Section rules drive useful tools for computer users

Computers can be a pain to use in general, but for users with handicaps, they're even more difficult. Because computers rely primarily on monitors and printers, both visually oriented, for their output, any user with a visual impairment is at a disadvantage. Because they depend on keyboards and mice for input and control, both requiring manual dexterity, users with motor-skills deficiencies have difficulties.

It's a problem faced by about 54 million people with disabilities ? including 8.5 million who want to work but remain unemployed ? and for any organization that uses computers, especially the federal government.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to persons with disabilities. This has two major implications: Government employees must be able to use agency computers, and the general public must be able to use government Web sites.

While this is the law, it's also common sense. Equal access to information and technology is fair.

The disabilities most directly affecting computer use are motor disabilities and sensory disabilities, primarily visual. Most computer-related disabilities fall into these two categories, which simplifies the accessibility situation.

One source of solutions is the operating system. Many operating systems, including Windows and Mac OS, include accessibility options. Users can control features such as sticky keys, which allow the user to enter multiple-key combinations, such as Ctrl-S, one key at a time, and filtered keys, which can ignore repeated keystrokes.

Another solutions source is an application itself. The idea is that disabled persons should be able to use the same products as everyone else. Again, many modern commercial applications, including major office applications, have accessibility features that the user can configure, including changing the size or magnification of parts of the screen and keyboard shortcuts.

It's also important that agencies have the tools to create accessibility features for their own applications based on user needs. For in-house programs, code development may be required to change an application to add the desired flexibility.

Several third-party products also are available for addressing Section 508 issues. These tools fall into two main categories.

Those addressing motor disabilities include voice input for keyboard, mouse and Web browser control. Those designed to deal with sensory issues also include voice control, plus audible signaling, Braille support, screen enhancement (magnifiers and readers), speech synthesis and optical character recognition (including Braille recognition).

Some products may include several of these features combined into one solution. Yet all these tools have one thing in common; they are an interface between the user and the target computer application. And all accessibility software has one goal: make computers easier to use.

Edmund DeJesus is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass. E-mail him at dejesus@compuserve.com.

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