Legislation pushing technology

Government legislation creating awareness in the high-tech industry and a Canadian company buying American technology tend not to be common occurrences. With Ottawa-based JetForm Corp.’s acquisition of Verbal-eyes we get both.

Recently JetForm bought Verbal-eyes from FutureForms, a Grand Rapids Mich.-based division of Pummill Business Forms Inc., to incorporate into its FormFlow 99 electronic forms solution. The decision to purchase Verbal-eyes was driven, in part, out of necessity. In 1998 the American Congress passed Section 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, requiring that individuals with disabilities be able to access information from federal government agencies.

A large portion of JetForm’s business is with the American federal government. The company had the choice of building in-house, licensing a technology or buying a solution. They opted for the latter, said Dave Welch, vice-president and general manager of JetForm’s e-forms business group in Ottawa.

“For me to continue to sell into that market it is necessary for me to make sure that my product line…meets the requirements of 508,” he explained.

technology for the blind

For blind and visually impaired people, filling out forms on a computer is an onerous task. Sections of a form could be inadvertently missed or filled out incorrectly due a screen-reader application’s inability to properly interpret a form. Screen readers read screen content aloud to the user. They are a necessity for blind individuals but also an undeniable aid to visually impaired, illiterate and dyslexic persons.

We have all filled out dozens of forms of the “If you answered yes to C and D do not fill out sections E and G” variety. They are, at best, a pain for the sighted. For the blind they can be impossible.

Verbal-eyes checks a user’s computer to see if there is a screen reader installed. If not, nothing happens. If a screen reader is found it makes sure the individual gets all the necessary information to correctly fill out a form.

In the world of government, forms are fuel that drives the engine. Many tens of thousands of them exist, according to Welch.

Luis Roman, councillor advocate at the Center for Independent Living in Merriville, Ind., likes the added independence Verbal-eyes gives him.

“Without using Verbal-eyes I would have to depend on sighted assistance in order to fill out those forms…[now] I don’t have to wait from someone who is sighted or wait for someone who has time to assist me.”

on the home front

As it turns out though, precious little is happening on the home front. No one at the federal government level that ComputerWorld Canada spoke with knew of any legislation equivalent to Section 508 in Canada.

In Ontario, Premier Mike Harris’ Conservative government has been dragging its feet for some time, according to David Lepofsky, the chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee in Toronto.

“If you want to talk about Ontario in recent years, the story is really one big F in terms of a failing grade, and that is measuring them not against perfection but against what they promised to do,” Lepofsky said.

“Mike Harris is always saying he always keeps his word…[but] you won’t find a bigger example of broken commitments than what he did to us.”

According to the coalition, Harris promised in writing that he would pass the Ontarians with Disabilities Act in his first term.

Repeated attempts by ComputerWorld Canada to get the government’s side of the story were met with silence.

“The government has claimed that we don’t need legislation because people will do it voluntarily, but what we are finding is the exact opposite,” Lepofsky said.

Welch agreed. “For me the legislation certainly forced me to look into the issue,” he said. “I guess to be honest I didn’t realize the impediments that technology puts in place for people with disabilities,” he said. “I personally just was not aware of the hardships we are artificially causing for people with handicaps or disabilities.”

But now with this new awareness, Welch makes sure his own development team is not adding artificial barriers to users with disabilities.

That, in itself, is a huge stepping stone.

“Most of the people who don’t know much about disability think that most of the worst barriers we face were made years ago…but in the area of technology the irony is the worst barriers that we are going to face haven’t been invented yet, and they are all preventable,” Lepofsky explained. “Technology for us is either the great liberator or the great barrier [but] every time you go to the next generation…we are always playing catch up and there is absolutely no reason it has to be that way,” he added.

“Now that we are aware…when we have choices to make we will make smart, informed choices as opposed to uninformed decisions which is where I think we were before.”

the market is there

There are about 54 million people with some form of disability in the U.S. and more than 500 million worldwide, according to Bill Sahlberg, senior consultant in JetForm’s consulting services.

“If I were selling something on the Internet and I had an order form that 54 million people could not access, well, I would…be missing the boat,” he said.

Lepfosky agrees. “The term I love to quote is handi-capitalism. I mean, we are a big market.”

“In this case…the end results more than justifies the incremental investment,” Welch concluded.