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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 1

Interview

Accommodating Productivity: Allstate and Assistive Technology

We are all too familiar with the 70 percent unemployment rate of working-age Americans who are blind or visually impaired. At least one company, however, has recognized the enormous work potential of people with a variety of disabilities. Visually impaired employees at Allstate Insurance are loyal to their employers, and they are quick to explain why.

Running Toward Employment

When Jim Osmon first graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in political science, he thought he wanted to go into law. Involvement with the United States Association for Blind Athletes changed his mind. As a world competitor in track and field events in the 1988 Paralympics in Korea, Osmon began thinking about a career as a personal trainer, teaching people to use fitness equipment and creating custom exercise regimens. He returned to school; then, after he graduated with a new degree in kinesiology and bio science, began looking for a job.

"I had more than a few doors closed in my face," Osmon recalls. "One potential employer told me directly that my visual impairment made me too much of a liability." He could have pursued the path in a climate of contention, but Osmon wanted to go to work. He began casting about for new possibilities.

Osmon enrolled in a computer science program, which included a three-month internship with a major corporation. It was June 1990 when he went to work for Allstate Insurance Company's headquarters office in Northbrook, Illinois. Severely visually impaired as a result of macular degeneration, Osmon was at that time able to use some screen magnification but mostly relied on synthesized speech. The company accommodated him willingly with both, and has continued to accommodate his needs—and promote him repeatedly—in what is now a 10-year career of challenge and satisfaction.

Osmon began as a computer programmer in Allstate's life insurance systems department. He has been a programmer, team leader, and project manager and works today in management as one of a half dozen people comprising Allstate's Architectural Review Board, which oversees 23 systems in auto and property insurance. No longer programming himself, he now advises programmers on how to make elaborate systems work cooperatively.

Over the years, Osmon's employer has accommodated his changing needs to enable him to do his job. No longer able to use magnification, he now uses JAWS for Windows 3.7 and, for the rare situations when electronic text is not available, OpenBook for scanning print documents. The company accommodates him, he says, in whatever ways are necessary to enable him to do his job. This policy is not just the result of laws and mandates. Osmon and others with disabilities were hired and accommodated before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What has improved with time is the method used for determining and acquiring assistive technology for Allstate employees who need it.

Building a Team of Experts

As the number of assistive technology accommodations grew, Allstate formed a team dedicated to providing such solutions in 1999. Veronica Boyd, team leader of the Allstate Center for Assistive Technology (ACAT) project, now oversees a team of eight individuals who evaluate, train, and configure assistive technology for Allstate employees nationwide. Team members are frequent attendees at such conferences as Closing the Gap, CSUN's Technology and Persons with Disabilities, ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association), and many others. Most have been certified by CSUN's Assistive Technology Certification Program, and a storehouse of solutions is constantly growing. ACAT's 1,000-square-foot lab, located at the Northbrook headquarters, is planning expansion to accommodate work stations and team members, and new applicants and employees with disabilities are routinely evaluated and equipped with necessary tools.

Veronica Boyd reports that the team has purchased, trained, and configured such solutions as voice recognition software, ergonomic keyboards, head-mounted mouse pointers, and a variety of switches and alternative keyboards for people with such disabling conditions as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and quadriplegia. However, more than half of the team's accommodations have involved screen readers, magnification software, or braille solutions for employees with visual impairments.

"Once a person has asked for accommodation," Boyd explains, "the ACAT team is notified, and we set up an assessment involving the employee, manager, and someone from human resources. We try to find out what the essential job functions the person is performing are and what the barriers are. When we find out what kind of technology we're looking for, we do research. We find it, test it in the lab, test it on the application to see that it's compatible, then let the person try it out." "We test each individual and determine that person's particular needs," she explains. "A person might do the same job and have the same disability as another employee and still need entirely different assistive technology."

Although new applicants or employees in the home office are sometimes brought into the ACAT lab for private assessment and testing, ACAT team members typically travel to the offices of employees with disabilities in other states. The idea, Boyd says, is to provide tools that are necessary in the most comfortable environment to keep any employee working and productive.

Finding His Niche

David Mohnen, a computer programmer in Allstate's Integrated Risk Management Systems area, is effusive in his praise and gratitude for the efficiency of the ACAT team's solutions. After graduating with a degree in history in 1991, he "kicked around looking for work and doing part-time jobs" until enrolling in a computer programming course and going to work for Allstate in 1996.

"Basically, if you walk into Allstate for auto or property insurance," Mohnen explains, "an agent will take your information, type it in, and send an application to get you a quote." Put simply, his job is to continue improving, revising, and tweaking the program used for both underwriting and renewals.

Mohnen's visual impairment, caused by retinopathy of prematurity, allows him to read a visual screen at close range with magnification. Allstate's ACAT team has provided him with a 24-inch monitor and MAGIC software for screen enlargement. The most useful accommodation, he laughs, may well be the arm to support such a heavy monitor, enabling him to adjust it frequently for better viewing. For reading print documents, Mohnen uses a scanner with commercial software, bringing documents up in Microsoft Word with MAGIC to facilitate reading. In addition to his visual impairment, Mohnen wears hearing aids, and thus has difficulty discerning synthesized speech. Allstate provided him with a telephone handset with volume control until recently, when volume controls on every phone became the company standard.

"My job is challenging and rewarding," Mohnen says, "and the people I work with are some of the nicest people I've ever known. Computer science is a good career choice for someone with low vision or no vision. I know there are many other fields, but this is an area that technology can more than adequately accommodate, making it a better choice than many other jobs. I know the [programming] language well enough now that if I lost the rest of my vision, I'd have no difficulty doing my job."

Mohnen recommends programming to others who are blind, perhaps because of his own job satisfaction. Allstate employees who are blind or visually impaired, however, span the gamut of career possibilities within the company. They are claims adjusters, agents, programmers, trainers, underwriters, auto adjusters, life specialists (agents who sell life insurance), and managers. Jim Osmon is quick to point out that the accommodation policy is not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone. Many people work from home, for example, some because of disability, others to meet the needs of new parenthood or sick children.

Anything necessary for the job, Osmon is confident, could be his for the asking. "I use headphones with my computer," he cites as an example, "and I do it as a courtesy to others because I'm not in a closed-door office. But I'm sure if I asked for a closed-door office as an accommodation, I'd probably get it. The company has always accommodated individuals," the 10-year veteran says, "but the existence of ACAT has definitely streamlined the process and made it easier and faster to get technology that's needed."

Why do they do it? "We were doing it before the ADA," says Veronica Boyd. "Many [employees with disabilities] are long-term employees. What we find is if you give someone accommodation, they can work just as hard or harder than others. Because of the discrimination many have experienced, they are so grateful that you're making the effort to accommodate them, giving them the opportunity to do what they can, they tend to be loyal employees. Some companies may be afraid of hiring people with disabilities because they're afraid it will cost them astronomical amounts of money. Yet, the last 75 people ACAT has accommodated cost us under $50,000 in all. That's minimal when what we get is 75 productive employees."

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