TAP into Access

Missouri is helping citizens with disabilities to access the Internet. Will other states follow?

by / August 8, 2002
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 the Assistive Technology for Kansas Project, joined Byington at the KTAP as its first administrator and worked on designing, developing and implementing the program. After she established the program, Eddy began her policy work and Byington moved from an advocacy role into the administrative slot.

"When I went to work with the Assistive Technology Project, they said, 'Now's a good time to really take a serious look to try to expand the Telecommunication Access Program,'" said Eddy. "By that time, Missouri, of course, had already gotten theirs in place, and it's always easier to point at a neighboring program and say, 'They did it, why can't we?'"

Byington and Eddy are looking ahead to requesting an amendment from KCC to include the Internet in the KTAP.

"The hope [is] that by this fall we know whether the KCC [will] permissively allow it to be done without going through the Legislature," said Byington. "If they do, we should know before the beginning of the 2003 legislative session. If we have our permission from KCC by that time, it's simply a question of how quickly I can get the program structure in place to make it happen."

However, if KCC denies their request, they will be forced to try their hand again with the Legislature in 2003.

Missouri Expansion

Meanwhile in Missouri, the TAP-I continues to grow. Three hundred strong thus far, the program is serving its customers by offering them a new experience.

"The feedback has just been phenomenal from everybody," said Backer-Thompson. "The primary purpose is to provide Missouri citizens with the ability to enjoy the benefits of the Internet. They're using it for e-government and e-commerce and everything else that sighted people or people with other disabilities are using the Internet for."

The program is just beginning to market their services to other agencies that serve people with disabilities.

"Almost all of the independent supported-living centers around the state of Missouri know about the program, because that's where all of the telephone programs are housed," said Criswell.

Ultimately, the potential for growth remains high. A look at the total population in Missouri yields a large percentage of citizens who can benefit. "Potentially we can have a million people using the program," said Backer-Thompson. "But I don't think that's going to happen, because they have to have their own computers."

Supplying citizens with computers is not economically feasible, so there will always be a population who will go without. But for the Missouri TAP-I, this digital divide can be something of the past if people with disabilities have the equipment.

"With the unbelievable range of adaptive equipment that is available, there is really no reason, based on access, that anyone who wants to use a computer for Internet access does not have the availability of doing so," said Backer-Thompson. "If a person has one consistent body movement -- I don't care if that's a toe twitch or a nose twitch or a hair twitch -- they can access a computer."