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

Access Issues

One State's Solution to Getting More People Online

Even if talking on the telephone and accessing the Internet are not yet seen as our inalienable rights, they are pursuits moving in that general direction. In the show-me state of Missouri, advocates and legislators took significant action last year to increase access to information and communication for people with a variety of disabilities.

For the past 10 years, the state of Missouri has imposed a 13-cent surcharge each month on every telephone line in the state. Whether business or residential, mobile phone, or land line, the surcharge is collected and moved directly into a fund for making telephone equipment accessible to Missourians unable to hold a conventional telephone or hear or speak on one.

"The money was growing," explains Dennis Miller, a disability rights advocate and assistive technology trainer, "but there wasn't much awareness of it, and it was seen as helping only deaf people." Last year, such organizations as the Missouri Council of the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, and others worked in collaboration with the Missouri Assistive Technology Project to expand the purpose of the fund, and the rest is Missouri history.

Introduced and sponsored by Missouri State Senator Harold Caskey, S. B.-721 became law in August 2000, and is now of interest to anyone with a disability who wants to use a telephone or access the Internet. The Adaptive Telephone Equipment program provides telephone equipment to anyone with a speech or hearing disability unable to use a conventional telephone, and the Adaptive Telecommunications Equipment program provides certain assistive technology products to individuals unable to access the Internet with a conventional monitor or keyboard. The Adaptive Telephone Equipment program has already served thousands of consumers, and the Adaptive Telecommunications Equipment program is about to be launched.

Phones, Phones, and More Phones

If you find the options for telephone equipment daunting, imagine how difficult it is to choose when the choices are as numerous as they are in Missouri. Diane Golden, director for the Missouri Assistive Technology Project, explains, "Now, we have about 10 people around the state who help consumers figure out what will meet their needs. If consumers didn't know what to choose, they chose nothing. Our service almost immediately doubled when it was moved over to our office last August. The reason is that we added this consumer support piece to help people make sense of the vast array of choices."

The Missouri Assistive Technology Project has identified phones in every imaginable configuration to solve the telephone access problem for people with hearing and other disabilities. TTYs (also known as TDDs)—telephone devices that connect to a phone line and allow the user to type messages that are read on a similar device at the other end of the conversation—are the most commonly known adaptive telephone devices. Add to this, however, phones with large buttons for easy visual identification; phones with braille buttons; phones that respond to voice commands for dialing; phones that have no handset, but are speaker only; phones that allow a deaf person with use of his or her own voice to speak output but read input on a two-line display; phones that amplify the voice of an individual with speech difficulties or minimal vocal strength; amplification at every level—some that can even damage the hearing of a listener without a disability; phones that can be dialed by puffing through a straw; and many more. Some telephones on the approved list can be obtained through prescription only, but all can be installed with accompanying training from the Missouri Assistive Technology Project.

Online Access

When the wording was drafted to expand the scope of the program, the initial idea was to assist blind and visually impaired Missouri residents in obtaining screen readers. The actual outcome goes well beyond those intentions. Although there is a list of recommended products, virtually any hardware or software that will make it possible for a person with a hearing, vision, speech, mobility, or other disability to access the Internet can be purchased under the Adaptive Telecommunications Equipment program. For blind people, in other words, this could mean Window-Eyes, ZoomText, or JAWS for Windows—programs that enable the consumer to read the screen—but would not include a braille printer or optical character recognition system, since these products are not directly related to Internet access. Screen readers, magnification software, refreshable braille displays, head pointers, voice recognition software, and alternative keyboards are all products on the approved list of purchases. Perhaps the best news is that if you are eligible for the program, you also receive training to get you up and running.

How It Works

To be eligible for the Adaptive Telephone Equipment program, a Missouri resident needs to have a standard telephone line and a disability that prevents conventional telephone access. Eligibility for the Adaptive Telecommunications program requires that an individual first have access to the Internet (an Internet service provider) and a disability that prevents online access through a conventional computer keyboard or monitor. "If you didn't have a disability, you'd need a basic computer," Golden points out. "What we're doing is just adding to that basic equipment whatever is required for access because of the disability." The program will fund the additional accessories required for going online, but not the computer itself. The Missouri Assistive Technology Project also administers a low-interest loan program, however, which can be used as a means to securing the basic computer.

As long as the applicant earns less than $60,000 annually and has a certifiable disability, no other criteria need to be met. Trainers are evaluated and certified by the Missouri Assistive Technology Project to work with program participants once equipment has been selected and purchased. A waiting list of about 150 applicants has already been approved (the majority of them blind or visually impaired), and as soon as purchasing contracts have been released, the first year of the Adaptive Telecommunications program will be off and running.

Although many states have programs to help people purchase telephone equipment, Missouri is the first to expand such a program to include the purchase of screen readers and other equipment for Internet access. In keeping with the "show-me" tradition, other states could learn much from this Missouri model.

For additional information, contact: Missouri Assistive Technology Project; voice: 800-647-8557 (in-state only) or 816-373-5193; TTY: 800-647-8558 (in-state only) or 816-373-9315; e-mail: matpmo@swbell.net.

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