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March 14, 2003

Tech firms work hard to help disabled

From: Louisville Courier Journal, KY - 14 Mar 2003

More products developed for aging boomers

Associated Press

NEW YORK - To Annemarie Cooke, the world looks somewhat like an Impressionist painting. Details and colors are washed out, and anything beyond arm's length is almost impossible to make out.

Cooke was a newspaper reporter when her vision began to fail 25 years ago. She had few options for adjusting at work beyond making text on her computer appear larger.

Now, using software that reads aloud what's on the screen, Cooke, 50, is an executive at a nonprofit organization for the blind and dyslexic.

"All you have to do is breathe or blink and you can use technology effectively," Cooke said. But it's not all easy - cell phones and their tiny controls "are a nightmare."

Cooke's experience illustrates that while specialized devices offer assistance in dazzling ways, technology companies are working harder than ever to make computers, gadgets and Web sites better accommodate people with disabilities.

Government regulations are largely forcing the industry's awakening, but so is a quest for profit. High-tech companies say that as the baby boomers age, business will suffer if computers and other devices befuddle declining eyes, ears and fingers.

"If a boomer goes blind at 50, they're probably going to be far more motivated to have their PC remain a part of their life" than an older person today, said Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Microsoft's director of accessible technologies.

So it's a matter of numbers: Forty-two percent of people older than 65 have a disability, according to the Census Bureau. And the number of Americans older than 65 is expected to soar from 35 million (12 percent of the population) to 59 million (18 percent of the population) in 2023.

Some technology companies, including Microsoft and Xerox, have begun working more closely with organizations for the disabled and smaller companies that design add-on assistive software.

AT&T and Sprint recently started offering video relay, in which a deaf person sets up a Web camera on his computer and uses sign language to address an operator, who in turn translates to the hearing party on the other end.

Users say video relay is faster and conveys more emotion than the traditional TTY system, in which a deaf person types her end of the conversation and an operator reads it to the hearing person and then types back responses.

Even baby boomers who develop hearing loss but don't know sign language will have several phone technologies at their disposal.

In an aid for lip-readers, researchers in Israel have developed software that gathers the individual sounds in a phone conversation and displays a computer-animated face that appears to speak what the person on the other end of the line is saying. Northview Enterprises of Clearwater, Fla., plans to adapt the Lip-C Cell software soon for American English.

UltraTec of Madison, Wis., hopes to soon gain regulatory approval for its CapTel phone, which uses a captioning service as a silent middle man, so a person with poor hearing can read a transcript of a phone conversation almost in real time.

But technology still has a long way to go.

For example, newer digital cell phones often interfere with hearing aids. Preliminary studies show that disabled people buy just as many wireless devices as everyone else, but use them much less because they are difficult to master, said Ed Price of Georgia Tech's Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center.

The problem is considered so serious that Price and colleagues are leading an extensive discussion on how devices can be better designed for people with disabilities at this month's CTIA Wireless 2003, one of the industry's most important conventions.

Despite a 1998 law requiring federal agencies to tailor their Web sites for people with disabilities, a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that fewer than 15 percent of federal sites made their content sufficiently clear and easy to find.

Too many Web sites use fine print and light blue colors, which become more difficult to see as people age, and layouts that can trip up screen-reading software, said Bill Gribbons, a design expert at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

"Many times designers simply aren't aware of these things. What works well from their perspective can be problematic for an aging user," Gribbons said. "When I talk to my students, I refer to it as designing for our future selves."

Copyright 2002 The Courier-Journal.