1993 VR Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Reality and The Americans with Disabilities Act

Brenda Premo
Deputy Director
Independent Living Division
California State Department of Rehabilitation

We are in the earliest phase of creating an incredible new technology as we consider Virtual Reality and people with disabilities. We don't want to limit the potential of that technology or its use.

I would like to begin my presentation with a story that illustrates the attitudes that we must have as we invent and market programs for people with disabilities. Then I'm going to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act and the potential of Virtual Reality.

In 1977, I became the director of a very small, non-profit organization, the Dayle Macintosh Center. It is a center for independent living in Orange County.

Several members of my board of directors and I decided we needed to make a trip to Sacramento to tell our story to the State Director of Rehabilitation in order to secure additional funding for independent living programs in Orange County.

Three of us started out on our trip. One board member was a wheelchair user, another was deaf, and I am visually impaired.

My deaf friend and I left from John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Our other friend, the wheelchair user, opted to leave from Los Angeles International Airport because at that time John Wayne Airport had no jetways and it was a real hassle to deal with a wheelchair and an airplane under that condition.

We arrived in Sacramento and went to rent a car. My friend, the wheelchair user, said, "I gave my name as the driver of this car, but it has no hand controls." Therefore, my friend (pointing to the deaf person) will drive." The young lady at the rental counter turned to our deaf friend and began to speak. I interrupted her, saying "He is deaf and I will have to sign to him." She looked at me and said, "Why don't you drive the car?"

I replied, "Oh, I'm blind."

We were finally ready to get our car and drive into Sacramento when I said, "We've never been to Sacramento before. Do you have any maps?" The young lady pointed to the deaf driver. "How are you going to tell him where to go?" I said, "That's simple. My friend who uses the wheelchair has twenty-twenty vision. She'll read the map and tell me where we need to go and I'll sign it into the rear view mirror to the driver."

Somehow we managed our first trip to Sacramento very well. When we returned to the Sacramento Airport, we approached the young lady who had helped us. She turned to a co-worker and said, "See, I told you they were for real." I can hear, and of course, I signed what she said to my friend. Don't ever let any of your deaf friends miss anything. As I walked up to her to hand her the contract, she said, "I have to ask you a question," and I said, "Sure." She said, "How do you know when the plane's taking off?" I said, "That's very easy. My deaf friend can read the television monitor and I can hear over the loudspeaker when the plane's departing, and by the way, we both drink, where's the bar?"

What is all of this about? Well, we had a goal. We needed to go to Sacramento to represent our constituency. We assessed our needs and resources and not for one minute did we think about the limitations of deafness, the inability of the wheelchair user to drive as we originally planned, or my inability to read. Limitations or barriers were never discussed. We pooled our talents, skills, aptitudes, and knowledge and balanced them to meet our goals. Today in the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the design of virtual reality, we must look beyond limitations or barriers and capitalize on our abilities.

I was very fortunate to have been appointed to the National Council on Disability in 1986 just as an historic report was being presented to President Reagan. It was called "Toward Independence." There were a lot of issues in there: the Americans with Disabilities Act, often thought of now as the Civil Rights Act for persons with disabilities, was one. There was a lot of debate about that act.

As the Americans with Disabilities Act was being considered, there were people who focused on limits, discriminatory practices, and labels that said people with disabilities could have access to some Civil Rights, but not others. Fortunately, those who focused on talents and abilities won out over those who dealt with limits and barriers. I always thought that a major point being overlooked was the contribution that this legislation would make to our culture over the next few years. Consider the cultural adaptations as new resources and new gifts which were brought forward and incorporated into our society by people with disabilities.

In 1979 I did some work with the California Relay Service for the Deaf in Orange County. The way a relay service operates is like this: if you want to talk to a deaf person, but do not have a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), you call the service and talk to an operator and that person relays your call through a TDD to the deaf person. Or, the deaf person uses the TDD to communicate with an operator who makes a voice call to you, the doctor, or the mortgage company. Speech recognition may someday make the middle person obsolete. We may be able to use DragonDictate or some other voice recognition system to speak at one end and have it come out as text on the other end. Other work is being done with videophone. The deaf person signs to a middle person who passes the communication on in voice or text.

This is a form of virtual reality. Why is it? Because the reality of the world for the deaf person is they're no longer disabled for the purpose of using the telephone. The limits imposed by deafness are no longer there. You are now an equal partner in any activity that requires you to use the phone. It's these types of technology which will grow and which will be used as a result of the Americans with Disabilites Act. But it won't stop for just deaf people.

We like to see technologies which are used by people with disabilities make their way into the mainstream of society. Voice recognition systems, which are widely used by persons with a variety of disabilities, are now becoming popular with doctors and lawyers and others who see an increase in efficiency and a decrease in cost. The Americans with Disabilities Act is driving the use of these kinds of technologies and it will do the same eventually with virtual reality.

I experienced virtual reality on a visit to SRI recently. It got me thinking about how it could be helpful to me as a visually impaired person and how it could be helpful to people with other disabilities. How can we use this technology to insure equal access and equal participation in society? It struck me that we need to be very open to considering how all persons use their senses to experience an environment. We need to look at virtual reality as a means to experience sight and sound and touch. How do we translate what we see and hear into touch, and vice versa? When we begin to convert graphical interfaces, for example, in virtual reality we can deal with maps and mathematical symbols in a way that will be very helpful to persons with disabilities, but it won't just be for some disabilities. We will find that once we've created something, there will become a broader, general use of it for the whole population. It will help many people.

Today we are very lucky. We sit at the intersection of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the emergence of virtual reality and other exciting technologies. We have the opportunity to allow these technologies to assist all citizens in our culture, and in fact, around the world. The key is that we do not limit or bar a group of people because they happen not to be able to see, or hear, or walk. But rather, we should create the technology to increase the access of those individuals and that means their participation is needed in the development of the systems that we create.

I have an MBA degree from Pepperdine University. I remember the steps in designing, producing, and distributing a product. The first is sales. I create something and I tell you this is what I've got and you should buy it. And the other is marketing. I go out and ask you want you need. I find out the features that you want, I create the product around your need, and you buy it.

For virtual reality to work for people with disabilities there has to be marketing among that population. Find a way for me, a blind person to drive through virtual reality and I'll be first in line. I don't care how much it costs. I'll be there.

Look at virtual reality this way. It's a technology looking for a place to go. If you design an environment which allows people in wheelchairs or people who use canes or crutches to access it, you will have a lot of people wanting to buy it. I encourage those of you with a responsibility to design virtual reality products to consider the marketplace of people with disabilities. We are generic. We are not all alike. Ask yourself, can this product be applied to assist deaf or blind or physically disabled persons?

Will this rapid interface work? How can I overcome the graphical interface problem for a person who is blind? How can I make this visual thing tactile? How can I make this hearing thing visual? How can I create sound into light? How I change vision into touch? How can I change touch into vision?

Once those challenges have been overcome we will allow all people to experience our world and that world which we are creating in the virtual reality world. If so, you've expanded your market and made your product more valuable. You will then have made virtual reality the pool that it can be, and that it should be.

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