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SPECIAL FEATURE

Meeting the Universal Information Technology Needs of Sears Associates with Disabilities

Breaking the Graphical-User-Interface Barrier

Many computer users with disabilities--especially those with visual impairments--have been left behind in the recent transition from traditional character-based computing to the new graphical user interface (GUI) paradigm represented by Microsoft Windows, IBM OS/2, and Apple Macintosh operating systems.

The problem: special software that can read a character-based computer screen cannot interpret the icons, buttons, and other graphical components of the GUI environment. "The broad movement toward graphical applications using buttons that cannot be read aloud or translated into braille has sparked widespread concern among the blind," writes David Wilson in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Many people are working on solutions to the problem, and experts say there are ways around it."

Among those working on solutions is the Sears Merchandise Group. In doing so, Sears is establishing an important example of ADA transcendence that provides a model for other organizations seeking to provide universal access to information technology for employees with and without disabilities.

Background

In 1992 the Sears Merchandise Group provided its headquarters staff with IBM personal computers running applications under the OS/2 graphical operating system in a local area network environment. Sears employees had not used a GUI operating system, so Sears provided extensive training and support during the transition.

In evaluating the staff's training needs, Sears identified 12 associates with disabilities who needed accommodations to use the same standard computing resources and applications as nondisabled associates. Of these 12 associates, 4 were visually impaired, 5 were blind, and 3 had physical disabilities that prevented them from using their hands to manipulate the computer in its standard configuration.

Sears' goal was to provide universal access to the same technology and applications for all associates.

Before the OS/2 migration, Sears had provided blind associates who routinely reviewed a large volume of printed material with Kurzweil readers and scanners, which electronically scanned documents and read them aloud through voice synthesis. Blind associates employed as computer programmers used personal computers and mainframe terminals with voice-synthesized software to replace visual display monitors. Although these technologies allowed the associates who were blind to perform their jobs, they had limitations that affected the associates' productivity, and they prevented them from using the same products as the other members of their work group.

Blind associates were fearful of working in the GUI environment. Using applications in the previous DOS operating system facilitated a step-by-step approach. However, the multi-tasking OS/2 Windows-based system posed a threat to the blind associates because they did not believe technology existed to interpret the graphical computing environment adequately. They believed that the move to OS/2 would jeopardize their careers, if not leave them behind entirely. As Wilson noted, "The blind are afraid they will be cut off from computers that present information in ways they cannot interpret."

Objectives

Sears needed to define a universal set of technology to:

Evaluation, Planning Process, and Solutions

Sears contracted with Ability Consulting Services of Austin, Texas, to evaluate needs and find appropriate technology solutions. Ability Consulting interviewed all associates with disabilities to understand their jobs and the adaptive equipment they were using, researched available equipment, and prepared recommendations for each associate's customized solution. A brief description of each solution follows.

Visually impaired associates were provided with oversized, high- resolution display monitors (NEC model 5FG), which cost less than $1,000 each. This was the only accommodation they required.

Blind associates were provided with a software package called Screen Reader/2 for OS/2 from IBM, which IBM had just introduced, costing approximately $725. The software works in conjunction with an Accent or Multivoice brand voice synthesizer; each blind associate's computer was equipped with a synthesizer at a cost per unit of $1,000.

Marc Stiehr, a systems planning consultant for end-user computing, managed the project internally for Sears. He recalls, "We quickly determined that Screen Reader by itself was insufficient as a productivity solution. While it can read entire screens as well as any portion of a screen, the mainframe systems that the blind associates accessed for their work would need clearer interpretation.

"We decided to write programs called Screen Reader profiles, which would announce which screen they were on and which actions were expected. We held meetings with blind associates to identify what was important information from a voice feedback standpoint. These profiles were completed before we rolled out our solution in mid-1993."

Each associate received individual attention, including setup and training. Initial system use revealed that Screen Reader profiles helped, but they were insufficient as a total solution.

"The missing piece was braille," says Stiehr, "and they were all strong braillers." Sears then acquired an 83-cell Alva braille display, at a cost of $14,500 each, for every blind associate in the program. This solution represented the first commercial installation that integrated the Alva displays with Screen Reader/2 and voice synthesizers in OS/2.

Associates who were unable to use their hands to operate their computers received a voice-recognition system called Voice Type from Dragon Systems that allowed them to speak in words--instead of individual characters, as they had in previous systems--to interact with their computers. The system, which cost $2,400, allowed the users to create macro commands, that is, to designate individual words to represent frequently used word combinations.

Results

Annual reviews show that visually impaired associates using the improved display monitors are performing on a par with their nondisabled peers.

Blind associates have achieved productivity gains of up to 50 percent as measured by daily output of lines of computer programming code, through the combination of Screen Reader/2, the Screen Reader profiles, voice synthesizers, and the Alva braille displays.

"This combination has allowed blind associates to be truly competitive with their sighted counterparts on the new OS/2 platform," says Stiehr. "They can perform programming work, query, and modify e-mail documents, often in half the time it took before." And the solution meets Sears objective of finding a universal technology set: "For the first time, we are able to provide one standard solution to all blind associates," Stiehr points out.

Manually disabled associates are able to use all applications available under the OS/2 computing platform through the use of Voice Type.

"Sears is deriving knowledge that will be applicable to future cases based on the innovation, creativity, and experimentation of the GUI-accessibility project. This kind of proactive initiative can be used to help resolve or avoid future problems a key issue addressed in ADA Title V prescriptions for conflict resolution," says Sears Assistant General Counsel Hamilton Davis. (More information on the ADA and conflict resolution)is available in this report.)

Stiehr sums up the human resource implications of these solutions, "We now have a standard computer configuration for blind users. In offering employment to the qualified blind, we provide those individuals with an environment that allows them to be judged on their abilities, rather than on their disabilities."

To foster independence, Sears has provided a training class for blind computer programmers to teach them how to write and modify the Screen Reader profile programs and other customizing procedures. This common-sense approach reduced Sears' reliance on outside consultants, thereby saving consulting fees estimated to total $6,000.

Sears has shared its experiences in developing and implementing these technology solutions with other companies and nonprofit organizations such as the Architectural Barrier Lessening and Elimination Program (ABLE) and the Lighthouse for the Blind. Stiehr says, "It's important that we help get out the message to the disabled community: business is making commitments and investments in technology that will help you succeed."

Future Considerations

The solutions developed for the Merchandise Group will be applied throughout the company as field operations convert to the OS/2 standard platform. Sears will provide software upgrades and continued improvements to the universally enabling technologies to facilitate career advancement among its employees with and without disabilities.

Sears' commitment to providing the most up-to-date information technology to support its associates with disabilities has created a ripple effect throughout the company as applications for these technologies (such as accessible CD-ROM) are developed that increase productivity in the normal course of business for all Sears employees.

For more information on technology or organizations mentioned in this report, see Employment and Information Technology Resources. 2