Give America's Disabled the Technology They Need

Will America keep its promise to provide equal access to information, education and employment to millions of people with disabilities? If so, then Congress must act quickly to re-authorize the Assistive Technology (AT) Act, which provides federal funding for state grant programs that increase access to assistive and accessible technology and related services.

Ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities is not just a matter of curb cuts, ramps and elevators to eliminate architectural barriers to public buildings and places of employment. Today, it is just as important to provide technology that enables people with disabilities to use personal computers and the Internet, such as devices that read computer text aloud to people who are blind or enable people who can’t move their arms to type and issue computer commands using only their breath or eye movements.

Assistive and accessible technology (AT) can help people of all abilities realize their full potential, but for people with disabilities there is no middle ground. According to the National Council on Disability, “For Americans without disabilities, technology makes things easier. For Americans with disabilities, technology makes things possible.” The goal of the AT Act is to ensure that people have access to the technology they need.

On June 23, the Senate, led by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), introduced its bill S. 2595 to re-authorize the AT Act. Earlier this year, Reps. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) shepherded the House bill for AT Act re-authorization (H.R.4278) through floor passage. The Senate and House must now work together to ensure re-authorization of the act before the end of the current session.

Both bills would strengthen state AT programs. These programs and services are critical, because they ensure technology will be available where people need itB in schools, on the job and in their communities. The AT Act also funds research and development projects, information-system improvements, loan and reutilization programs, and demonstrations that teach people what kind of AT devices are available and how to use them.

Critics may argue that after 15 years of federal investment in this program, people who need assistive technology products and services-along with service providers, school personnel, and employers-should already be aware of them. The population that needs AT is not static, however, and it is growing.

A 2003 research study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Data found that 57 percent of working-age computer users could benefit from accessible technology. As the U.S. work force continues to age, the need for AT as a mainstream business resource will increase even more. By 2010, more than half the U.S. population will be 45 or older, age-related impairments will affect more people, and employers will need resources to help workers maintain peak performance.

As the need for AT increases, it will be vital to establish a seamless network of resources and training that can meet people’s evolving needs at every stage of life and ensure that all Americans have the help they need with education, employment and independent living. The AT Act helps to do just that by aligning its priorities and provisions with those set forth in other federal legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act and the Americans with Disabilities integration mandate in Olmstead.

The AT Act will expire on Sept. 30. Without enactment of a re-authorization bill, access to assistive technology for Americans with disabilities could be severely compromised.

Congress now has a chance to remedy this situation, so that Americans with disabilities will know that the services they need will continue to support them in their efforts to work, learn and participate in their communities.

The Senate and House should quickly negotiate a compromise bill and send it to the president for signature. As we approach the 14th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities ActBsigned into law by the first President BushB Americans need to know our representatives in Congress will not turn their backs on citizens with disabilities. By putting this issue above politics, and re-authorizing the AT Act this year, Congress can deliver on America’s promise.

The author is manager, regulatory and legislative affairs, for the Accessible Technology Group, Microsoft Corp.

This article was published in The Hill, a Washington publication that goes to the office of every Member of Congress. To view the article in its entirety go to http://www.thehill.com/op_ed/070604_ruby.aspx