When Maia Scott wants to read a book, she relies on a closed circuit television (CCTV) hooked up to a projector that magnifies each letter and displays it on a monitor mounted high on her office wall. While reading a book on a television screen may seem like a strange mix of media, for millions of people with visual disabilities, it’s just a fact of life.
Maia, 31, is partially sighted and has used assistive technology, such as her CCTV, since she was five years old. Now comfortably using computer technology at her job as program coordinator for Theatre Unlimited, a performance arts project of the Recreational Center for the Handicapped (www.rchinc.org) in San Francisco, Maia is responsible for redesigning the organization’s brochures, editing Web copy, and facilitating internal and external organizational communication. These tasks would be virtually impossible for her without assistive technology.

People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55 million people—one in five Americans—have or have had a disability. The online disability community, Ican.com, claims that 13.6 million Americans have difficulty using their hands, and nearly 10 million adults have difficulty distinguishing words and letters. Worldwide, an estimated 750 million people have disabilities that impair their use of computers and the Internet.
Technology can create almost unlimited opportunities for people with disabilities to participate more fully in every aspect of life. It can be harnessed to reduce, even eliminate barriers for people with disabilities, at school, on the job, and in the community. However, lack of full access to these powerful tools severely curtails people’s ability to achieve their potential. Is your organization’s technology flexible enough to meet a wide range of physical abilities and needs?

Accessible or assistive technology (AT) refers broadly to any technology that creates a level playing field for people with disabilities. Applications range from talking yellow pages to beeping traffic signals that indicate when to safely cross a street. For people with disabilities, even the smallest technology enhancement can mean the difference between the ability to work or not. For the diverse nonprofit community, which strives to create an inclusive workplace, AT makes it possible to open the workplace to the nation’s largest minority population. Not only is this the socially conscious thing to do, it’s easier (and cheaper) than most people might imagine.

Barrier-free information technology (IT) is important for many people, who could range from a potential donor or grantee, to a bright young programmer wanting to work on your organization’s database (who happens to be blind), to a client needing to be connected with services offered by your organization. For a person with a disability, for whom access to information might have previously posed a challenge, the Internet can be most useful; conversely, inaccessible technology erects barriers to their quickly and easily obtaining and using information.

“If you have a disability, the apprehension may be around the fear of the costs of assistive technology,” Maia says. The truth is, the actual cost of accessibility needn’t be daunting. The benefits to an organization, especially in terms of employee loyalty and devotion to the mission, are well worth the investment in AT.

With the increased use of computers in the hom