Business and people with disabilities go high-tech

President Obama signs an executive order increasing federal employment of people with disabilities at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilites Act. (© AP Images)

Twenty-five years ago, the newly enacted Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required businesses to make accommodations to allow a disabled person to do any job for which he or she is qualified. The law empowered millions of Americans with disabilities to realize their potential in the workforce and gave businesses access to a previously under-utilized pool of workers.

Some required accommodations are nontangible, such as a limit on lifting for a worker with a back or spine injury, or an adjusted schedule for an employee with a neurological impairment.

Other accommodations require special equipment or arrangements — such as a higher desk for a worker in a wheelchair, or, for a deaf employee, access to a sign-language interpreter.

Advances in technology have sparked accommodations undreamed of when ADA passed a quarter-century ago. Tools that allow the blind and deaf to surf the Web are crucial in today’s U.S. workplace.


The ADA called for measures by telephone and Internet companies to allow those with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate by telephone. Although the teletypewriter (TTY) had since the late 1960s turned voice into text over standard phone lines, the post-ADA years saw explosive innovation and new tools that made telecom communication faster and more reliable for the hearing and speech impaired.

Real-time, captioned telephone conversations offer a much faster way for deaf people to “hear” phone calls and participate fully in the high-speed, modern global economy.

A video relay device that allows a hearing-impaired user to communicate through a sign-language interpreter. (Sorenson Communications)

Among the most successful technologies for the hearing impaired is the video relay service. This connects the hearing-impaired user to another party and a sign-language interpreter, and allows much faster communication than former text-based systems. The extra speed enables the fast-paced interaction necessary for a boardroom meeting or job interview.

As assistive technology continues to develop, it helps deliver on the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act— empowering people with disabilities to contribute fully to the world around them, in business and in life.