DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Web site strives to quash job obstacles for blind
"Alz yr cmptv zsh."
The robotic words are indecipherable across the phone wires. Fernando Botelho's voice comes on next.
"Did you hear that?" the director of The Associated Blind (TAB) asks me from his New York office.
"I didn't understand it."
"I'll slow it down for you ... sighted people scan at about 150 words per minute. I have my voice recognition software set at 440 ... it's a blind person's version of scanning."
"Analyzing your competitive position," the computer's monotone says clearly this time.
Until I had spoken with Botelho, I had no idea special software allowed blind people to surf the Internet. Frankly, I hadn't thought about it one way or the other. Nor do enough employers, Botelho said.
Group's goal: TAB is a nonprofit organization founded in 1938 by blind individuals. Based in New York City, TAB helps the blind and visually impaired by providing job resources and networking opportunities.
Its recent offering is www.eSight.org, a Web site with links for disabled, particularly visually impaired, job seekers. The site has articles and tips for landing jobs, including high-tech and office positions.
"The project started because we saw a lack of information on career opportunities for the blind and strategies to find jobs," Botelho said.
"A lot of the people giving advice to the blind were social workers, not career counselors," he said, pointing out that job-seeking skills might not be a social worker's forte. "We wanted to make accessible to the blind what is accessible to professional career counselors. This information is essential to the blind -- even more so than others."
Under the law: For instance, Botelho said, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to the visually impaired. "But the prospective employee has to present himself or herself, not as a problem, but a solution," Botelho said. "If the employer is concerned about, how is this person going to read our company memos, or dial the phone -- all kinds of concerns from real to absurd -- they may be reluctant to hire someone blind."
TAB's Web site has advice for addressing such concerns. In the above instance, Braille, templates and voice-synthesizer software are possible solutions.
"The real point is to realize that many limits are only imaginary," he said. "I never thought I would see someone blind who is a dancer, but I met someone who is amazing! I am blind, yet I am a project manager. I've seen blind actors, someone who did medical transcription and many entrepreneurs. I know a blind diesel mechanic."
Online: To use the Internet, Botelho said blind individuals can use Window Eyes, Jaws and HAL software, among other programs, ranging in cost from $400 to $1,000. Special hardware is unnecessary. "We don't use a mouse. We have keyboard commands, like control-O," he explained. "When a Web site comes up, the computer starts reading it to me."
The more one uses the Internet, the faster one's listening speed becomes, Botelho said, "like learning a new language."
"I imagine most people who are blind already know about using the Internet," he said. "But those older, who are becoming visually impaired, or became blind recently, don't always know about this technology."
Botelho said 90 percent of people with visual impairment still have some vision. "Software is also available that magnifies the screen -- ZoomText, for example," he said.
Botelho said his site has 700 members and is growing by 20 percent a month. One subscriber to the eSight newsletter is Keystone Blind Association of Sharon, Pa. Thursday's column will take a look at that group and how career limitations are often only in the eyes of the beholder.