Technically, I have a disability. It?s a real wimp in the world of disadvantages, but that?s just a fluke. My disability, you see, is simple short-sightedness. By fluke this is commonplace, so a lot of money was thrown at treating it early on. Some genius worked out how light refraction works, worked out how to curve the light coming into a myopic?s eyes so that it hits the light-sensitive cells properly, and wallop. Instant cure. I bung the glasses on in the morning and I don?t have to give it a second thought.
Many PC Dealer readers will have the same condition and, like me, they won?t even think of it as a disability until it is drawn to their attention.
Other people are not quite so lucky. Take the example of Michael Faircloth, an employee of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (Bart) in San Francisco. He is a labour relations arbitrator who happens to be partially disabled with a back injury, and his 100-mile round trip five days a week was causing him pain. He started teleworking once a week and asked whether he could be formally made a teleworker just once a week. Bart refused.
Faircloth sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and won. He now has his job, the right to telework, and the small matter of $90,000 damages. The Telework, Telecentre and Telecottage Association (TCA) called a legal expert and found out that this could have repercussions anywhere that has legislation about discrimination against people with disabilities.
?Employment tribunals are slightly different from law courts in the ways they treat precedents, but if you had a prior example it would carry some weight,? says the TCA?s Alan Denbigh. If his advice is right, there could be a lot of lawsuits on the way.
OK, political correctness aside, this isn?t going to be a feature about working for charity. It?s insulting to people with disabilities to assume they need freebies. What they need is equipment they will be able to work with, tailored training where appropriate and employers that don?t necessarily do any more than fulfil their legal obligations towards the disabled community. That?s not unreasonable, and the glorious upshot of it all is that there are legitimate profits to be made by reasonably clued-up resellers.
There are a number of fairly basic pieces of equipment that can be used by people with disabilities. If their paralysis is only from the waist down then there is nothing to stop them using a perfectly standard PC system. The benefits of Dragon Dictate and other similar voice control systems to people who can?t see are obvious.
But there are more specialist products as well, one of which is the Click system by Crick Software. This comes in two versions. One is for people with severely limited mobility: it is a massive mouse substitute that allows the user to operate a system by more or less head-butting it. Headbutting Windows presents a lovely image, but it is quite seriously possible to operate an entire system by working in this way. The other version is for people with literary difficulties, and it offers words combined into phrases with pictures and sounds to help the user identify them.
Managing director John Crick believes this is as suitable for adults with learning difficulties as it is for children who are learning ordinarily, which is why his primary route to the user is through schools. ?There are a lot of schools and they are easy to find,? he comments. ?So if someone is in a special school, they?ll almost certainly hear about it.?
And if they?re too old but might benefit from it anyway? This is where things get a little tricky. Although Crick sells through catalogues as well as going direct, including specialist catalogue Semerc, the very nature of learning difficulties militates against the target users having the initiative to find the equipment themselves. Here the network of support groups, social services and voluntary bodies get whatever information is sent to them, and they do a good job of disseminating it.
Overseas, the approach is a little more co-ordinated. David Kostyshyn, president of Canadian company Syntha-Voice Computers, sells to the visually impaired. He finds the local Institute for the Blind?s technology centre most helpful. It organises road shows and exhibitions ? but not everyone can get to these.
?Many visually impaired individuals live in communities a fair distance from cities where such exhibitions take place,? says Kostyshyn. It?s OK having an exhibition in Ottawa and then in Vancouver, but there are 3,000 miles between the two, and a lot of people living in the middle. For that reason, word of mouth can be quite a help.
Naturally it goes beyond simply making products available to people and raising awareness. A lot of campaigning goes on ? some of it at European level, some international and some by private concerns.
One initiative, which has backing from the European Disability Forum, is an offshoot of the ETO. Called the Information Society (Dis)Abilities Challenge (ISDAC), it has identified a problem: the information society is arriving at a different pace for people with disabilities.
There are a number of reasons for this, and access is only one of them. Even when someone has been made aware of the kit they are going to need to start themselves off, there is the small problem of affordability. Prices fall, admittedly, but as with any business, a disabled person needs to be able to make the initial outlay before standing any chance of recouping the investment.
For this reason, ISDAC?s initial objective is to persuade governments, beginning with European nations, to create teleworking possibilities for people with disabilities.
Unlike some previous do-gooding operations, it has been designed, co-ordinated, evaluated and followed through by people with disabilities, and their documentation ? available at www.eto.org.uk/isdac/ ? is still up for input from anyone who wants a say.
The group believes IT is likely to be the only means by which people who are disabled will be able to integrate fully into employment. Despite numerous attempts by the European Union and other bodies, pay rates remain lower for people with disabilities than they would be for able-bodied people, and unemployment rates remain higher. The group is keen on action rather than further research, although it also wants to develop its case in economic as well as social terms.
The major risk for any such pressure group is that employers will start thinking that they are covered under the terms of the Disability Act simply by allowing home working, which in turn allows them to cut down on their costs. ISDAC is aware of the problem, and will be campaigning vigorously on how the need for adequate transport and access to buildings doesn?t go away simply because someone can work at the end of a phone.
The positives tend to outweigh the negatives for the moment; if someone has agoraphobia, for example, they won?t be able to cope with going out, and teleworking represents their only way in to employment.
Even so, as with any startup organisation, there is some dissent at the outset. Committee member Rob Peters explains: ?Many activists want to aim for political influence and design for all issues, while we simply want to implement pragmatic telematic training and access programmes on a large scale without too much blah blah.?
But the telework-for-people-with-disabilities brigade seems to be gathering strength. Any readers wanting to offer support, whether moral or otherwise, could do worse than email etd-isdac-support eto.org.uk.
The fact is that there are lots of jobs that can be done from home, some of them quite surprising, and all of them needing decent IT equipment to run. Denbigh points to the prison governor who contracted a slow-progress version of multiple sclerosis, and whose employers recognised his skills sufficiently to set up a new telephone line and allow him to work from home. ?There are enough case studies so that more or less whatever you do, you can prove you could telework if you had to,? he says.
More developments are on the way. Inclusive Technology, a company dedicated to furthering the cause of getting everyone the same levels of access to IT, is constantly building its Web site, which it plans to develop into a fully fledged resource for people with various disabilities. The site is at www.inclusive.co.uk and it is worth a look if you?re interested in the field. Arguably this will only be of use to someone who already has some sort of PC access, or at least a friend who can help. But look, it?s a start.
The ISDAC project is still in its infancy, but will continue to grow as long as funding comes through and as long as objectives can be agreed. And these things had better work out, when you think about it.
Once again, let?s bypass any politically correct cant and chuck out any ideas about being charitable ? after all, a company has just lost $90,000 by hoping the issue would go away, and if there?s been one there may well be others. Some informed opinion at least believes the ramifications will be international.
We?re taking something of a flier here. There is no guarantee that the Faircloth case will have any impact at all on the UK, and if they happen to read about it, the chattering classes are more likely to start talking about ludicrous pay settlements in the US than about what a jolly good idea it is.
Nevertheless, it does illustrate a possible demand for lots more facilities for people with all manner of abilities, and therefore a legitimate revenue stream that might be getting neglected. Sure, there are arguments about quantities you can sell and profit margins ? those are for the individual business to assess ? but if your larger clients are fulfilling their legal responsibilities properly, there ought to be a fair market out there for you.
Oh, but do make sure they can get into your showroom if you have one, won?t you. An old friend was wheelchair-bound and applied for a job with a charity that claimed it was working towards being an equal opportunities employer. The charity was very keen to give her the job, it offered to adapt the desk, fit a new ergonomic keyboard, get a large monitor for her eyesight ? it was all very promising. If the loo hadn?t been up six wooden steps outside the office, she might have considered it.
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