“When you are living with MS [multiple sclerosis], vision or dexterity can deteriorate within days during an MS flare, but if a person is armed with the knowledge about AT [assistive technology], it can minimize the effects on their lives,” says Ellen Kampel. “For me, learning about assistive and accessible technology was like emergency preparedness. You never know when a flare might happen.”
Kampel should know. She has been living with multiple sclerosis for more than 25 years. She is also the public affairs manager for Microsoft’s Accessibility Business Unit.
But while Kampel’s own experience with multiple sclerosis plays a role in her work, it is not the driving factor for her involvement in accessible technology. Kampel began her career in social work, which included working with children with disabilities. She later worked to bring technology into a variety of educational settings, from preschool on up. She has been at Microsoft for two decades, and for the past eight years she has focused exclusively on accessibility.
Within Microsoft, Kampel’s business unit works closely with product development teams to ensure that Microsoft products incorporate accessibility features. Externally, she represents Microsoft by working with advocacy groups in the United States and around the world, participating in roundtable discussions, speaking at conferences, lending her expertise to policy development, and coordinating programs for the disability community and the growing senior population.
“Assistive technology is the most exciting part of the IT industry. I can’t think of a better place to demonstrate how computers adapt to the needs of the individual,” Kampel says. She adds that “Microsoft is committed to continually making computers smarter to react to the changing needs of people as they grow older.”
She points to the fact that Microsoft has made customization ubiquitous and easy, “just a setting away” having built accessibility into every version of Windows. She also notes that Microsoft has worked hard to make its system compatible with third-party assistive technology products.
Kampel says that nearly 60 percent of adults could benefit from some kind of accessible technology, but “discovering the availability of accessibility settings and assistive technology is still a challenge.”
To that end, Microsoft provides an Ease of Access Center to find the features built into its operating system that can help a wide variety of people with varying degrees of visual, hearing, speech, cognitive and dexterity difficulties, whether they are temporary, permanent or due to aging or a disability.
“It’s a matter of where we are on the spectrum,” Kampel remarks. Take reading glasses, for example. No one has concerns about being stigmatized for using reading glasses. She views assistive technology similarly. “If you can benefit from it, use it.”
For example, people experiencing low-vision challenges may benefit from features in Microsoft products that make it easy to enlarge fonts or to magnify letters, words, symbols, and photographs on the entire screen.
People with hearing challenges may benefit from electing to have visual warnings appear when the system would otherwise make a sound or from enabling text captioning instead.
People with limited dexterity may benefit from adjusting mouse or keyboard settings to fit their individual preferences for cursor-blink speed or for keystroke ease.
These and other helpful features are easily activated by going to the Microsoft Windows XP Accessibility wizard which is located in the accessories menu or by selecting the Accessibility Options icon in the control panel. Users who have Windows Vista™ may find Microsoft’s Ease of Access Center online tutorial to be particularly helpful.
As a way to further reach out to people with MS who can benefit from assistive technology, Kampel co-authors a column on the new MyMSMyWay website.
The website offers resources about how technology can “help mitigate the effects of MS and stay connected,” Kampel says.
“As a group, people with MS are certainly not averse to technology,” Kampel says. “Ninety-three percent use computers and 91 percent use cell phones, compared to 80 percent and 69 percent respectively for the general U.S. adult population. But, this group of tech-savvy people is not using AT that might help them remain independent, keep working, and perform everyday tasks more easily.”
“According to the research study, the single biggest obstacle to the wider adoption of AT by people with MS is a lack of good information,” she continues. “Fortunately, in Bayer and the NMSS, Microsoft found two committed partners who want to provide better information for people with MS, and to help them embrace technology as a powerful and effective tool.”
The MyMSMyWay site’s interactive centerpiece is Snapshot!, a valuable tool for anyone with MS. After answering just five questions, users are provided a list of resources tailored to their specific situation and interests. The visitor may be given links to manufacturers of assistive technology products, tutorials on how to customize their computer, contact information for support groups, stories about people facing similar challenges, or the latest medical research and drugs available.
“If AT were more widely recognized as a tool for people with MS, it might give more people with MS employment options they did not realize they had,” Kampel says.
Assistive technology has been called the great equalizer for people with disabilities and Kampel agrees. “No question,” she says. “Everyone is able to contribute in the way that makes the most sense for them” when assistive technology is discovered and used.
But rather than theorize about why some employers hesitate to hire people with disabilities, Kampel prefers to focus on positive experiences. For example, employers who are open to making minimal investments in customizing an employee’s workspace reap the reward of being able to choose from a larger pool of qualified candidates.
“Businesses today are looking for solutions to empower and retain employees—and accessible technology can help do just that,” Kampel says. “Accessible technology helps businesses retain great employees, recruit from a larger pool of candidates, and enhance team collaboration and communication among all employees—including those with disabilities.”
Yet the gap between those who need accessible technology and those who actually use it looms large, and that is unacceptable to Kampel. So, she takes a two-pronged approach to try to narrow the gap. On the one hand, she informs and trains beneficiaries, caregivers, support organizations, governments, and the business world. She also works with product developers to make sure that technology is getting smarter and smarter, making it easier to use, more readily available, and more natural for people to incorporate assistive technology into their daily lives.
Kampel says that her commitment to raising awareness about assistive technology solutions is personal. “I consider MS an ideal condition to help demonstrate the powerful benefits of using accessible technology to overcome or accommodate a wide range of disabilities and impairments,” she says.
She herself uses the screen magnification features available in Windows XP and Windows Vista™, Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office.
“I regularly visit websites that are difficult to read, because the text is too small, so I temporarily enlarge it by selecting the Control and Plus [“+” sign] keys simultaneously. Occasionally, I also use screen magnifiers such as Zoomtext.”
“The portable magnifiers I use most frequently are sold by Enhanced Vision, including the Nemo and the Amigo, which help me read labels in stores, prescription labels, phone books, small text in printed materials, etc. They can even help with splinters.”
Kampel’s years of work with Microsoft to help raise awareness about the benefits of accessible technology have made a strong impression. Last October, the NMSS presented its prestigious Corporate Star Award to Microsoft for “outstanding commitment to helping people with MS move their lives forward.”