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October 31, 2002

For eager blind and deaf woman, Jersey City program is JAWS of life

From: New Jersey Journal, NJ
Oct. 31, 2002

Software aims to help disabled land careers

By John Martins
Journal staff writer

Cheryl Brown wants to break into the computer industry. She's fascinated by high-tech fields like robotics and automation, and she hopes to eventually develop strong skills that will help her land an exciting job.

And no, she doesn't let the fact that she's deaf and blind get in her way.

For almost four months now, the 49-year-old East Orange resident has been going to Jersey City once a week for one-on-one computer lessons at Heightened Independence and Progress, a non-profit organization that specializes in providing services to the disabled.

She is being instructed in JAWS, an adaptive computer program that gives blind people access to computers by speaking the text that's on the screen. Her mentor is a blind journalist who says this technology gave her a second chance at life.

Paulette Eberle, an advocate who works at HIP as the recreation coordinator, says that after Brown develops a proficiency with JAWS, she'll be able to write letters and create other documents, tasks that were previously seen as impossible for blind people.

"The general thought among the able-bodied public is that accessibility is about ramps," Eberle said. "I don't need ramps. I need access to technology."

Eberle, whose articles appear in the specialty publications "People with Disabilities" and "Families," says her emphasis on accessibility comes from her own experience over the past seven years in adapting to her disability. She says she wouldn't be able to work as a journalist without software like JAWS and Kurzweil, another optical recognition program that scans in documents and reads the text aloud.

"I have a life, thanks to JAWS and Kurzweil," she said. "When I first became disabled, I came home to my mother's house prepared to die. I couldn't even get to the drug store by myself. I didn't have any adaptive equipment.

"When I finally got the equipment, my life totally changed," Eberle said. "I could make my own corrections, do my own editing. I could pay my bills and shop on-line. It was like having wings. It was just an incredible feeling."

Brown says she wants her JAWS training to enrich her life the way it enriched Eberle's. But Brown is also practical. She says she's learning JAWS to make herself employable in today's technology-driven economy.

"I never really had access to computers," Brown said. "I never used to think of going into the computer world because I'd need extra assistance. With this training, I want to move to the next level.

"I'm making myself competitive with my sighted peers," she said.

Eberle says Brown is making tremendous progress with the training and is quickly learning computer applications like Microsoft Word. And while she says she's happy that Brown is coming along so well, Eberle says she wishes that more disabled people had access to JAWS training.

"Adaptive technologies like JAWS are not available to people on a wide basis," Eberle said. "Bayonne Library is the only library in Hudson County that has JAWS. We can't get to this stuff and it cuts down on our freedom and limits us in having an independent life.

"I do think that libraries have been responsive to putting in ramps, but the books in those libraries are worthless to us if you don't give us adaptive equipment to read them," she said.

That problem is even further compounded by the laws that govern access to assistive technology, which Eberle says poses a conundrum to disabled people.

Eberle says the federal or state government won't pay for the software unless the disabled person has a job. "But it's very difficult to persuade an employer to invest in a disabled person," she said. "We are the segment of the population that most likely won't be able to afford the software."

Brown, however, doesn't let those obstacles impede her. Eberle said the initiative Brown displayed in seeking assistance through HIP is just as important in the marketplace as the computer skills she is learning.

"Assistive technology evens the playing field for disabled people," Eberle said. "This is technology that sets you free. We can get you a job, we can get you educated and we could give you self-worth through using these programs.

"We can turn you into an adult again," she said.

Copyright 2002 The Jersey Journal.