In an informal roundtable, corporate leaders and advocates for people with disabilities explore a not-so-distant future in discussions ranging from personal experience to ultimate technical goals.
When Karen Gourgey walks down the street, she knows she can contact anyone immediately on her cell phone. Big deal, you say? Gourgey, who is blind, no longer has to hunt for pay phones on the streets of Manhattan where she lives and works. Sam Anderson also rejoices in the concept of a personal communicator featuring voice-activated menus and a Global Positioning System. He envisions a day when it will guide people with disabilities easily to a specific destination. “Maybe it will offer Web access and graphics in a hands-free design no bigger than a cell phone-like a pair of glasses you can wear,” says Anderson.
Such conversations take place in a unique forum exploring new technologies for people with disabilities-Bell Atlantic’s Universal Design Committee.
For three years, this high-level think-tank has brought together two dozen leaders within the disabilities field, such as Gourgey, director of the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, and Sam Anderson, director of the Communication Science Laboratory at Columbia Cornell Medical Center.
The committee provides a rare opportunity for a cross-section of professionals to discuss their efforts…experts ranging from Dr. Daniel Fechtner, a physical rehabilitation specialist with the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, to Mary Somoza, an advocate for children with disabilities often cited by President Bill Clinton.
“We have this powerful group of folks here, and bigger than that are the constituencies we each rep resent, thousands and thousands of people,” says Peter Dollard, a designer and certified assistive technology practitioner. Dollard co-chairs the committee with Bell Atlantic Community Affairs Executive Director John Rollo at Bell Atlantic headquarters in New York City. The quarterly meetings are themselves a model of accessibility: Each features an interpreter for deaf participants as well as a CART (Computer Assisted Real Time captioning) reporter who records the sessions. That recording then becomes minutes distributed via e-mail, fax and Braille format. The minutes provide clarification should anyone, from blind or deaf to sighted and hearing, have a question about what took place.
That’s what universal design strives to do-create equal access for people with differing abilities. A term coined by the late architect and industrial designer Ron Mace, universal design signifies products, technologies or environments accessible to all people-able-bodied and disabled alike. Assistive technology differs in that it provides immediate relief to people with specific disabilities, such as a magnifying computer screen for a visually impaired person.
“Assistive technology helps people become independent; it’s something they need now,” explains Anderson. “Universal design, more of a top-down process, is the prize at the end of the road.”
Prize at the end of the road
Like Anderson, Bell Atlantic considers universal design “a prize”: It represents one of the company’s best practices. Three years ago, Bell Atlantic adopted universal design principles, which advocate development of services, “to the extent readily available, that are accessible to a broad range of diverse users.” The company is increasingly in a powerful position to effect technological change in this area: Its recent partnership with Vodafone AirTouch PLC will create the country’s largest mobile phone company and upcoming GTE merger take the company national. What the Universal Design Committee achieves in Bell Atlantic’s New York region could one day have nationwide impact.
Universal Design Committee members realize their suggestions, if pursued by this global telecommunications provider, could yield dramatic and life-enhancing benefits for their constituencies-millions of people with disabilities. They understand their most casual or fanciful comments will be examined with a hard eye toward customer need and potential revenue. Even so, most, like Ben Lieman, a sales representative for Arroyo & Associates, an assistive communications device company, applaud Bell Atlantic for “opening up the input to others not typically included in the process.”
Rollo agrees the group is helping to bring the company up to speed in addressing consumers with dis abilities. Bell Atlantic, he says, depends upon committee guidance in selecting manufacturers for equipment distributed through its Center for Customers with Disabilities. He also views the meetings as “a sanity check” against misguided efforts. At a recent meeting, joined by a Bell Atlantic technical staff member, marketing manager and community affairs staff-all ready to listen carefully and take notes, Rollo asks members, “What’s going on in your business life?”
A Chevy, not a Mercedes
Gourgey reports her clients are “breaking down the doors” for computer lessons at her center. “We are oversubscribed with people desperate to figure out how a computer works.” Julie Klauber, outreach administrator at the Suffolk County Library System’s Talking Books Plus Program, agrees. “In the library system,” she says, “we have seen incredible growth and interest in access to information on the Internet from our patrons with disabilities.”
People are making great efforts to secure the latest assistive technology, Lieman observes. “But the technology is way ahead of our ability to use it.” he says. “Without adequate training on its use, the technology can remain underutilized.” Danna Mitchell, manager of the Brooklyn Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Dis abilities (VESID), answers, “That’s often the problem, top-of-the line recommendations are made and then people don’t use the equipment. As a public agency, our policy is that if a Chevrolet will get you there, you don’t buy a Mercedes.”
When someone suggests all assistive technology embrace the universal design ideal, that is, be accessible to every kind of disability, Gourgey is quick to respond. “We have to be careful about insisting that “one size fit all’ in every piece of equipment. That should not stop you from creating a particular intervention that’s going to help a good sizable number of people.”
Talking kiosk tells all
Gourgey speaks from experience: In the past year, she and her Computer Center team designed a “talking” kiosk which provides guidance on getting around New York City’s Penn Station and using the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). Located in the LIRR terminal, it signals visually impaired people with “un attract mode,” a chirping sound, and addresses them when they come within a few feet. The kiosk, useful to all people and also accessible to those in wheel chairs, then describes how to use its keypad to obtain information.
Funded by the MTA and the federally-backed Project Action, the kiosk provides the committee with a concrete example of universal design in a public place. Rollo is equally interested in what it took to get there. He asks Gourgey, “What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome?” She reviews one critical clement, funders with similar goals.
“Our prototype was funded by Project Action, whose mission was not unlike ours, to bring together the dis ability community and the transit community.”
Prior to another meeting, the committee tours “Unlimited by Design,” the first universal design exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Nation al Design Museum. Fechtner, a design consultant for the exhibit which is partially funded by the Bell Atlantic Foundation, guides the group through various interior environments and product displays. A Lucent telephone later inspires suggested improvements and standards. for universal design. “Universal design is simply good design which should be intuitive,” enthuses co-chair Dollard. “You can be taken there visually or through touches.”
‘Beating down the doors to get to us’
The committee learns the exhibit is surprisingly popular, perhaps a taste of things to come. Experts predict a growing focus on the disabilities market as aging baby boomers, the biggest population segment in US history, join disabled ranks.
Today, people with disabilities represent an estimated 20 percent of the population and have an aggregate income of $796 billion. Despite these figures, unemployment remains a discouraging 71 percent.
Jim Barry, a senior specialist and advocate for people with disabilities, Bell Atlantic Outreach, and an appointee to the President’s Committee on Employing People with. Disabilities, hopes greater use of on the-job technologies will reverse this trend. Disposable income, Barry argues, is key to people with disabilities getting the services they deserve.
“Once we see people with dis abilities regarded as potential customers, then there will be a new interest in us,” he says. “People will be beating down the doors to get to us.”
When marketing is a community affair
To reach this segment, Bell Atlantic Marketing Manager Bob Baublitz knocked on the door of the Universal Design Committee, Last year, committee input on a Bell Atlantic Web page for people with disabilities helped an online sales campaign achieve a whopping 250 percent of its objectives. Baublitz’s conclusion? “Marketing to customers with disabilities is not just a marketing activity,” he says, “it’s also a community affairs activity.”
And indeed, Bell Atlantic Community Affairs has been pivotal in initiating and promoting improvements for customers with disabilities. As a result of its efforts, text telephone (TTY) users-typically deaf, speech-impaired or hard-of hearing can now call Bell Atlantic Repair Service direct. Beforehand, they had to first call the state relay service, which would then dial the company.
Community Affairs has also expanded a popular TTY loaner program: The program lets library card holders borrow a free TTY, complete with instructional video, from local libraries throughout New York. This TTY availability specifically helps deaf people whose own machines may be in repair, or parents who need to introduce a deaf child to the TTY system.
In the past two years, Community Affairs has also pounded the pavement to spread the word on its LifeLine Assistive Telephone Equipment Program. Through the program, Bell Atlantic successfully dis tributed $2 million of assistive tele phone equipment to people who could not afford it. This year, the newly refunded program will target children under 18 who receive dis ability benefits.
Imagination and creativity.
There is, of course, so much more work to do. At the end of the day, Rollo has a plate full of suggestions…Gourgey would like to see cell phones beep when batteries are low, others suggest pursuing a voice recognition project and Anderson is still talking about a personal communications device, “something that could be voice-controlled, you could say ‘system on,’ you talk and the phone goes with you wherever you go.”
Co-chair Dollard says he and several others are working on a white paper promoting Bell Atlantic’s unique partnership with the committee. “Our committee can serve as a model for other corporations to follow regarding legitimate advisory input into marketing and manufacturing as well as research and technology,” he says. Dollard believes Bell Atlantic has a big opportunity here. Quoting writer and former White House aide George Covington at the 1992 Universal Design Conference, he adds, “Accessibility is possible when imagination and creativity combine to accomplish a well-defined goal.” Thanks to the imagination of this Universal Design Committee, maybe one day we all will be able to find our way. in any city, just by saying “system on,”
by Ann Cefola
a business writer that specializes in diversity and people with disabilities