Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Retooling for Baby Boomers: Helping Vocational Rehab Organizations Meet The Coming Surge in Demand

Retooling for Baby Boomers:

Helping Vocational Rehab Organizations
Meet The Coming Surge in Demand

There has always been a strong link between age and blindness. Numerous diseases and conditions we associate with aging that result in impairment or loss of vision. This year, the first of the baby boomers reach retirement age and what follows will likely be a rapidly increasing demand for rehabilitation services for the blind. This should not come as a surprise to anyone in the blind services field. This NCSAB conference is a direct recognition of the impending increase in demand.

If state agencies were limited to the tools of the past, the impending boom in demand would be a crisis. Traditional, one-size-fits-all screen readers are hugely expensive and notoriously difficult to train. While baby boomers have some computer literacy, they are still mostly neophytes when it comes to dealing with the technical awareness required by most screen readers. If they are newly blind and just beginning to learn the basics of independent living, the screen readers can be overwhelming. Yet, if they are to achieve independence and full communion with their families, they need to have access to the computer and the Internet. Digital access is fundamental to living independently and to attaining and enjoying a quality of life that compares to their lives before they lost their vision.

If state agencies could count on an enormous increase in funding, commensurate with the growth in demand, it might be possible to assemble reduced-functionality training programs using conventional screen readers. Increases in funding, however, are generally wishful thinking. Reality will likely be an increased workload and little in the way of additional resources.

Strange as it may seem, with its initial business plan in 2000, Serotek started out to address precisely this issue. The plan recognized both the challenge and the opportunity in the “graying of America.” Its fundamental strategy was to treat blind and low vision Americans and others throughout the world as customers rather than welfare recipients.

This was not a popular position because conventional wisdom in the investment community said that blind folks don’t have any money. If you want to sell them products, you have to get the government to pay. Over time, our original vision has proven true, but it hasn’t been easy.

We took this position for a number of reasons:

Conventional screen readers had a vast amount of capability but were packaged with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. People come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and needs, and for most people, particularly elderly blind people, conventional screen readers are far too complex and difficult to master.

The complexity of conventional screen readers exists in part because they are built on a legacy of past investment. No one wants to reinvent the wheel. It’s easier, faster and cheaper to pretty up the old one. Best of all, by dressing up the existing model, it will still fit with all the old hardware and software. Unfortunately, it also means that the most current screen reading technology is still a generation or so behind the state of the art in mainstream software. Thus in addition to paying a huge price for accessibility, blind folks are forced to run on the previous generation’s operating system. Companies that make their software accessible are similarly hindered by having their corporate technology held back in order to remain compatible with current conventional accessibility tools.

There is a whole host of neat toys – digital candy if you will – that make life more fun. These PDAs, MP3 players, games and such are totally forgotten by the conventional accessibility industry. We like these toys and we know other blind people would like them too. This is particularly true of the newly-blind baby boomers who have been huge consumers of such digital lifestyle products.

In effect, there is an accessibility barrier that keeps the blind and low vision community at a disadvantage in the workplace and from enjoying the lifestyle advantages of the digital age.

There is another problem with the conventional screen reader technology. It is difficult to teach and depends on the network of vocational rehabilitation organizations to train people in its use. The training process is long and expensive both in dollars and in trainer time. Bringing a newly-blind, non-computer user to competence is no easy matter using any of the major conventional screen readers. Despite the dependent relationship between adaptive technology vendors and vocational rehabilitation personnel, the vendors have done precious little to make training easier and more consistently successful.

We took on this barrier from two perspectives. First, we created System Access to Go and made it available free of charge to anyone who wishes to use it. We did this in cooperation with The AIR Foundation, which promotes accessibility as a fundamental human right. For those who aren’t aware of the da Vinci-award-winning System Access, it is highly intuitive and easy to learn. Although we do not position it or market it as a vocational rehab tool, it handles most of the major off-the-shelf business applications like Microsoft Office and delivers a host of special capabilities. One such capability allows a user to access a home computer from the road and run it just as if he or she were sitting at the keyboard. System Access to Go, which just won the 2008 AFB Access Award, is a web-based version of System Access that can be used anytime a person is connected to the Internet, at no charge.

Our second program is called Remote Incident Manager (RIM) and it is a tool designed specifically for trainers and technicians. Using RIM, a vocational rehab trainer, working from her home or office, can conduct one-on-one training of a blind or low vision person with a computer and access to the Internet wherever they might be. The trainer can be on the trainee’s desktop sharing the same application and providing direct instruction, using voice over Internet protocol. He or she can help adjust and install new software on the trainee’s system and help the trainee work through applications in real time. The trainer can teach any application including conventional screen readers. The whole interactive process is fully accessible.

Serotek is basically changing the economics of blindness. The SAToGo accessibility tool meets one hundred percent of most people’s needs for accessibility – at least in their everyday lives. It’s available anywhere, costs nothing, and it is relatively easy to learn and use. The software includes a screen reader, braille access and text magnification. This is the perfect tool for newly blind baby boomers and for many others. Many of the people who use SAToGo may choose to purchase System Access Mobile and have an accessibility tool permanently installed on their home system and on their portable systems. Many would also enjoy the benefits of being part of the online community, System Access Mobile Network. Priced as a service, this costs the user less than $25 per month for everything. That’s well within most budgets. And for those who require state assistance for this payment, it is still far less expensive than any other accessibility solution.

Remote Incident Manager (RIM) is priced at $1,000 per seat. This software pays for itself many times over by saving commute time for clients in rural areas. It also allows vocational rehab trainers to reach and successfully train more people in a larger geographical area at less total cost. RIM eliminates the burden of travel – always one of the biggest barriers for the newly blind.

Combining the two products, System Access (including SAToGo) and RIM, makes it possible for a vocational rehab center to take on the added burden of newly-blind seniors and to provide them with the tools for independent living and a high quality of life. Equally important, the tools allow the vocational rehab center to spend less of its precious resources providing products to their clientele and to focus resources on delivering service.

The coming boom in demand for vocational rehab services is inevitable as baby boomers age. Serotek gives vocational rehab providers the tools to meet this surge and to continue delivering the high quality services that give newly blind seniors a path to independent living.

For more information on how Serotek’s award-winning products and services can enhance the way you interact with your consumers, please contact:

Ricky Enger
Serotek Corporation
(612) 246-4818 Ext. 104
Toll free: (866) 202-0520 Ext. 104


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information.

I write a blog for boomer consumers called The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide at http://boomersurvive-thriveguide.typepad.com.


Anonymous said...

Very well said. If only you guys had been around in the summer of 1999. At that time I started volunteering at a nonprofit organization here in Evanston, IL., and although I asked for JAWS VR gave me a demo copy of Window-Eyes. At the time I knew very little if anything at all about Window-Eyes, since I had JAWS on my home PC and that was the only screen reader known to me. I was fortunate in that an adaptive technology trainer who was working at The Chicago Lighthouse back then provided me with a Braille cheat sheet for Window-Eyes. But had he not done this I would've been screwed, as none of the other office workers knew anything about screen readers. JAWS was eventually installed on the computer at the front desk where I sometimes worked, but the settings were tweaked in such a way that nothing quite worked properly. Everytime I tried to fix it so that JAWS would work properly for me, I ran into problems. Here's hoping VR agencies will start doing the right thing and listening to the very people whom they claim to serve.