Computer access technology: an ecological approach to meeting the information needs of people with visual disabilities.
Unemployment is a major problem for men and women who have severe visual disabilities. In the United States, for example, there are approximately 200,000 men and women of working age whose visual acuity with best correction is 20/200 or less (National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, 1980). Of this group, only one out of three participate in the labor force compared to three out of four of the sighted, nondisabled population. Of those participating in the labor force, 20 percent are unemployed (Kirchner & Peterson, 1979). Given these statistics, it is estimated that approximately 147,000 people of working age with severe visual disabilities are unemployed in the United States.
There are a number of reasons for the unemployment problems of people who are blind or severely visually disabled. One is the reluctance of employers to employ people with visual disabilities. Other reasons include the lack of employment skills and employment related skills, lack of motivation for employment, lack of transportation, housing, family support, and lack of access to information by people with visual disabilities.
Computer access technology can reduce the impact of one of the reasons for the unemployment of this population. By removing the barriers to information access, computer access technology opens a large segment of the labor market to people who have severe visual disabilities. Computer access technology has been reported to enhance worker satisfaction, reduce the need for "accommodation activities" within duty areas, including job functions and work sites, and increase the work accuracy, precision, efficiency, and productivity of the worker who is blind or visually impaired (Schmidt, 1983).
Considerable progress has been made in the last 20 years using computer access technology to open occupational groupings that were once closed to people with visual impairments. There are access devices which when applied in employment situations can assist the person with a visual impairment to perform those jobs on par with his or her sighted peers. Phillips (1981) reports placing approximately 50 people with visual impairments in computer related positions. These workers were employed under such diverse job titles as claims representative, computer programmer, word processing operator, data entry terminal operator, telephone switchboard operator, and communication technician.
Computer access technology also has facilitated the blind or visually impaired person's ability to compete successfully with his or her sighted counterpart in other occupations. The duties of a secretary (Kupchunas, 1984; Musier, 1976); repairman (Rehabilitation Brief, 1982); mathematician, newcaster (Dalrymple, 1975); small business operator, accountant (Goodrich, 1984); lawyer, engineer (Goldish & Taylor, 1974); machinist (Guha & Anand, 1980); and many others (e.g., Glenn, Miller, & Broman, 1975; Goodrich, 1984; Scadden, 1984; Walhof, 1979) can be performed by persons with visual impairments using appropriate computer access technologies.
The National Institute for Work and Learning ("Most Users", 1986) revealed that one out of eight employed Americans use computers at work. Of these workers, 95 percent use computers as job tools. Only 5 percent of this group needed to know the technical aspects of computers and computer programming in their job. Without computer access technology, blind and severely visually disabled people may be unable to use computers as job tools or in the operation of computer equipment. Consequently, many blind and visually impaired people may be prohibited from gaining entrance or advancing in one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the labor market.
The purpose of this paper is to provide an ecological model to guide the use of computer access technology as a strategy to enhance the employability and upward mobility of people with severe visual disabilities. The model is ecological in the sense of stressing an analysis of the relationships between the use of computer access technology on the job, the characteristics of the access technology and the needs of the employer and the employee who is blind or severely visually disabled. Successful use of computer access technology as a strategy to enhance employment opportunity depends on a careful analysis of these relationships.
Job analysis is a systematic procedure for gathering information about jobs. The process focuses on specific tasks and worker behaviors. The four elements of a job analysis are:
* determination of the purpose of the job;
* identification of major job tasks;
* description of the job setting; and
* determination of worker qualifications.
Job analysis information may be secured though interviews, questionnaires, observations, and worker diaries and logs. These data form the background for gaining an understanding of how computer access technology might be used by the worker to perform the job.
After gaining an understanding of the job, the rehabilitation professional will then address the separate issues of current use of computers on the job and the application of computers to job tasks. Of the two issues, an analysis of the current use of computers on the job is the more common way that the application of computer access technology is approached. The second issue involves developing ways that a computer and computer access device might be used to accomplish job tasks for which computers are not in current use. Both issues are complex, and they require that the rehabilitation professional have a working understanding of computers and computer applications.
Whether a computer is in use currently or if a computer might be considered as an alternate way to perform the job task, the rehabilitation professional begins the analysis at the same point. The first step is identification of the purpose(s) for which the computer is or might be used to perform the job task(s). The most common tasks are data acquisition, data storage, data processing, and data communication. Increasingly, a computer will be used for operation of equipment, monitoring of equipment and training of equipment operators. The next step will be to determine how computers affect job task performance. Areas of task performance which might be impacted by computers include quality of task performance, rate or speed of task performance, consistency of task performance, and record keeping or inventory of tasks performed.
After determining the purposes for which a computer might be used and how a computer might affect job task performance, it is necessary that the rehabilitation professional be specific about the application and expected results of computer utilization. Possible application of computers and computer access devices include: writing or word processing; filing, record keeping and data management; programming; using bulletin boards, large data bases and mainframe computers; inventories and mailings; statistical operations; accounting and bookkeeping; banking; telemarketing; and instruction. Other specialized applications of software include CAD packages for drafting and design and LEXIS for attorneys and paralegals.
After identification of the specific applications and expected results of the use of the computer, a series of questions related to the use and expected results need to be asked. These questions include:
* Will the task(s) be simple or complex?
* How much information is to be managed in performance of the job task(s)?
* What are the priority job tasks which are performed by the worker using the computer?
* Are other workers using computers for the same purpose(s)?
* Will local area networks be a feature of the job?
There are a number of special issues which must be considered in analyzing the job. The first relates to work space. How much space will the blind or severely visually impaired worker be allocated? Is it adequate for the computer access devices? Are the space requirements more than that allocated a worker at the same level as that of the blind or severely visually impaired worker? If space is an issue, the rehabilitation professional must account for the space allotment in the computer access technology recommendation.
The second issue relates to noise level. A number of the computerized braille embossers are noisier than ordinary printers. The rehabilitation professional needs to analyze the work environment to determine the effect of increased noise on coworkers and the blind or severely visually disabled employee. Other issues related to noise such as those which follow must be addressed during the job analysis process. Will the noise level produced either by computerized braille printers or synthetic speech devices interfere with the performance of coworkers? Does the employee need to be able to communicate with others so frequently that earphones used for synthetic output interferes with worker performance? When it is likely that increased noise will create problems in the work place, it is necessary that the rehabilitation professional recommend access devices with few noise problems or develop strategies to minimize noise generated by the access device in the work place.
A third issue is cost. The importance of this issue varies among employers; therefore, it must be addressed in every job analysis situation. Questions such as the following must be addressed during the job analysis process. Is the employer willing to assume the added cost of computer access technology, warranties and office supplies such as braille paper? Are coworkers likely to accept the added expenditures for a worker who has a visual disability? Can the equipment be used by a nondisabled coworker when not in use by the worker with the visual disability?
A fourth issue is service to the equipment. Computer access equipment like all equipment ceases to work properly at some point. The principle issue in this case is downtime the worker who is blind experiences when the equipment needs servicing. The kinds of questions which must be resolved include the following. When the equipment ceases functioning, is the employer willing to wait until a replacement can be ordered or the device repaired? Is the employer willing to provide support services such as a reader when equipment fails or is being repaired? Is there a stock of similar equipment which the worker who is blind or visually impaired might use while his or her equipment is being serviced? It should be noted that the more downtime a worker is likely to experience because of service problems associated with computer access devices, the less likely the employer is to be satisfied with the blind or severely visually disabled employee's work performance. Therefore, the rehabilitation professional needs to recommend equipment which has a history of fewer breakdowns and more rapid service turnaround. The availability of loaners in the geographic region of the worker should be another consideration in the development of the computer access technology recommendation.
Computer Access Technology
Recommendations for computer access technology must take into account the job analysis data and hardware and software considerations. Marmion et al. (1986) recommend that access technology be chosen in terms of the job function or task to be accomplished. In access technology, software and hardware are interrelated. Some types of software do not run with certain computers with specific access devices. Simultaneous selection is difficult, however. In practice, it is recommended that one begin with software needs since software is the unit of the three (hardware, software, and access device) which enables the worker with a visual disability to accomplish the job tasks.
Software Analysis. The first task is to identify the software which is performing the job tasks or can execute the job task(s) to be performed. The next step is to determine the kinds of access devices which work with the selected software. An important issue in this area is graphics. How will the access device handle graphic displays? The frequent answer to this question is, "Not well." If use of graphics is a required job function, it will be necessary that an alternate way for the blind person to access the information displayed graphically be developed. If specialized software is required, as is often the case with large print and voice output, will it run at the same time as the applications software? Before recommending a specific software package, it is necessary that the software be tried with the computer access device. Some software programs may be only partially accessible. For example, they may require that the user memorize parts of the screen or it might be found that the help menus are difficult to access with voice.
Hardware Analysis. A first step is the determination of what computer or hardware systems will work with the software and the access device. An important issue is the compatibility of the software, access device and hardware. In those work places where other computers are in operation, the computer of the blind person should be compatible with, if not the same as, the computers that the other workers are using. Other hardware related questions which need to be addressed include:
* Is there a need for additional cables, boards or converters?
* Is a terminal, personal computer or both needed to successfully perform the job tasks?
* What is the long-range and short-range cost of the hardware?
* What is the reputation and reliability of the manufacturer?
* What is the length of the warranty and what are the service contract requirements?
Access Device Analysis. The basis of the access device recommendation is the need and preference of the person with the visual disability. The three output modalities are braille, synthetic speech and large print. Within these options are many choices. Characteristics and preferences of the person who is blind or severely visually disabled will often determine the final choice of output modality.
Large print output. If the job analysis indicates that large print would be an acceptable alternative and the client prefers large print, there are three ways to meet the magnification needs of the worker with the visual disability. The first is through magnification and low vision aids. Each potential user of larger print output devices should have a low vision evaluation to determine if magnification would allow the client to use the computer efficiently without any additional access devices. If magnification through low vision aids does not meet the needs of the client, then low technology alternatives such as larger monitors (19-inch to 25-inch) and CRT magnification can be considered.
Large print software and devices are important high technology solutions to the worker who requires a larger visual image than provided by low vision aids or low technology solutions. Large print software and devices should be considered in terms of a number of criteria. These criteria for large print devices include a wide variety of character sizes; sharp CRT image; review controls on or near the computer keyboard; and the cursor follows data entry. Large print software and devices are available for the IBM and Apple families of computers. Close circuit television (CCTV) also represents a solution for a number of large print users.
Synthetic Speech Output Applications. Speech access is one of the more common applications of computer access technology. If the job analysis indicates that synthetic speech is an appropriate solution, then the rehabilitation professional and user have a number of devices from which to choose. A good speech system will have the following characteristics: volume, speed and pitch control; variety of place-markers; cursor routing; review screen left, right up, down, column by column, word by word, and line by line; search capability; column blocking; word input spelled, spoken or off; numbers spoken as words or digit by digit; and verbal spelling checker. Speech output devices which are compatible with applications software are available for the IBM and Apple families of computers. A number of these devices are also available for portable computers.
Braille Output Applications. Braille output solutions require careful analysis because they are the most expensive of the access device solutions. Factors which need to be considered in addition to cost are noise, service warranties and repair turn around time, speed requirements for braille printer, and the braille skills of the user. The braille output solutions may require braille translation software, a braille printer, an electronic paperless braille device, and synthetic speech. Synthetic speech may be requested so that the user can check the data entry process before it is converted into braille. A number of braille output users may also want to include an electronic braille device as a way to enter data and to check output before paper copy is produced or as an alternative to paper copy. Braille output devices and software are available for the IBM and Apple families of computers.
Analysis of the Worker
Success of the computer access technology plan is dependent on how well the employee uses technology in the work place. It is essential that the rehabilitation professional develop the computer access technology recommendation with full consideration of the characteristics and preferences of the person who is to use the technology as well as characteristics of the job and the technology. The characteristics of the person who is blind or severely visually impaired which are important to evaluate depends on the job tasks to be performed by the blind or visually disabled worker. The job tasks may be broken into two categories. These are computer users and computer science professionals (programmers, system analysts, quantitative business analysts, statisticians, hardware technicians, etc.)
Computer users will need to understand computer functions. They will need typing and keyboard skills. They must be able to type 12-35 words per minute with reasonable accuracy. They must have the ability to maneuver around the keyboard and to use a calculator keyboard. They must have good spelling, grammar and sentence structure skills. They must be able to follow a sequence of operations, to communicate questions and concerns and have good communication skills. They will need the ability to tolerate frustration and to be well organized.
Computer science professionals must have good keyboarding skill (about 50 words per minute). They must have good problem solving skills and communication skills. They must be logical in their approach to problems. If they are blind, they must know the Nemeth code for mathematical applications. They must be able to tolerate frustration. Attention to details is an excellent trait. They must be able to tolerate long work hours and a flexible work schedule. They must be willing to relocate. Braille fluency or the ability to use compressed speech are characteristics of the successful computer science professional who is blind or severely visually disabled.
While there are few hard and fast rules in evaluating an individual for access technology, there are a few guidelines which can be helpful. The first is the identification of the person's preference. Simply put, what kind of information output does he or she prefer -- large print, braille or synthetic speech? After preference has been determined, it is necessary to consider factors related to each of the modalities. If the potential user prefers large print, the evaluation should begin with a consideration of the characteristics of the user's visual disability. If the visual disorder is progressive or unstable, a large print output device may be useful only for a short time. Other output devices should then also be considered, and training planned in the use of the other output devices. If the user expresses a preference for voice output, a hearing evaluation is a critical step in the decision making process. The evaluation should also include an examination of the worker's ability to comprehend speech output from several speech synthesizers. Braille output users are more likely to be persons having congenital losses (Marmion et al., 1986). While visual acuity and normal hearing are not critical factors in the recommendation of braille output devices, the level of the user's braille skills is. Braille output devices are good alternaties for people who have average or above braille skills. If the potential user is deficient in braille skills, braille training will be necessary for the person to use the braille output devices efficiently.
In most cases, the analysis should include the training needs of the intended user. For some people, training will require only an introduction to the software or access device. Others will require extension training on the access device, computer and software. In no case should placement be initiated until the skill level has been evaluated. If the skill level is less than what is necessary for successful job performance, training must be made available prior to placement. It should be obvious that if the worker who is blind or visually disabled is not trained to use the computer access drive, software and computer, the worker will not succeed on the job.
Computer access technology allows blind and severely visually disabled people to access information. In the information age, this technological success opens many doors to employment. Successful employment depends on the person having the visual disability and the rehabilitation professional matching technology to the job requirements and the needs and preferences of the worker who is blind or severely visually impaired.
Dr. Graves is director and professor and Ms. Maxson is deaf-blind specialist at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision, Mississippi State University.