Will the Digital Divide Worsen for the Disabled?

Several informal conferences have been held at Howard University to discuss the danger facing the disabled community and the major advancements in technology that they are being denied access to. George A. Covington, who was born legally blind, with 20/400 vision in both eyes, has hosted the event on occasion and toured the country as a prominent speaker. He served as Vice President Dan Quayle’s top advisor on accessibility and disability issues. Prior to joining Vice President Quayle’s staff, he worked on disability projects on the staff of Representative Jim Wright, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Despite his physical challenges, he has gone on to author several books, one of which focused on photography (“Photo Hero: A Satire of Photography”).

Using a state of the art computer, Covington has been able to transfer hundreds of digital photographs he has taken, primarily of subjects in a small town in Texas, into a myriad of collages and special displays. “The blurs of mountains and mesas become visible in my prints when I observe them through a 15x magnifying lens and a great deal of light,” said Covington during a recent conference.

The former advisor, with a mixture of wit and sarcasm, often describes how he promoted numerous ideas to White House staff on how the visually impaired could better navigate and appreciate areas such as museums and federal buildings, which was one of his major accomplishments while working at the White House. However, when discussing how the disabled community is being ignored in terms of technology, to date, Covington’s humor is quickly replaced with disgust and outrage. “Computers are becoming easier and easier to use, but all too often the only people who know about these advancements are rich, white people,” said Covington.

“Many at the top of these technology and computer companies are not taking into account that people who are visually impaired or disabled want to take advantage of the Internet and assistive technology as well. We are being ignored totally, and if we are not careful, we will become victims of the digital divide.”

While outlining some of the computer software that is available to assist those with disabilities, such as Apple Computer’s “Mac-Speak Program,” Covington noted that there are not nearly enough software programs on the market, or on the planning board, to help people with disabilities make the leap into understanding and utilizing future technology.

“The biggest problem for most of us involves ways to use the keyboard. That is the number one complaint I have heard from many, many people with disabilities. I have written hundreds of letters to key executives of most of the major computer companies, and I’ve never gotten many responses,” stated Covington. “I have been trying to inform them of the need to address our needs for more than 25 years, and they all have gone deaf!”

Covington was very angry and direct in offering an explanation as to why the top computer companies in the country, such as Microsoft and Dell, have failed to respond to him. “The major computer corporations, here and abroad, don’t give a damn about helping to correct any of the problems in software or computer applications for the visually impaired. It’s that damn simple!”

As if this situation was not bad enough, Covington revealed that large sums of money earmarked to aid those with disabilities (in the area of technology) is often scaled back or eliminated. “If that money is redirected or taken away, it will be the equivalent of placing a dagger in someone’s heart,” stated Covington.

The late Dr. Sylvia Walker, a prominent speaker on the subject and former Director of the Howard University Research and Training Center (HURTC), supported many of Covington’s assessments. “We must fight to see that the money is not taken away from us. Maintaining those funds is crucial in making the disabled community a productive part of the fabric of this society. How can we be an active and productive part of society if we do not have the tools necessary to succeed?” said Walker in transcripts from a 2003 national conference on disability issues.

“This makes no sense to me. I want to be able to have email contacts all over the country. I want to be able to write stories and send them to media sources. There should be software and technology in place to accommodate me and others who are visually impaired or disabled,” said Covington.

Covington went on to state that the only way to get the corporations involved was to challenge them and let them know what the disabled community needed specifically. “What my needs are as a blind person may be totally different from the needs of a person confined to a wheelchair. Therefore, we all have to attack the problem in terms of what are individual needs are. It’s up to us to cross that digital divide. You must decide what you need, what better suits you, and then hold the computer corporations accountable.”

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