For millions of Americans, the Internet is not only their main source of news and information, it also provides an outlet to stay connected with family and friends.

But for those with hearing or sight impairments — or both — access to the Internet has been an impossibility ... until now.

The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), more commonly known as iCanConnect, is a federally funded initiative designed to help those Americans with combined hearing and vision loss to connect through the use of electronic devices.

Established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to comply with the 21st Century Video and Communications Accessibility Act, the law requires people with disabilities to have access to modern communication technology that enables distance communication, according to information from icanconnect.org.

“This program recognizes that there is a significant population that has impairments to sight or vision,” said Marcia Brooks, national project manager with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. “It also serves those that were born or not born with sensory loss. There are seniors that may have had vision loss but are now also losing their hearing.”

She noted that the number of people in the United States who are categorized as deaf-blind ranges from 40,000 to 70,000.

The main focus of iCanConnect is to provide those with hearing and sight impairments with modern technology that gives them improved communications and access to information outlets such as the Internet. Financial assistance for program participants based on income guidelines is also available for single individuals and families.

Brooks said the program ultimately “levels the playing field” for those who are deaf-blind in a world where technology is ever changing. “To be able to access the Internet and use social media not only adds a lot of value to their lives but also increases the changes for employment,” she added.

Ryan Odland, coordinator for the New York Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program with the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC), noted that isolation for those living with sight and hearing impairments is a major issue that limits options and often restricts individuals to their homes.

“The technology offered through this program allows deaf-blind individuals to join in as contributive members with the rest of our society,” said Odland. “Humans depend on one another for support to function, deaf-blind individuals are no different.”

Officials involved with iCanConnect said deaf-blind individuals often have to purchase more than one computer in order to participate in the program.

“This technology enables qualified deaf-blind individuals with low income to gain equal access to the telecommunication hardware and software necessary to communicate with his or her family, friends and peers,” Odland said. “They need additional hardware such as refreshable Braille display devices, amplifiers – FM system, monitors with display of better quality for clarity, as well as software such as screen magnifications and screen readers [text to speech].”

Odland noted that iCanConnect gives deaf and blind individuals an opportunity to gain equal footing in what he termed “our rapidly evolving world.”

“This does not just connect them with other people, but also opens doors to many new possibilities in employment and social mediums,” he said.

To implement the program, the Perkins School works with the Helen Keller Center and serves as the lead agency in 14 states, while various other agencies serve to administer the program in 20 other states.

According to Odland, HKNC worked with the American Association of the Deaf-Blind and Perkins School in spearheading the movement to pass the 21st Century Video and Communications Accessibility Act, and that is what lead to the program's inception.

“We meet with the Federal Communications Commission on a regular basis to review the program and make recommendations to improve [its] execution,” Odland said.

According to the iCanConnect website, several technologies are used as part of the program.

Braille devices include various refreshable displays and sophisticated multipurpose devices that enhance access to distance communication. Some can be used as stand-alone devices connected through Wi-Fi, while others are paired with a mobile device to provide tactile access to email, text messaging and other modern communication resources used by the general public. To receive Braille equipment, an eligible participant needs either Internet access or cellular service.

The program also provides either Windows or Apple computers, be they desktops or laptops, to eligible participants with Internet access.

Brooks noted that numerous Apple computers and mobile devices are sold with pre-installed software for use by those with sight or hearing impairments.

Also included in the program are amplified speakerphones, cordless phones and other related devices that connect to the landline telephone service. Signalers that provide audible, visual and vibrating alerts that a phone is ringing or new email has arrived are also available.

On the software side, program participants are able to access screen readers and screen magnifier programs. According to the iCanConnect website, a screen reader can serve as an interface between a computer and a Braille display. The user interacts with the screen reader and the computer via a complex set of keyboard commands. A screen magnifier selectively enlarges what is on the computer screen to enable access by individuals with limited vision.

As for the future, Odland expects iCanConnect will continue and grow beyond its current scope.

"It is currently in its pilot phase, and we anticipate that the program will continue to evolve,” Odland said. “To what extent, I do not know, but it is safe to say that we will be seeing more companies pitching in their resources to develop new assistive technology to make current and future technology accessible for deaf-blind community.”

Greg Sleter  |  Contributing Writer

For more than 20 years, Greg Sleter has worked as a professional journalist holding positions in several editorial leadership roles on the print and digital sides of the business. He most recently was a Regional Editor with AOL’s Patch.com. Prior to his time at Patch, he spent a decade with ICD Publications in New York serving in lead editorial roles on HomeWorld Business and Hotel Business Design. Sleter also has expertise in digital journalism, social media, public relations and marketing.