The digital divide still prevents people from enjoying the benefits of the Internet, but some folks in Missouri can be certain they are not among its victims. Thanks to the Telecommunication Access Program for Internet (TAP-I), Missouri citizens with disabilities can access the Internet in ways previously unavailable to them.

An extension of the original Telecommunication Access Program, which provided adaptive telephone equipment, the TAP-I, which is administered by the Missouri Assistive Technology Advisory Council, is just over a year old and has already achieved a level of success.

"We were providing adaptive telephones to people who were hard of hearing/deaf, and the funds were available to expand the program," said Roselie Backer-Thompson, TAP-I coordinator. "Telecommunication access for some of the folks is using the Internet, which is the basis for the program's expansion."

The money was sitting in Missouri's relay fund, which is required of every state to support the relay service for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, said Backer-Thompson. "In Missouri, we have a nine cents a month phone tax that people pay, which does not revert back to our general revenue. That fund was building up to the point where there was money available to start these programs."

Gaining Access

Missouri residents interested in using the program fill out an application for adaptive equipment. They can request a specific product or they can request assistance from a consumer support provider who can help them determine the equipment that will meet their needs.

"Some people are blind and they've used Jaws for Windows for years, and they know that that's what they need," said Alisha Criswell, consumer support provider for TAP-I. "Or the consumer may indicate that they are not familiar with the different types of adaptive equipment and ask that a consumer support provider work with them to determine the type of equipment that will fit their needs."

The consumer support provider determines whether the customer is eligible, then submits a request to the vendor, who ships the equipment to the customer free of charge.

TAP-I procures products from two vendors. The vendors under contract with Missouri to provide its computer equipment didn't want to be involved with assistive technology, so the program had to request bids.

"We let out bids under the equipment for people who need output adaptations like screen readers and magnification," said Backer-Thompson. "And then we did another one for input -- people who need adaptive keyboards, pointing devices, etc. We went with the person who gave us the largest discount and the lowest bid, and so we have one vendor for each of those two different groups of equipment."

Still Not in Kansas

A similar program remains on the ground in Kansas after continuous attempts to expand the state's Telecommunication Act of 1996 failed. Michael Byington, director of the Kansas Telecommunications Access Program (KTAP), has battled with the Legislature for years to amend the act to include Internet access in the Kansas TAP.

Part of the legislation deals with KTAP and leaves the opportunity open for Internet access, said Byington. "The Kansas Corporation Commission [KCC] regulates what the program will cover and how far it will reach and they did not elect, in starting up the program in 1996 and '97, to open it up to Internet but only to basic telephone service," he said. "But quite often when you're working toward legislation, you don't get everything you want on the first try."

Byington attempted during three subsequent years to amend the legislation to include the Internet. He then discovered that KCC could change the order without legislation. Shortly thereafter he went to work as director of the KTAP.

Brenda Eddy, currently a policy and funding specialist of