The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Washington has opened a technology center filled with state-of-the-art computer equipment adapted for use by the blind and severely visually impaired.
The center offers resources that many of the thousands of blind and visually impaired individuals in the area generally don't have access to -- and it could have implications for an area that local labor market experts say still suffers from a worker shortage despite the recent economic slowdown.
About 600,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 69 have visual disabilities severe enough to limit their ability to work, according to a 1988 federal study. Of those, the study said, about 405,000 don't have jobs, and a significant number of the rest are underemployed.
The Lighthouse estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 visually disabled people in the Washington area and promotes training as a way to provide more of them with jobs.
"What we're really interested in is employment, jobs and independence," said Charles A. Fegan, president of the 90-year-old nonprofit organization. "With a minimum investment, a blind person could be completely productive."
With private grants of more than $100,000, primarily from a local volunteer group called Hexagon, the Lighthouse renovated several rooms in its P Street NW building to resemble modern offices, with all of its equipment adapted for the visually impaired.
The center offers training on its IBM-compatible personal computers with large-screen monitors and magnifying software, voice synthesizers, braille translators, a document scanner and a braille printer. The Lighthouse also offers lessons in more basic keyboard and braille skills.
One of its primary goals, Fegan said, is to make the business community aware of the technology and the people who use it by inviting area personnel managers to visit the center.
Fegan said the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act probably will increase employer interest in its training programs.
The new law prohibits discrimination against the disabled in hiring and promotion and requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to make jobs accessible to qualified disabled persons.
Even though computers adapted for the visually impaired have become less costly in recent years, they are still expensive for the few private centers nationwide, such as the Lighthouse, that train people how to use them.
Furthermore, it is expensive to train the people who can then teach classes on the equipment, said Donald L. Cox, commissioner of the the Virginia Department for the Visually Handicapped.
But for businesses that already have computer hardware, Fegan said, it can cost as little as $500 to make it usable for the visually impaired -- and open up a segment of the work force for employers.
"This is for their benefit as much as anyone else's," Fegan said. "You want trained people? Here are trained people."