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Technology Can Hinder, as Well as Help, Visually Impaired Workers

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the San Jose Mercury News October 24, 2000.

When we hear about technology and disabled workers, the focus is usually on innovations that promise to help people do jobs they couldn't do before. Technology has made a huge difference for many workers. But as one advocate for blind and visually impaired workers explains, the reality is more complicated.

Advances in technology are both a help and a hindrance to the blind and visually impaired, said Harris Rosensweig, manager of access technology services at the Sensory Access Foundation, a non-profit organization in Sunnyvale that helps people who are blind or visually impaired find work. The group offers training in technology and basic job skills, such as writing and interviewing. It also works with employers to help them accommodate visually impaired workers.

Rosensweig, who spoke this month at a conference on employment access for people with disabilities, says it remains to be seen whether technology will end up helping these workers more than it hurts them.

"Things could go a lot of different ways now," he said in an interview. "Things could become so visual that folks with disabilities could be left behind, even with all the laws out there. Fortunately there's a lot of forces on both sides that are kind of pulling it in both directions." On the positive side are the advances that are making it easier for people with vision problems to work and get around. The screen readers that allow blind workers to use computers are becoming more sophisticated, and voice recognition technology holds promise for helping navigate quickly through computer screens.

But not all of those advances are truly useful yet, and Rosensweig is concerned that the computers these technologies are supposed to make accessible are advancing even faster. Most worrisome is the ongoing trend toward visual complexity, especially on the Internet.

"For somebody who's totally blind and has to navigate lots of images and lots of text-heavy pages, that's extremely difficult and sometimes impossible," Rosensweig said.

And it's not just the Internet. Even customer service jobs, which have long been a good place for blind and visually impaired workers to earn a good living, are becoming more complex, requiring workers to navigate through several computer screens, Rosensweig said.

The tools developers use to write software and create databases are getting more visual as well. Rosensweig said he hopes another mainstream trend -- using cell phones and other small devices to surf the Web -- will encourage the makers of Web pages, at least, to make their pages work without graphics.

Many of the problems faced by the people Rosensweig works with are Similar to what any worker faces who doesn't have the skills today's employers demand. Jobs that used to be relatively easy for people to get without a lot of skills or training are becoming more complex. (There are, of course, many highly educated and skilled workers who are blind or visually impaired, and Rosensweig said he works with some of them. But more often the people Who come to his group for help lack the skills that are most in demand today.)

On top of these challenges, blind workers face other barriers: transportation, making the interviewer comfortable with their disability, and making their access technology work with a new employer's systems. Workers with disabilities are not immune from the high expectations generated by low unemployment, either.

"The expectation of your peers is, "What do you mean, you can't find a job?"" Rosensweig said.

This lament is shared by many workers who feel unable to keep up with rapidly changing technology and job requirements. But for blind and visually impaired workers, there is an extra gap between the ways technology can help them and the ways it can leave them behind.