Tracking down a job when you are able-bodied can be hard enough, but it's considerably more difficult for the physically disabled, particularly those bound to a wheel chair.
The first challenge, of course, is simply getting to the job site: It must have an accessible entranceway.
An exhibition at the recent Washington conference of The President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped--which showed a startling array of high-tech aids--suggests American industry is fast becoming aware of on-the-job needs of the handicapped.
Undoubtedly the motorcycle that can be operated by someone sitting in a wheelchair was the most unusual among the 115 exhibits on the ballroom floor of the Washington Hilton.
The motorcyle's concept is amazingly simple. A large, specially modified sidecar with a ramp accessible to a wheelchair is attached to a fairly standard motorcycle. Additional hand controls are placed in the sidecar. The person wheels himself into the sidecar, latches the chair securely and can, according to the manufacturer, zoom off in seven seconds. The cost, from Turner Industries of Pompano Beach, Calif., is about $7,000 complete.
Wisco Corporation of Ferndale, Mich., along with Ford Motor Co., has developed the IMP II (Improved Mobility Package) that loads the wheelchair into a passenger car once the rider has slid into the driver's seat ($5,850, including wheelchair, to modify a Linx or Escort).
And Creative Controls of Troy, Mich., is producing a van-modification kit that allows the person in a wheelchair to board the van and drive it while still seated in the chair. (Price begins at about $5,000 and can climb to $12,000 or more depending on the degree of disability.)
IBM's aid for the sight-impaired typist--the "talking typewriter"--was scarcely less awesome. As a spokeswoman explained, the machine will, with the punch of a few buttons, read aloud back what you have written. It can even spell back what is on paper and note the punctuation used. It sells for about $6,000.
Another impressive aid for the blind is the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a computer that will read aloud printed matter. Among its limitations is that the language must be English and the print must be one of the several dozen typefaces the device recognizes. This includes, however, magazines, typed material and hard-cover books, but generally not newspapers and handwritten material.
The computer is currently being used by writers, lawyers and office managers, says a spokeswoman for the Cambridge, Mass., firm. Several federal agencies here have them, and one is available at the Martin Luther King Library for the Blind in Washington. The device is used primarily as a training machine for visually handicapped workers whose offices are equipped with one. The present cost is $29,800, but the firm is working toward less-expensive models.
"High tech is a savior of the disabled," says R. Jack Powell, executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which annually organizes the exhibition of new technology. Powell, whose organization works to benefit spinal-cord injured veterans, is himself wheelchair-bound as a result of an injury in the Vietnam war.
There are an estimated 30 million physically and mentally handicapped Americans, whose disabilities range from minor to major, says Powell. "The fact that IBM, Ford and General Motors are exhibiting here is recognition that we're not talking about an insignificant number of people. Every year we see new devices."
For people who have no use of their arms, there are "sip and puff" devices to activate machines by breathing into or inhaling from a tube. "There's a secretary in Chicago," says Powell, "who answers phones and types through sip and puff."
Over the years, he says, medical science has been able to extend the life of victims of spinal-cord injuries. "It makes sense to rehabilitate them to be able to provide for themselves. They have the same goals and desires, and they should have the right to expect they're going to be productive."
The price for many of the devices obviously is steep. "The disabled person has a lot of costs that others don't," says Powell, though some help can be obtained from state vocational-rehabilitation agencies, and sometimes employers are willing to assist.
Along with promoting the development and manufacture of work-enabling devices, Powell's organization is campaigning for the inclusion of facilities for the handicapped in new building construction. "Rehabilitation and education don't mean a doggone thing unless the person can get into a place of employment to hold a job."
For more information: Paralyzed Veterans of America, 801 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006 or 872-1300.