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not to paraphrase Martha Stewart, but this is a good thing

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March 1, 2006

Computer Technology Opens a World of Work to Disabled People

By DAVID S. JOACHIM

For 24 years, Pamela Post, a victim of a panic disorder called 
agoraphobia, has been afraid to leave her house. She managed to find 
work for a time, at a company partly owned by a man who also had a panic 
disorder. He gave her a private office in a house, to make her feel at 
home and to shield her from the office bustle that could bring on attacks.

But three and a half years into the job, even those accommodations were 
no longer enough. Her husband left her, and her 19-year-old daughter, 
who drove her to work, married and moved out.

"All of a sudden the panic attacks 
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/diseasesconditionsandhealthtopics/anxiety/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> 
got out of control," Ms. Post said. "I don't drive, so I didn't know 
what I would do."

After a year with no job, she came across Willow, an outsourcing company 
that was starting a program to train at-home workers to take calls for 
companies like Teleflora and Palm. Today, she works from home in 
Deltona, Fla., sets her own working hours and supports herself. And the 
panic attacks have subsided. "It's been a godsend," she said.

Such arrangements are bringing jobs to thousands of people with 
disabilities, including those with spinal cord injuries and vision loss. 
Fast computers and broadband connections have become so inexpensive and 
reliable that location is now not an issue for certain jobs, like 
customer service.

At the same time, an abundance of technology is available to help 
disabled people operate computers, like software that lets a blind 
person use a keyboard instead of a mouse to navigate a program, and 
voice synthesizers that turn text into speech. There are also 
alternatives to the mouse for people with limited use of their arms.

Steven Singley, 41, who is quadriplegic as a result of a car accident 20 
years ago, has a special setup that helps him take calls for Office 
Depot 
<http://www.nytimes.com/redirect/marketwatch/redirect.ctx?MW=http://custom.marketwatch.com/custom/nyt-com/html-companyprofile.asp&symb=ODP> 
from his home in Centerville, Utah. His right arm, which has limited 
movement, is strapped to the armrest of his wheelchair, allowing his 
hand to pivot on a trackball and his pinky knuckle to tap a clicker. A 
splint with a rubber tip is hooked to his palm so he can type on a 
keyboard sitting on his lap.

"You would think that typing one key at a time would be slow, but I can 
type 25 words per minute accurately," Mr. Singley said. He puts in 20 to 
24 hours a week, requiring extended breaks so his girlfriend can give 
him his medication and prepare him for his meals.

No one has statistics on just how many disabled people work from home as 
phone agents. But the market research firm IDC says that about 112,000 
home agents -- both disabled and not -- were working for outsourcing 
firms like Willow, Alpine Access of Golden, Colo., and J. Lodge of 
Hammonton, N.J., at the end of 2005. That number is expected to climb to 
300,000 by 2010. That does not count employees of companies that hire 
their own home agents. Many new jobs will go to people who are disabled 
or to people who care for them, several specialists said, because there 
are more programs to train them.

These jobs pay relatively well, from about $10 to $14 an hour to $20 an 
hour for those who earn a commission when taking orders over the phone. 
Firms like Willow, based in Miramar, Fla., often treat their agents as 
independent contractors, with no benefits, but many disabled agents 
qualify for Medicare.

The wages are higher than agents get for similar work in India, where 
many companies have moved call centers in the last few years, but the 
costs are still at least 30 percent lower than hiring full-time 
employees and providing working space for them, said Stephen Loynd, an 
analyst at IDC. Some executives at outsourcing firms say that the extra 
expense of hiring American workers is worth it, because many customers 
complain that offshore agents do not speak English well.

"If you want to find a job where nothing counts but brains and voice, 
this is it," said Gil Gordon, a consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J., 
who advises companies on setting up telecommuting programs.

At the Internal Revenue Service 
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/i/internal_revenue_service/index.html?inline=nyt-org>, 
about 350 disabled workers in 42 states are taking calls this tax 
season. The I.R.S. and other federal agencies are required to hire 
people with severe disabilities as part of their compliance with the 
Americans With Disabilities Act. The agency determined that disabled 
agents could easily handle its seasonal call center, answering requests 
for tax forms.

The I.R.S. was especially interested in having agents answering calls 
during peak hours -- midday on Mondays and Tuesdays -- without having to 
employ them full time.

"In a traditional call site, they work eight hours a day, five days a 
week," said Anna Howington, a senior policy analyst at the I.R.S. who 
oversees taxpayer services. Ms. Howington said she was "absolutely 
happy" with the quality of the agents' work, which costs the agency 
about $5 million a year.

Customer service is not the only job that can be moved into the home. 
Janet Eckles, 53, of Orlando, Fla., who is blind, works full time for 
Language Line Services of Monterey, Calif., taking calls from hospitals 
and courts that need a Spanish translator. Clients call a central number 
and are routed to either Ms. Eckles or hundreds of other translators.

Ms. Eckles uses a computer to train other Language Line interpreters 
over the phone. For that, she uses a Windows program called JAWS, for 
Job Access With Speech. It is customized to let her navigate her 
computer using a keyboard rather than a mouse, and it reads the output 
into one ear while she talks to a trainee, like a television anchorwoman 
taking cues from a producer.

"It does take some getting used to," she said.

Some call center operators have found that disabled workers stay in 
their jobs longer and are more loyal than other workers. They also tend 
to be older and better educated, and they will work for less. "This is 
an untapped pool of labor that doesn't have many other options," said M. 
J. Willard, who runs the National Telecommuting Institute in Boston, an 
advocacy group that trains disabled workers for jobs.

About 6.5 million people receive disability benefits from the Social 
Security Administration, and about a million disabled people are 
registered with state agencies looking for work. "A lot of those people 
can work from home," Ms. Willard said. She works with state vocational 
rehabilitation programs to help them find work. She has about 500 
workers in her program and expects to add 50 a year. Because the jobs in 
Ms. Willard's program are often seasonal, employment may be sporadic for 
many workers. She also helps employers claim tax benefits and grants for 
hiring disabled workers.

There are limits, though, to the ability to work while drawing 
disability benefits. Those who qualify for federal disability insurance 
cannot earn more than $860 a month after completing a nine-month trial 
period, or they lose disability payments, which average $938 a month.

Garth Howard, chief executive of the outsourcing firm Alpine Access, 
says he moved many customer service jobs overseas as an executive at 
American Express 
<http://www.nytimes.com/redirect/marketwatch/redirect.ctx?MW=http://custom.marketwatch.com/custom/nyt-com/html-companyprofile.asp&symb=AXP> 
and TeleTech Holdings 
<http://www.nytimes.com/redirect/marketwatch/redirect.ctx?MW=http://custom.marketwatch.com/custom/nyt-com/html-companyprofile.asp&symb=TTEC>. 
Now, he says, technology is helping him hire disabled workers at 
competitive wages because he can offer them a measure of convenience 
that was not available just a few years ago.

"I'm excited to be able to bring some jobs back," he said.