Companies that make voice-activated computers, telecommunications systems for the deaf, wheelchair lifts and other equipment designed to make life easier for the disabled are readying for a sales boom as the federal Americans With Disabilities Act nears enactment.
The measure, which would prohibit discrimination against America's 43 million disabled citizens, is on its way to a House-Senate conference committee and is expected to be signed by President Bush.
The measure calls for any business that serves the public to provide easier access to the disabled if it does not cause "undue hardship" on a business owner.
It is still too early to put a dollar volume on the impact the law would have on businesses making equipment to serve the handicapped, but the White House estimated that the employment and public accommodation requirements of the bill would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion a year.
Although there are several major corporations making wheelchairs and electric lifts, the makers of high-technology equipment designed to serve the handicapped are primarily small businesses or divisions of larger companies.
The legislation "is certainly going to open up the market for us, because it will force employers to take a more aggressive look at the disabled population as part of the employment pool," said Marty Clark, vice president of Prab Command, a maker of voice-activated computers in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The company makes equipment that enables IBM computers to respond to voice commands instead of a keyboard.
"High technology is moving slowly into the disabled marketplace," said Clark. "This equipment allows an accountant to run spreadsheets or an architect or designer to do computer-aided design."
Over the next five years, she said, "you will see a real increase of disabled folks in the workplace."
Robert Lee, president and founder of ZiCom Technologies in Vista, said he expects "a tremendous increase in awareness in the business community" of products serving the handicapped.
In the last few months, as the bill has neared passage, Lee said, inquiries about his company's products have tripled. ZiCom makes a portable telecommunications device for the deaf or hearing-impaired.
The company's first product, Touch Talk Travel Pro, fits into a jacket pocket or purse and permits the user to make calls from virtually anywhere.
"I see a wealth of talent in the hearing-impaired and deaf culture that has not been tapped, especially by the high technology industry," said Lee.
Telephone services for the deaf will be expanded across the country under provisions of the bill, according to Phyllis Shapiro, manager of AT&T;'s California Relay Service facility in Woodland Hills. When the facility opened in January, 1987, the company expected its operators to handle about 50,000 calls a month. The current call volume, handled by 265 full-time operators, is about 230,000 a month and growing. So far, service is limited to calls within California, Shapiro said.
She said AT&T; also has relay centers in Alabama, New York, Chicago and Pennsylvania. Operators on duty receive written messages from callers using telecommunications devices for the deaf, called TDDs. The operators place the call and stay on the line, verbally relaying the conversation to the hearing party and typing the response to the deaf caller.
"We suspect with the passage of ADA we will be very active," said Shapiro.
Ralph Krongold, president of Krown Research in Culver City, sells relay equipment to AT&T; as well as personal communications devices for the deaf. He said his company has sold about 50,000 units so far and expects sales to increase as more individuals and businesses gear up to hire and serve the disabled.
While construction companies that will be called on to widen doors and build access ramps can expect an increase in sales, companies that make hand controls for cars and that modify individual cars and vans are not expecting to cash in on ADA.
"I don't think it makes any difference for us," said George Hendrickson, president of Manufacturing and Production Services in San Diego. His firm makes a mechanical hand control system that costs about $300, with an additional $150 to install.
The company, which has sales of about $1.5 million a year, primarily sells equipment to the 25,000 people who suffer spinal cord injuries each year. It also sells products to car rental companies, including Avis and National, Hendrickson said.