC Mate include a personal GPS system that will give blind users a verbal reading on where they are in relation to that building they’re trying to find. Another third-party application, particularly useful to blind and low-vision people, is a bar-code scanner that allows users to ascertain the price, contents and characteristics of canned goods and other products, whether they’re shopping at the grocery store or preparing dinner in their own kitchen.
The PAC Mate also integrates easily with desktop software, other Pocket PC devices, and even Palm Pilots. As a result, it’s easy for users to keep email, contacts and appointments up to date. All they have to do is hook up the device to their PC or another device. If they’re at a meeting where people are exchanging business cards, they can use the infrared port to create a simple wireless link that will transfer contact information between two handheld devices.
“It’s not enough to simply let someone who is blind have access to data and computing,” Gordon says. “They must have access that is at least as efficient, and preferably more efficient, than their sighted counterparts. Once in the job, people with disabilities must be able to perform without limitation. If you can create a document in Microsoft Word, but it takes you four days when someone else can do it in two hours, there’s a problem.”
From David Engebretson’s point of view, the portability of the PAC Mate is key. “It’s like a laptop, except the battery lasts a lot longer, and it’s designed specifically for blind users. What I’ve found is that this device allows me to focus on tasks I need to get done in places and situations where I don’t have anything else to do like riding the bus or sitting in a waiting room. Instead of twiddling my thumbs, I can be productive.”