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High-tech gains get disabled people into workforce

Posted: June 23, 2013 at 12:30 p.m.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When high school football coach Kevin Bella needs an intense, heart-to-heart with a player, he goes home and sits on his couch. That's because Bella, who is deaf, communicates with his hearing players most clearly with a new technology that brings a live sign language interpreter to his television screen. The player, on a phone elsewhere, hears the interpreter give voice to Bella's signs.

"It's a huge improvement over typing messages back and forth," said Bella, a defensive coordinator at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, Calif. "This allows me to work with hearing players, because there's a lot in my language that has to do with expressions. The meaning is lost if sign language is reduced to written text."

Bella is among a rising number of disabled people who are increasingly able to find and keep jobs, as well as engage more broadly in their communities, because of new technologies specifically aimed at helping them better communicate or complete tasks.

The past few years have seen a number of technological breakthroughs targeting disabled consumers. Apple, for example, is incorporating technologies such as voice recognition and screen readers, which can synthesize text into speech, into all of their products, rather than offering them as add-ons.

Applications such as GoTalk NOW and TapSpeak Sequence allow users to combine text, pictures and symbols with audio programs that put voice to thoughts and ideas. Someone who can't speak clearly can touch a picture of a hand, then a book, and the tablet will say: "Please pass me the book."

Blind people can take notes using voice-recognition programs, and listen to emails or "read" a website with screen readers. People with attention deficit disorder can use apps that remind them to stay focused by announcing appointments with lights and sounds. And those with spinal cord injuries share tips on forums such as apparelyzed.com for how to go hands-free on digital tablets using mouth sticks like those mounted on wheelchairs.

"High-tech advances are starting to help level the playing field, opening the door for so many people," said Therese Willkomm of the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

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