Organization for Blind Builds Integrator Ties

Organization for Blind Builds Integrator Ties

Dale Otto

By Cindy L. O'Hara, Staff Writer

A non-profit organization's collaboration with a local systems integrator is bearing fruit for its members and federal agencies, which use adaptive technology to better the working conditions of agency employees.

Earlier this month, Washington-based Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, along with McLean, Va.-based Unisys Corp., were awarded a three-year, $67 million follow-on contract by the Social Security Administration for training and support services related to assistive technology.

Since its founding in 1900, Columbia Lighthouse's mission has been to assist the blind and people with low vision to achieve more independent, fulfilling and productive lives. One way it accomplishes this is by providing employees with state-of-the-art voice synthesizers, scanners, text enlargement and Braille output devices.

However, getting both employers and employees to accept the new technology can be challenging, said Dale Otto, president and chief executive officer for the Lighthouse.

"[It's] getting employers to take that step from saying 'It sounds good, that's all wonderful,' to taking that next step to understanding how this can be a win-win business situation," he said.

Otto, who is blind, has marketed his organization's services successfully and built mutually beneficial, long-term relationships not only with Unisys, but also with Integration Technologies Group of Falls Church, Va.

"They're a good company and very easy to get along with," said Patricia Zawarski, federal project manager for ITG, which has a subcontracting relationship with Lighthouse to provide training and installation of adaptive technology to employees at the Internal Revenue Service. "You know the people who do the installation [for the Lighthouse] are blind, so to be able to install hardware is pretty incredible," she said.

Under its agreement with Unisys, Columbia Lighthouse will train Social Security employees to use its adaptive technology. Unisys will provide support, including installation, maintenance, equipment relocation, documentation and technical support.

The recent indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract with the agency follows a $280 million, seven-year contract that Unisys received from Social Security in June 1996. At that time, the Lighthouse collaborated with Unisys on the phase one contract by testing Unisys' adaptive technology before it was sent out to Social Security sites, said Matt Ater, director of assistive technology for Columbia Lighthouse.

Unisys installed 1,742 local area networks over 70,000 workstations and connected and trained some 68,000 Social Security employees throughout the United States in phase one. Of those employees, about 700 were trained and provided with equipment adapted for the disabled, said Mark Root, communications director for Unisys.

While integration and installation of adaptive technology continues to be a primary focus of Lighthouse, Otto said he also wants to focus on technology training for blind and low-vision employees.

"We still face the challenge of people who want to work but can't find work, but it's the training, it's the assistive technology opportunities that can get people employed," Otto said. "Part of it's employment, but it's also just the availability of information, the ability to utilize print enhancement devices to get on the Internet, to communicate by e-mail, to use Windows. It's all out there."

Which is why Otto has made educating employees and employers a top priority for the new year. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there that [the hardware] is some sort of a special computer that is very fragile, but our computers are the same," he said.

"As the population ages, the number of individuals who have visual impairment is going to go up," he said. "And as people work to older ages, employers are going to need to hire people. So there's a lot of challenges out there to change the way things are done."

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