Spring 1997, Vol. 8 No. 2

by Orah Raia

Many individuals with disabilities lack marketable job skills and have not been adequately prepared for meaningful employment. Hence, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 66%, compared to a roughly 6% overall unemployment rate. The ability to use a computer in today's work place can play an important role for adults with disabilities in reducing these numbers and helping them to become valued members of the workplace.

From now until the year 2000 five of the fastest growing careers will be computer related (Thomas & Knezek, 1996). Of all the new technologies, online communication has the strongest potential to break down the barriers and inequities encountered by students of different socioeconomic, racial, linguistic and disability backgrounds (CAST, 1996). For people with disabilities, the value of technology cannot be overstated, providing assistance in organization, writing and communication - areas in which many people with disabilities encounter difficulty.

A Collaborative Effort in Vocational Training

This article profiles a special collaboration between the Center for Enabling Technology (CET), a non-profit organization which helps people with disabilities gain access to computer technology, and JESPY House, an independent living center for adults with learning disabilities and neurological impairments which offers residential options, recreational programs, vocational training and job placement. This collaborative project was launched with grant funds from the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest (Essex and Morris counties). JESPY House staff recognized the need for adults with disabilities to have computer skills, but they lacked the up-to-date equipment needed to provide such training. They also were concerned about their clients' needs for individualized instruction that proceeded at a slow pace and was tailored to their unique learning styles. Enter CET which has both the equipment and the expertise.

JESPY House staff selected clients who they believed would enjoy and benefit from learning to use computers. CET performed evaluations to determine each individual's computer needs, and visited job sites to see which software programs employers have been using. CET then provided one-on-one training over a 10 week period to teach clients the computer skills they needed to acquire. In addition, CET has the ability to provide, if needed, special adaptations to access the computer, such as alternative keyboards, enlarged print, or software programs that read text aloud. Debbie Newton, CET's Assistive Technology Specialist, provided the training for these individuals. I interviewed two of the adults who are being provided with this specialized training. Each is unique, with individual goals, aspirations and needs.

Participant Profiles

Debra Ann Davidson is a young woman with excellent communication skills. She and I had a lengthy conversation and she told me all about her favorite country singer, Vince Gill. After I had asked her many questions, she then asked if it would be OK to ask me some questions. I replied, "Of course," and she proceeded to ask me questions about my children! Debra lives with a roommate in South Orange and is starting a new job in a large real estate office. Her job responsibilities will include filing, placing checks in numerical order and operating the postage machine. Debra says she likes working in an office, and remarked how as a little girl, her mom would give her papers to "file" at home and how much she enjoyed doing that.

After conducting a computer evaluation, Debbie Newton determined that Debra should focus on learning how to use word processing and enter information into a database. Debbie began by teaching Debra the basics of Microsoft Works, an easy-to-use, integrated package: how to open an application, start a file, save it, and access it again. She is quite adept at operating a mouse, and has practiced on both Windows and Macintosh computers. Debra is legally blind, but she has enough vision to operate a computer using 32 point font. Debbie taught Debra how to enlarge the font while she is entering information into the database, and then how to reduce it when she is finished. In addition, Debbie placed ZoomCaps, letter stickers which have large white letters on a black background (available from Don Johnston, Inc.), on the keyboard to make the letters stand out. Debra likes to "surf" the Internet in the public library, and especially likes to check out the Vince Gill site! Debra is looking forward to starting her new job, and with the computer skills she has learned at CET, she will have an opportunity to enhance her work skills and increase her chances of success in the workplace.

Michael Roemisch is an adult with considerable work experience in a number of areas. He has been employed at Shop-Rite for eight years, and previously, worked in several jobs in a clerical capacity, including Dun & Bradstreet in New York. Michael is able to commute to his job using public transportation, and his job coach is currently looking for a new job for him that is closer to home. Presently, Debbie Newton is working on word processing skills with Michael, teaching him how to compose a letter using appropriate letterhead, how to check for accuracy, and how to edit mistakes, using Microsoft Works. Initially, Michael had difficulty operating the mouse, however with practice and coaching, Debbie has noticed a marked improvement in his ability to control it. In his spare time, Michael likes to read. In the past, he has volunteered at a hospital, where he says, "All the nurses were crazy about me!" Michael likes to work with people and is very good in math; he would like to have a job that provides him with the opportunity to take advantage of his many skills.

Helping Individuals Gain Independence

Assuming total responsibility for locating and coordinating needed services is a challenging task for many adults with disabilities and their families. Employers sometimes lack the knowledge of how to accommodate an individual's needs, while they also need accurate and honest information about them. Programs such JESPY House and CET empower individuals with disabilities in making significant life choices and changes to enhance their employment and independent living opportunities. These programs assist individuals in identifying their goals and barriers, and help them develop their own skills as self-advocates. Both Debra and Michael have the ability and skills needed to learn how to be advocates for themselves, and in turn, this personal empowerment will have a "ripple effect." Gaining the ability to write a letter on a computer, as Michael is learning, provides him with a tool to advocate. By overcoming some of their own barriers and learning to speak up for themselves, they will become aware of issues in the community, will feel confident advocating for themselves, and may even begin to advocate for others. The skills they have learned at CET will surely help them along the way to increased independence and self-confidence.


CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology). (1996). The role of online communications in schools: A national study. Available online at: http//www.cast.org.

Thomas, L.G., & Knezek, D.G. (1996). Technology literacy for the nation and its citizens. Report prepared for the International Society for Technology in Education. (ISTE). Eugene, OR.

Orah Raia is a graduate student in the Department of Special Education at the College of New Jersey.

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