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Surprise: We Are Now Enabled

By John M. Williams

Recently, I was invited to a business luncheon in Alexandria, Va., hosted by the Society for Human Resource Managers, a group headquartered in the same city and for which I wrote from 1983 to 1986.

Several surprises greeted me as I entered the dining room. I was surprised to see my name and picture on an easel. The caption read “John Williams, famed Assistive Technology writer.” The next surprise was learning that I was to be the featured speaker. My topic was “We Are Enabled.” Underneath the topic was the phrase “An Introduction to the World of Assistive Technology.” The third surprise was learning that, after speaking, I was scheduled to answer questions for 10 to 15 minutes.

I was to speak in front of more than 75 people representing technology companies and members of the restaurant, retail, transportation, communications, medical and pharmaceutical industries.

I did not consider myself prepared to speak, and I mentioned that to the friend who had invited me. He said: “I know you can do it. Just wing it.”

I was not angry at the apparent deception and told my friend. He was relieved.

I was introduced to Tom Farraday, the master of ceremonies, who represented the airline industry. “You have 30 minutes total,” he said. “Do you need anything?”

“Thank you. I could use 20 minutes to get my thoughts organized.”

He showed me to a room with a computer and printer. I always carry a flash drive with me, and I went to a file called “speeches.” I picked one titled “Assistive Technology Makes a Difference.” A little later, Farraday introduced me by calling me “a pioneer in the disability and technology worlds.”

Before I started my speech, I asked, “How many of you had heard the phrase ‘assistive technology’ before you came to this lunch?” About half the people in the room raised their hands.

I then asked, “How many of you know of an employee with a disability working in your company who uses an assistive technology product?”

About one fourth of the people raised their hands.

“How many of you can identify an AT device?” About a quarter of the people raised their hands.

“How many of you can name an AT product?” Eleven people raised their hands. I called on them to name the products. They named an augmentative communication device, braille printer, low-vision product, TDD, alternative keyboards, voice-recognition software, eye gaze technology, electronic pointing devices, joysticks and touch screens. I mentioned these products in my presentation.

In my remarks, I defined assistive technology and mentioned products that benefit people with vision, speech, hearing, touch, mobility and intellectual challenges.

I gave examples of how these products are used, and I told the audience that when they left, they should take with them these thoughts:

  • Assistive technology products break down barriers that historically prevented people with disabilities from having access to information they needed to be educated and employed.
  • AT products equalize opportunities for people with disabilities.
  • The AT products on the market allow even the most severely disabled person to work today.
  • Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple are incorporating accessible features into their products.

When I finished speaking, I started answering questions. Some of them were:

  • When can I learn more about these products?
  • Who is a leader in developing these products?
  • Are there any national conferences where these products are exhibited?
  • Is there a disability that outnumbers all the others?
  • What is the fastest rising disability in the disability arena?
  • Are there any tax breaks for buying this equipment?

I answered their questions and closed by saying: “With this technology, people with disabilities are able to compete with people who do not have a disability. We are enabled.”

Farraday allowed the questions to go on an additional 10 minutes. Later, I learned that he has a teenage daughter with a neuromuscular disease.

I must have been a hit because 66 people left their business cards with me.

Fourteen people sent me emails congratulating me on my speech and on being a resource. And three attendees contacted me by telephone and asked to meet me at a later date. (I accepted their offers.)

Afterward, Farraday told me, “With what I learned today, I know assistive technology products are real enablers.”

John M. Williams specializes in writing about disability issues. He can be reached at

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