ABILITY House Magazine Article IllustrationCSUN International Conference

At one time or another we have all received an email highlighting the paradoxes of American culture. Why is it that we drive on parkways and park in driveways? Why isn't phonetic spelled the way it sounds? Why is traffic at a stand-still during rush hour? And the stand-up comic's favorite: Why do they put Braille dots on the keypads of drive-up ATMs? While the first three still leave us scratching our heads, Annette Kellermann, senior vice president of Bank of America's Accessible Banking Program, has an answer to the fourth, and to many it's no laughing matter. "Bank of America believes in providing access to everyone equally," Kellermann says. "People who are blind or have low vision may want to access a drive-up ATM from the back of a cab or while riding as a passenger. They deserve the same access to convenient technology as anyone else."

During the International Conference on Technology held at California State University Northridge (CSUN), Bank of America was one of the 160 exhibitors on hand to provide answers and offer solutions to many of the issues that impact people with disabilities. The conference, which will be celebrating it's twentieth anniversary next year, welcomed more than four thousand participants from all fifty states and over thirty countries. Vint Cerf, senior vice president of architecture and technology for MCI, served as keynote speaker and set the groundwork for what was to come. Often called one of the "fathers of the Internet," Cerf is also known for helping create what we know today as email, motivated at least partially by a desire to communicate with his wife, who is deaf, during his trips abroad where TTY was not universally available. In December 1997 President Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his partner, Bob Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet. And isn't there another humorous anecdote about Al Gore?

There is no doubt that the excitement about CSUN and the number of attendees continue to grow each year. Michael Takemura, disability director for HP, acknowledges the growing trend. "Disabilities do not discriminate. People with disabilities comprise the largest minority that we have, not only here in the United States but worldwide. We are embracing new members each and every year, every day and every minute. As these individuals are awakened to the challenges and opportunities associated with having a disability, information technology will continue to play an even greater role in the ability to schedule appointments or obtain an education, in the way they work and the way they play. The percentage of first time attendees is something I've noticed. I've had an opportunity to go out and talk to a number of them, and it's great to see they're coming out and being made aware of what's available to them."

For Kellermann, Takemura and many others the conference served as an opportunity to hear the voice of the customer as well as the community at large. "We are here to raise awareness and listen to our customers with disabilities or access needs," Kellermann says. "We're rolling out the welcome mat."

At the forefront of Bank of America's accessible products is the talking ATM, a voice-prompted automated teller machine. By listening to pre-recorded instructions through earphones, users who are blind or have low vision are able to independently access their accounts. The recordings provide a tutorial that walks the user through the transaction flow by explaining the layout of the keypad and what the tactile symbols represent. For those using the talking ATM feature, the numeric keypad is used exclusively so that the hand stays in one place. At the completion of the transaction, the location of the money, receipt and ATM card are all carefully described. The talking ATM offers people who are blind or have low vision the same independence, privacy and security available to a typical user.

For many years, Panasonic has been a leader in accessible technology through the incorporation of universal design elements into their products whenever possible. A Panasonic cordless phone with talking caller ID includes a speaker phone and headset jack on both the handset and the base. The cordless phone also features talking caller ID voice prompts for easy operation and is TTY compatible. Buttons discernable by shape, size and nibs; a dual color visual ringer; illuminated controls on the handset; and high contrast button labels also make this phone more accessible to people with various disabilities. Panasonic also features the Allure digital wireless phone which includes voice activation, a large LCD screen, TTY compatibility, illuminated controls and high contrast button labels. "What makes this phone unique is built-in features such as a voice enhancement that works to make the sound clearer and a very loud volume feature-practically three times the volume of a normal phone," states Robert Wegner, Panasonic's accessibility and program manager. "Additionally, it is compatible with head sets, hearing aids and even a TTY."

One key to Panasonic's success has been the strength of their research and development capabilities. Having helped lead the way in the development of the DVD, SD memory cards and other important technologies, the research and development centers of Panasonic are working to make emerging technologies even more accessible, and to develop new technologies that further enable and encourage employment, independence and enhanced entertainment experiences for people with disabilities. A few examples of future technologies include Digital TV with enhanced captioning display capabilities, advanced applications allowing the remote control to interface with everyday devices and appliances, and text-to-speech and speech recognition technology that may evolve into the development of truly universally accessible user interfaces for many types of products.

What sets the corporations represented at CSUN apart from other technology companies is their dedication to make their products as fully accessible as possible. "We wanted to really simplify banking and make it easier for all our customers to bank with us-whether English is their second language, they have a disability, or any other potential barrier [exists] to accessing an ATM. We believe accessibility and universal design play a big part in accomplishing that," points out Bank of America's Kellermann. "There's a difference between just being ADA compliant and actually having your products be accessible." It's no surprise that Verizon's marketing director, Lisa Harrison Burke, agrees. "The demographics of the American population are changing, and it's been calculated that the majority of Americans will experience some form of disability in their lifetime. For Verizon, this isn't just about including accessible features on one or two of our products, but to make all our products as accessible as possible so that everyone can benefit from universal design," Harrison Burke says.

For many, the biggest obstacle to accessing the information superhighway isn't navigating the computer itself, but rather the Internet. "If you go down the hall and talk to people about accessibility many will tell you specifically about the importance of Web access," says Francis West, director of IBM's Worldwide Accessibility Center. "If you look at the laws, for example Section 508 [legislation mandating accessibility in technology for federal agencies], they focus on standards and compliance. At IBM we believe that accessibility is more than just compliance-its really about allowing people to have access. Our fundamental purpose is to allow people with and without disabilities to have a meaningful life experience. Technology can play a significant role in enabling that.'


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