Scripps Howard News Service.
Thursday, June 01, 2006.
Business owner Connie Leblond can multitask with the best of them: a computer for e-mails, a personal digital assistant for scheduling, a voice recorder for memos. Her other tool? A white cane.
Leblond is blind, and for years has used an array of items to make her way in the world. Now, she owns a business centered around the very tools that have helped her own life.
Leblond sells assistive technology _ products created or modified to help people with disabilities. Her business _ Assistive Technology Center in Sacramento _ focuses on the blind and vision-impaired, offering such things as computers that talk or scanners that "read" documents out loud. Many consider it a largely untapped market ready for entrepreneurs.
What once was mostly a specialty area for nonprofit groups has grown into an industry where businesses can thrive and do good at the same time. Just in the past five years, the number of documented assistive technology service providers has nearly quadrupled, according to one social service agency that helps disabled individuals find help.
The potential audience for assistive technology for the blind is huge. There are an estimated 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, with about 1.3 million of them legally blind, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.
Most _ about 7 million _ are jobless, said Michelle Bruns, assistant director of programs for the Sacramento Society for the Blind.
"The statistics are pretty dismal," she said.
Leblond, who has worked within the blind community for most of her life, said she started her 3-year-old business because she believed visually impaired individuals need a central place to learn about the newest products. While a nonprofit group like the Sacramento Society for the Blind may offer people training for day-to-day living, her business fills a different niche: gadgets.
"We're technology-based," she said.
Part of her business is educating the public about what's out there, she said. Many mainstream products and applications are difficult for the blind to use.
The California Department of Rehabilitation said Leblond's business and the Sacramento Society for the Blind are the largest vendors to the blind in the area. The department does business with both groups, and they serve different needs, said Marta Bortener, a spokeswoman for the department.
The nonprofit organization helps with product referrals and assistance for people to adjust to their blindness, she said. Assistive Technology Center, on the other hand, specializes in supplying the actual products.
"We're not just people who get into the business and sell stuff to people," said Robert Leblond, Connie's husband. "We are people who understand the visually impaired because they are our family and friends."
Robert Leblond is sighted. The couple's children are blind.
The Leblonds purchase mainstream products and "tinker" with them by adding new software to adapt to their customers' needs. That gives clients a chance to use a range of devices _ computers, a personal digital assistant, Global Positioning System gear and scanners.
"We kind of marry a lot of different technology," he said. "We make a lot of things off the shelf work."
This technology comes at a price. A speech program could cost about $1,000. A top-of-the-line reading machine could cost up to $6,000.
But the customers are there. Marie Rudy is 50 and has been blind since she was 5 years old. She recently spent about $2,400 on equipment that includes a computer, scanner and a voice recorder. The newest technology is a "far cry from what we needed to deal with in the 1990s," she said.
With her mail and bills read out loud by the machines, Rudy said she's found independence.
"I don't have to depend on others to read for me," said Rudy, who lives in Sacramento. "I've gained more privacy."
Steven Levene, project director at the AT Network, a nonprofit group that provides information on assistive technology, said vast improvements in technology have been made in just the past decade.
The biggest changes have been in computer technology, he said. A few years ago, most computers were not powerful enough to smoothly handle the type of software needed to aid disabled individuals. Now people with a physical disability that wouldn't allow them to type can use reliable dictation software, while those who are vision-impaired have access to much more accurate reading software programs.
"We're seeing a huge interest in assistive technology," Levene said. "It's definitely an expanding industry. There are a lot of startups now that deliver assistive technology and products."
Five years ago, Levene said, AT Network listed 600 California businesses or service providers in its system. Now it has 2,300 on its list.
Nonprofit groups once provided all the information, but that is changing with the growth of businesses.
"I think it's a good thing," he said. "They bring more awareness to the community."
The Leblonds often invite blind and visually impaired individuals to the Assistive Technology Center's sparsely decorated shop hidden away in a strip mall in south Sacramento.
One recent day, Winnie Bachmann, 81, was there while Robert Leblond placed a phone book under a machine with a monitor. With a flip of a switch, the tiny print loomed onto the screen. There was a collective gasp among the gathering of seniors.
Bachmann has Parkinson's disease. She said her vision is changing and she came to Assistive Technology Center to learn about the latest equipment.
"I don't think people know enough about it," she said. "When they demonstrated that last gadget, it blew my mind away."
Connie Leblond said some people with limited vision have wept when they realized they could read by using a powerful magnifying machine.
"People are often told they could do less, but we give them something that would help them do a little more," she said.
(E-mail Thuy-Doan Le at tdle(at)sacbee.com.)
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