Tony Coelho
President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities
51st Annual Conference
Technology Symposium
May 17, 1998
New Orleans, Louisiana

Good morning. Thank you for being here for our Symposium on Technology and Workers with Disabilities. Now before I begin, I should tell you up front that unlike so many of you, I am not schooled in science or technology.

But that won't stop me from talking about it.

For most of my life I was a politician, and a good politician is never at a loss for words. We are accustomed to speaking at length on topics about which we know very little.

I do, however, know something about the everyday challenges faced by America's 54 million people with disabilities.

I know because I have epilepsy . . . the result of a head injury I experienced as a teenager.

Like so many others with disabilities, I have personally felt the sting of discrimination-- more times than I like to remember and more than I'm able to forget.

Because of misconceptions about epilepsy, I have been expelled from a seminary, had my driver's license revoked, been denied jobs, discriminated against by health insurers, and rejected by the armed services. I've been put out, put down, and put off by religious institutions, state governments, corporate America, the insurance industry, and even Uncle Sam.

So, yes, I think it's fair to say I know something about the problems facing people with disabilities.

I speak to you today in the hope that through technology we can help put an end to discrimination, expand opportunities, and begin to solve one of the problems I am most concerned about: the meager 26% employment rate of people with severe disabilities.

Although I am not a "techie," I do have a reasonably good layman's grasp of the enormity of the technological changes that are sweeping the world.

I stand in awe of them, of the pace of technological progress, and of its impact on our lives.

While we are talking here, thousands of new telephones are being installed around the world... one every second or so.

A new personal computer is being installed every two seconds.

In just a few decades, information-processing technology has exploded to the point where a 100-gram cell phone packs the power of a 1960's mainframe computer.

Wow! Talk about progress!

Technology now touches nearly every aspect of our lives. We send email instead of greeting cards, get directions from computers in our cars, and file our income taxes, order flowers, and plan our vacations on-line. The benefits of all this technology are tangible.

It makes our nation's businesses more productive. It makes our homes safer and more energy efficient. It makes our transportation run more smoothly.

It informs us, entertains us, and helps us do a better job of educating our children.

Unfortunately, the benefits of technology that I am speaking of have not touched everyone's lives. Universal access to information technologies and telecommunications is critical. Without universal access, we will see a further polarization of the haves and have-nots, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, the "temporarily able" and people with disabilities.

For too long, too many people with disabilities have been shut out of the American dream. With universal access -- and, as I will discuss momentarily, universal design -- we can begin to break down barriers to full participation in our nation's economy.

For some people with disabilities, new technologies already have provided opportunities in the work place that did not exist before.

In many situations, however, employees with disabilities are unable to use the same technology as others. This is a major frustration to them and to employers who honestly want to accommodate their workers. It often requires employers to explore the use of adaptive technology: equipment which provides access through the use of peripheral hardware or software.

Yet, the field of adaptive technology can be highly complex. More so because decisions usually need to be made on a case by case basis.

To help employers make well-informed decisions on worksite accommodations, the President's Committee operates the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).

It's a toll-free telephone consulting service that has been extremely successful in offering both low-tech and high-tech solutions to accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace.

Employers who have called JAN praise it for its commitment to common sense and cost effectiveness.

I wish I could say we have all the answers, but you and I both know that even the most sophisticated adaptive technology cannot solve all the problems of access.

The best way to solve access dilemmas is to build the solution into place from the get-go...

To plan during the design stage to provide access for users with a wide range of disabilities.

In the physical environment, accessibility standards for building construction ensure that people with disabilities can function in the same facilities as others.

For technology, the same principles of universal design are starting to be applied.

The underlying concept is the same; when access is addressed at the blue print or design stage, the additional costs are minimized and the benefits are maximized.

Universally designed technology is only beginning to be seen. Emerging information technologies, telecommunications and software generally are developed with little regard to their accessibility to people with disabilities.

Clearly, as our workplaces become more and more dependent on these technologies, it is increasingly crucial that universal design concepts are considered and applied.

Unfortunately, not only are appliances, software, information technologies, and telecommunications developed with little regard for accessibility, but employers are not building accessibility requirements into the specifications for the equipment, software and networks they procure. This must change.

Employers must keep the needs of a diverse workforce in mind. Insisting on universal design is a tangible expression of the policy and practice of inclusion.

And, as we have seen elsewhere, universal design almost invariably results in greater productivity, comfort, convenience and safety for all...... not just those with disabilities.

More should be done to encourage business, government agencies, educational institutions and other employers to build accessibility into the specifications for their software, hardware and networks.

That's why the President's Committee has launched an effort to promote the development, procurement and utilization of universally designed information technologies and telecommunications in the workplace.

To help us, we are forming a task force composed of:

Corporate executives from relevant industries -- such as long distance telephone companies, regional Bell operating companies, cable operators, cellular phone operators, television and radio networks, computer and other electronic appliance manufacturers, and software developers;

People with disabilities;

Appropriate government agencies, such as the FCC; and

Other entities involved in regulating, providing, or developing information technologies and telecommunications. Woody Kerkeslager, AT&T'S Vice President for Technology and Infrastructure, will head up the task force. We are very lucky and very proud to have Woody on our team.

Few people have as much knowledge and experience in the field of telecommunications. He is committed to ensuring that standards for technology are developed in a way that benefits people with disabilities. You will be hearing from Woody during this symposium, as well as from other experts in the field of information technology and telecommunications. As I said earlier, I am a product of a primitive era . . . before modems and microchips, before lasers and laptops, before computers and cloning. If you say "Dolly" to me, I think of the Broadway musical -- not molecular duplication or genetic experimentation.

But I am willing and able to learn. And that is what I am asking of all of you. Keep your minds open and come together to explore how to make current and future technology accessible to employees with disabilities. Technology has the power to be a liberating force in the workplace. We cannot afford to strive for anything less.