Assistive technology refers to the special computer systems and tools needed by people with disabilities. The government first defined assistive technology as any equipment, items or systems required by people with disabilities to perform their job duties. That could refer to anything from hearing aids and ramps to modified computers and remote-controlled devices. It’s the law under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, that employers provide reasonable accommodations for workers, and assistive technology is one way they can do that.
The ADA was designed to provide work opportunities to people, regardless of their disabilities. It applies to both private and public sector companies, for-profit and nonprofit. The law states that companies with fewer than 15 employees aren’t bound by the requirements, however. Businesses with more than 15 employees must purchase and provide accessible tools unless it would place an undue burden on the firm.
An unreasonable accommodation under the law usually means the cost and procurement of the equipment will cause the employer significant expense or difficulty. Community resources and government funding through vocational rehabilitation agencies often is available to help employers defray the costs of assistive technology. According to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, about 71 percent of assistive technology costs less than $500 and in fact, much of it can be obtained for free.
Some examples of technology designed to help the blind include screen-reading software, Braille manuals and electronic note takers. Deaf employees might rely on teletype telephones, training videos with closed captions and visual fire alarm systems. People with mobility impairments may need adjustable keyboards, touch screens and writing aids. Employers can purchase the necessary equipment or hire describers and interpreters for employees when feasible.
The U.S. Department of Justice enforces the ADA, but doesn’t go out and look for violations. Instead, it responds to complaints from end users who believe their employers have done them wrong by not providing the necessary assistive technology. The government doesn’t want to take employers to court, but would rather mediate the problem and settle disputes out of court. If it has to take an employer to court, though, it will. When it’s proven that discrimination has taken place, an employer faces fines of up to $55,000 for the first offense and penalties of $110,000 for every violation after that.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."