It pays to make products accessible
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Jonathan Cruce, a rehabilitation engineer at the Technology Access Center of Middle Tennessee, discussed ''Assistive Technology in the Work Environment'' before the Nashville Technology Council on Jan. 2. The following is based on his remarks:

As a business owner or manager, you may wonder why product and service accessibility for people with disabilities is such a big deal. It seems to take lots of money to make your business or product accessible.

So why bother?

In the United States, 20% of the population has a disability. That's about 54 million people. If your business or product is not accessible, you may be eliminating many prospective employees and customers. The question is not, ''How much will it cost me to make my product or company accessible?'' but, ''How much will it cost me to not make my product or company accessible?''

Most individuals with disabilities who receive Technology Access Center services want to begin working or return to work after an injury. Many receive services and support through the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services, which may include funding for equipment the client requires to work. Often, accommodations for our clients are simple and inexpensive. Most of the ''jigs'' that we produce to help clients more effectively perform specific job tasks cost less than $20. Additionally, many off-the-shelf products we recommend for our clients were not designed specifically for people with disabilities. Small changes in the products made them usable for the entire population, including people with disabilities.

Besides increasing usability of your product, making your product accessible is required if you want the government to purchase your Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) products.

According to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, federal agencies are required to purchase only those software and hardware products that meet the accessibility standards determined by the Federal Access Board.

What exactly does it mean to have an accessible EIT product? It means that objects in your software, such as toolbar buttons, are clearly labeled in the underlying code so that screen readers for individuals with visual impairments can read them to the user. It means that hardware products with built-in mouse control should offer a port on the device to plug in an alternative mouse for users with physical impairments. Web sites should offer text descriptions of graphical elements and avoid using inaccessible animation elements. The Access Board has developed a checklist of standards, available at its Web site (www.access-board.gov), to evaluate accessibility of EIT products.

The Technology Access Center is a resource for individuals ... with disabilities or activity limitations, their family members, employers and community professionals in search of assistive technology solutions. We offer many services that may be of specific interest to employers, including assistive technology or accommodation solutions for employees with disabilities, ergonomic analysis for prevention of repetitive stress injuries and accessibility analysis of physical space, virtual space (Internet, Intranet) or products.Â*

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