Ian Elliott is a contract specialist for Boeing, and knows how to read the fine print. Unlike many who deal in contracts, however, Elliott is legally blind.
Eliott, who lives in Alexandria and commutes everyday to his office in Germantown, Md., uses assistive technology to perform his job. His only requirements are a magnifying camera and an additional monitor.
"Boeing already had the assistive technology set up on the first day," said Elliott. "It’s something other companies can learn from."
People like Elliott who are blind or visually impaired have unprecedented employment opportunities in today’s competitive world thanks to rapid advances in technology.
Hot keys leverage the full function of computers just as quickly as visually maneuvered mouse clicks. Auditory notices bring to attention misspelled words or grammar errors. Text-to-speech software is standard issue.
"Computers have been the greatest champion for people who are blind, they are the greatest tool that reaffirms I can work alongside anyone," said Anthony Stephens, a public policy specialist with the Alexandria-based National Industries for the Blind.
The technology available in 2012 would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.
As primitive as it might seem by today’s standards, the 1983 Apple 2E was the first technology that incorporated a type to speech capability.
For book lovers such as Stephens, the act of reading in the early 1990s required a specialized scanner and accompanying software. The entire package was expensive, totaling nearly $4,500.
It was only in 1994 when the Guttenberg Project transferred all public domain books to electronic format that readers who were blind could access a new world of insight.
"I love books, but I couldn’t go to the library. With the project completed I could read," said Stephens. "That day I cried."
It was only a short time ago in 2007 when technology once again redefined daily life for people who are blind or visually impaired. The Apple 3G iPhone supports Apps that cost as little as $20, yet can identify items at grocery stores using the camera function.
Assistive technology takes many shapes and can be tailored to meet the needs of the individual. In some cases people who are visually impaired require nothing more than a magnifying glass.
Steve Bacon, a National Industries for the Blind customer care representative from Alexandria with partial sight, uses an enlarged monitor to help send a constant stream of emails to clients.
"It helps me do my work efficiently," said Bacon. "It’s a big plus, I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I do without it."
Of critical importance to people who are blind or visually impaired is the degree to which businesses understand that technology is the golden key.
Misperceptions in the business community continue to persist, as companies are wary of hiring people who appear unable to write an email or search the web. As a consequence, 70 percent of all job-seeking people who are blind or visually impaired remain unemployed.
According to Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of the National Industries for the Blind, such high unemployment figures have been the norm over the past 30 years.
"It can be discouraging, even with the advances in technology," said Lynch. "New tools have been developed over the past few years, and as they become more well known the unemployment number may change."
Closing the employment gap is at the core of the National Industries for the Blind. NIB and its affiliated agencies across the United States help to employ over 47,000 people who are blind or visually impaired. Although a significant portion of NIB products and services are geared toward the federal government, expanding into the private sector is a major goal.
People who are blind or visually impaired are now entering a level playing field thanks to assistive technology, and companies like Boeing have been quick to capitalize on this new pool of highly qualified applicants.
"Ian Elliott is quit typical of the individuals we serve," said Lynch. "He’s highly educated, very bright and committed. He represents an opportunity for opening doors."
"We all come with different challenges, and Ian is a great employee," said Elizabeth Huldin, director of human resources for Boeing’s network and space systems division. "We’re always looking for really strong talent".