Rehabilitation Requirements and the Need for Universal Access to Information: The Accelerated Pace of Technology, a Challenge for Vocational Rehabilitation


by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

From the Editor: Dr. Schroeder is the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education.

I was very pleased in an earlier presentation to hear Mr. Chong talk about some of the access issues surrounding the ubiquitous appliances filling our lives. Last May I had the honor of being at the ceremony when Dr. Maurer was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Louisville. I was talking about this issue with Dr. and Mrs. Maurer and Dr. Cranmer. In particular I was complaining about remote controls for televisions in hotels. I said that it seemed to me there should be some simple, commonly agreed-upon symbols to signify frequent activities, such as up-and-down channel, up-and-down volume, and on-off buttons.

It wouldn't solve all the problems; it certainly wouldn't solve the problem of menu-driven features now on televisions. (I was astonished one time, when I was trying to run a hotel television, suddenly to have Spanish coming over my TV. I do not speak Spanish fluently, so it was some disadvantage to me to have this happen.) Anyway, I was saying that, just as the dot on the five of telephone and other keypads has become widespread, there ought to be a standardized set of symbols for television remote controls. Mrs. Maurer commented that perhaps we could call it the Uniform Button Code, which I thought had some merit.

My purpose this morning is to talk to you about technology as it relates to rehabilitation. Successive Harris polls commissioned by the National Organization on Disability have shown that two-thirds of people with disabilities in the United States are unemployed. The Social Security Administration reports that over seven million people now receive Social Security Supplemental Income or Social Security Disability Insurance at a cost of more than eighty billion dollars annually. The high unemployment of blind people and others with disabilities is a national tragedy. Accordingly, two years ago President Clinton noted, "If America is to continue to grow and prosper, if we are to lead the challenging global economy of the twenty-first century, we cannot afford to ignore the talents, energy, and creativity of the fifty-four million Americans with disabilities."

But how do we solve the unemployment and underemployment of the blind and others? All of you are aware of recent changes to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that strengthen the requirement for federal agencies to purchase accessible technology. Later you will hear a detailed discussion of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board's work on developing accessibility standards. It is critical that the federal government put its buying power to work as an economic incentive for industry to consider accessibility at the development stage. I have distributed copies of a document giving updated information on the status of Section 508 implementation and a letter from Assistant Secretary Judith Heumann and the Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Katherine Seelman, concerning the applicability of Section 508 requirements to states receiving funds under the Assistive Technology Act.

But what other resources can help address the unemployment and underemployment of blind people and others? In America the vocational rehabilitation program commits two-and-a-half billion dollars each year to support job training efforts for blind people and others with disabilities. The services available through the VR program are many and varied, according to the unique needs of the individual. The VR system provides assessment services, planning services, adjustment training, specific job skills training, placement services, assistive technology services, and much more. Yet to conceptualize the VR program as nothing more than a dispenser of discrete services is to miss the most important aspect of rehabilitation.

While these services are important, it must be understood that services support a set of expectations. Services do not drive expectations; expectations drive and define our services. If we assume that blind people can work in only a narrowly defined number of jobs and occupations, then our services, and for that matter, our creativity will be employed in support of this minimal expectation.

I believe that there are essentially two paradigms of blindness which have an impact on the future development of access technology. One (and it is the one most commonly held by society) is that the blind, by virtue of their disability, are inherently less capable and less productive than others. If our expectation is that the blind will always be less capable than the sighted, any degree of progress which appears to ameliorate any amount of incapacity will be regarded as improvement. Simply put, this paradigm starts with the presumption that the way the sighted perform work is the best and most efficient method, and hence the challenge to our technology is to seek methods by which the blind can perform work in the same manner as the sighted.

Alternatively, there are those (unfortunately a minority, but at least a growing minority) who hold the view that blind people can compete alongside the sighted and achieve a status of real equality. The view is that what is important is what an individual accomplishes and not how the individual performs a given task. If expectations drive technology, then a shared vision premised on the fundamental equality of the blind is essential to the development of future technology. In other words, if we believe that blind people can perform work as well as others, we will not be satisfied with our technology until it enables blind people to work competitively.

Under this paradigm we set aside the methods by which the sighted function and concentrate on the product or outcome we desire. I recognize that there is an immediate need to give blind people access to the technology readily available in the workplace. However, I believe that the long-term challenge to our technological development is to find the best and most efficient ways for blind people to perform work, rather than continuing to seek to modify the methods used by the sighted.

Given that most commercial technology assumes the user to have sight, the use of graphics will unquestionably continue to expand. As the use of graphics increases, the challenge of providing blind people equal access becomes more and more daunting. Recently we have seen efforts to create text descriptions of graphic material. This approach is useful; yet, as more and more visual information is integrated into the high-tech workplace, the awkwardness of representing visual information using text will be compounded. More to the point, the reason that the sighted use graphics is often that it is a concise way of representing complex material or relationships. Simply adapting our technology so that graphical material has a text equivalent fails to address the point that the graphical presentation of material was a better, more concise, and perhaps more comprehensible representation of complex information.

What I am promoting is a construct in which blind people are seen as inherently different from the sighted, yet not inferior to them. Some presume that to acknowledge difference is somehow an affirmation of inferiority. On the contrary, I believe it is only through the declaration of difference that we can assert true equality. People from different nations may have striking differences, the most obvious of which may be a difference in language. In some instances a concept that is readily expressed in one language may be quite difficult to express in another. Surely this does not imply that one language is, therefore, superior to another. If we accept that blind people function differently from the sighted, then the task is not simply to give blind people access to what the sighted see but to create methods by which both the blind and the sighted have optimum access to needed information and, thus, the same opportunity to work competitively.

Presently we are preoccupied, perhaps out of necessity, with giving the blind access to what the sighted see without recognizing that what the sighted see is simply a representation of information designed with vision in mind. True access for the blind, therefore, starts not with what the sighted see but with the information which needs to be conveyed to the user. If we presume that the blind can receive, comprehend, analyze, and express ideas and information as readily as the sighted, then the limitation of today's technology becomes just that--the limitation of our technology--not the limitation of the blind. I believe that we need such a goal for access technology, a goal that transcends our current technology and charts a course for future development, a goal that is rooted in the promise of real equality for the blind rather than in the lesser promise of decreased dependency.

You may think that what I am suggesting is entirely unrealistic. While it is desirable to develop technologies that allow blind people access to information in ways that are designed specifically for blind people, the odds of such development happening are quite low, given the complexity of the task and the small number of blind people. But I think there is a larger market than simply blind people who could benefit from other approaches to accessing information.

Computer technology is still a relatively new phenomenon. Accordingly, the people who are involved in designing the hardware and software in current use for the most part are people for whom computers make sense. For this reason they tend to share a common learning style, an orientation that leads them to view information in similar ways. I believe that current computer technology, such as word processing, is rooted in the assumption that all people are spatial learners. This is true because the people who develop the programs--that is the people for whom computers make sense--are most likely spatial in their orientation. Accordingly, when people are not spatial, when they cannot make sense of the graphical world, they are generally met with frustration since they cannot understand why the spatial graphical display of information is easy and efficient. These people hate upgrades. They do not regard them as improvements but rather as introducing new and entirely incomprehensible icons, any one of which is likely to initiate all manner of trouble. Assurances that the new system is easier and more powerful than the old one do not impress them.

Yesterday I was working in my office, only to be confronted by a message indicating that I had performed "an illegal operation." This message may mean something to all of you, but to me it meant that the computer would not do what I wanted it to do, and, beyond that, it was blaming me for the problem. Some of these problems are due to our technology, and some are due to the fact that our technology mostly assumes a given learning style or orientation. What I am suggesting is that blind people are not the only people who need alternative ways of viewing information.

There will always be a need for blind people to interact using the technology devised for the sighted, as there will doubtless always be a need for language interpreters. And as with interpreters, the process of communication from one language or medium to another will undoubtedly bring with it some measure of inefficiency. Yet I believe this is the context in which computer access for the blind should be viewed, not simply access to the computer screen, but access to the information contained in the computer.

It may well be that some information will need to be tactually represented, either through some type of refreshable device or by means of a device which is conceptually refreshable and which allows the creation of solid, three-dimensional objects. We may need systems that employ sound, not simply for the purpose of synthesizing speech, but perhaps to lend color, depth, and intensity to concepts or information being expressed. We must view the screen as simply a vehicle for conveying information visually and recognize that the material on the screen is not the information itself but a representation of information, thought, and ideas.

The measure of our success therefore is the degree of access blind people have to the information available to the sighted in ways that are as efficient as the access the sighted have to the information by means of graphics, not some less tangible incremental progress toward eliminating new and emerging technological hurdles.

We have made much progress, and we will continue to make more. I believe there is a genuine possibility for full and meaningful integration of the blind into society. To accomplish this end, we must be willing to challenge ourselves to believe in a vision of the future that surpasses our current technology and experience. We must be willing to become partners in a movement toward accelerated change that brings with it risk and promise. Blind people want to be productive. Blind people want to live normal lives as normal people with the opportunity for education, employment, and social integration. To accomplish this goal, we must first believe that it is possible. When we believe that it is possible, then we will drive our technology to develop in support of our beliefs.