CHICAGO -- The consumer electronics industry, which has expanded for years by developing innovative leisure and information products like camcorders, video games and cellular phones, may find its next new market in an unlikely place: among America's disabled and elderly.
With 40 million Americans classed as having some disability, and a new federal law requiring that the handicapped have equal access to work, education and public accommodations, technology known broadly as "assistive devices" looks like a winner to many.
The marriage of electronics and the disabled is an alliance with far-reaching consequences. Even able-bodied people who suffer on-the-job injuries may soon find that computer-guided evaluations and rehabilitation play a major role in deciding when, and if, they return to work.
For several years, engineers have been devising ways to use computer chips to help the deaf and blind communicate. The industry has sponsored programs encouraging disabled people to get computer training that could lead to jobs in electronics.
Even so, only a small percentage of people who might benefit from technology have the products needed or even know about them, industry experts say. The new law should change this, expanding the market among the disabled.
Also, as the American population ages, the number of people needing assistive devices related to those designed for the disabled is expected to grow significantly.
Newly found industry interest in technology to aid the disabled blossomed at the recent summer Consumer Electronics Show at McCormick Place, where, for the first time, several assistive devices were displayed along with home TV theaters, hi-fi systems and other recreation-oriented products.
"At no other time in history have the disabled had as much power as they have now," said Mary Dillman, chairwoman of the Assistive Devices Division of the electronics industry's trade group.
"This is an extension of the civil rights movement," she said. "Disabled people want empowerment, not entitlement, and that includes participating as full members of society, not being put aside somewhere and taken care of."
The Consumer Electronics Group of the Electronics Industry Association has published and distributed more than a half-million copies of a booklet entitled "Extend Their Reach," which outlines the technology available to help people with sight, hearing, speech and motion limitations.
The intention is to advertise that technology now enables the deaf to hear, the mute to speak and the blind to read. Distributing the booklets at electronics stores, the industry hopes to spread its message beyond self-help groups and sheltered workshops.
"We want people to be aware of this technology," said Ms. Dillman, marketing director for Prentke Romich Co. of Wooster, Ohio. "We know of school districts that don't buy equipment that a disabled child needs. An astute consumer who knows what's available can fight those decisions."
Many products displayed at the trade show give handicapped people access to personal computers. Some add-ons allow people to speak to the computer and see words appear on the screen. Others allow people with poor vision to magnify significantly the letters on the computer screen.
Special oversized keyboards are available for people with palsy, and miniature keyboards have been designed to accommodate people with one hand.
Computer printers and keyboards that use Braille as well as speech synthesizers that read aloud what appears on a computer screen are also available for the blind.
One software program enables a person using a standard touch-tone telephone to communicate with a deaf person sitting at a personal computer hooked to the telephone network. Words typed by the deaf person on his computer keyboard are converted to speech and spoken into the phone. The hearing person uses the touch-tone keypad to spell out words that appear on the deaf person's computer screen at the other end of the line.
The growth in the number of jobs that can be done sitting at a computer terminal means disabled people who get access to a computer can do the same work as anyone, said Steve Crisafulli, computer and environmental control product manager for Prentke Romich.
"People can work at home," Mr. Crisafulli said. "If someone can use a computer, he's employable."
Also, Mr. Crisafulli said, computers can control a person's home environment, allowing him to turn lights on and off, check who's at the front door and let the person in and control home appliances, all without leaving chair or bed.
The fantastic increase in the power of computer chips, accompanied by reduced prices, has opened a whole new world over the last decade for designing products to aid the handicapped, Mr. Crisafulli said. New products and better versions of older products spur growth.
"We're growing by 35 to 40 percent a year," Mr. Crisafulli said. "We're developing new products and decreasing prices. But still, we don't have anything like the resources of an IBM or an Apple computer. We're only reaching about 1 percent of the market now."
The industry has come to view the handicapped not only as a rich new source of consumers, but also as a labor pool, said Molly Mannon, president of the Electronic Industries Foundation.
The foundation has worked with many local groups to help disabled people get computer training and help place them in jobs with electronics companies.
"Computer work is ideal for people with disabilities," Ms. Mannon said.
As America's baby boom generation ages, the market for assistive devices will grow apace, and people are looking for ways to package new technology in helpful and relatively inexpensive ways.
One such effort is the Home Automated Nursing Center, the brainchild of Health Tech Services Corp. in Northbrook, Ill.
The nursing center is a computer system tied by telephone to a central office staffed by a nurse, said Stephen Kaufman, founder of the Northbrook firm.
The system keeps an older person company and attends to his or her medical needs.
The machine talks to its patient, takes the patient's blood pressure, dispenses medicines at the right time in the right amount and even makes phone calls for the patient.