Accommodations for Employees with Sensory Impairments in Automated Manufacturing

Scott Haynes, MBME, Sarah Endicott, OTR/L


The trend in manufacturing environments toward the use of automated manufacturing technology (AMT), coupled with the expected need for skilled production workers, provides a unique opportunity for people with disabilities to be employed in manufacturing positions.  In fact, some facilities that currently employ a significant number of people with disabilities in manufacturing are using AMT to help them remain competitive in the marketplace.  This paper summarizes the results of an investigation into the type of accommodations used to make an AMT manufacturing environment accessible to people with significant sensory impairments. 


 automated manufacturing technology, sensory impairment, CNC, manufacturing


There has been a trend in manufacturing over the past few decades towards an increased use of automated equipment and progressive manufacturing strategies referred to in industry as advanced manufacturing technology (AMT) (1).  As a result of these trends, people employed in the manufacturing field are now required to have a different set of skills than they once were; technical and computer skills are becoming more important, while there is a general reduction in the need for manual dexterity skills (2,3).  The existence of computer controlled equipment is an essential aspect of AMT (4).  These changes provide unique opportunities for people with disabilities to work in manufacturing.

In addition to the technological advances in manufacturing processes, there is also a recognized need for skilled workers.  The National Association of Manufacturers predicts a shortage of as many as 4-6 million skilled production workers by the year 2010 (5).  This need for skilled production workers, coupled with the use of automated manufacturing technology (AMT) can help to open doors for people with disabilities to be employed in manufacturing.  In order to investigate these opportunities further, the authors visited an AMT facility, which employ a significant number of people with disabilities.  This paper summarizes the findings of that visit.


The National Industries for the Blind (NIB) works closely with facilities that contract to produce products for the Federal government through the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) program.  One of the requirements for facilities wishing to operate under JWOD is that the facility must employ people with disabilities for at least 75% of their direct labor hours.  NIB was contacted for their assistance in identifying affiliates that use automated manufacturing equipment.  One of the facilities identified was the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind (SLB).  In this facility, at least 75% of the direct labor hours come from employees who are blind, deaf-blind, or blind with other disabilities.  Permission was granted to tour the facility and make note of the accommodations used to provide access to their employees with disabilities.


Investigations revealed that a variety of accommodations were used to improve access to four primary areas of manufacturing:  facility access, machine operation, tool utilization, and information transfer.

Facility Access - getting the employee to and around designated work areas:

Navigation through the facility was aided by the installation of textured, raised stripes on the floor and adjustable or solid rail barriers used to indicate aisle ways.  Employees were instructed to always walk to the right side of the aisle way to minimize interference with one another.  Each of these adaptations was painted a bright yellow color to further enhance visibility for people with low vision. Tactile markers (such as a Velcro® patch) were sometimes added to railings to indicate a perpendicular aisle way in proximity.  Navigation in and around the equipment was further improved by the addition of overhead lighting and by the replacement of lower wattage with higher wattage bulbs in some areas.

Machine Operation - providing access to necessary machine control and operator functions:

Machines in this facility were made more accessible to workers with low vision through the use of flat screen monitors with screen magnification software in place of the built-in display screens.  High contrast computer keyboards were used in place of standard keyboards.  Push-button control panels were enhanced with the use of high contrast labels and/or tactile markers.  Certain gauges were relocated and/or replaced with larger print gauges to improve visibility.  Additional lighting was installed to assist with monitoring of the machining processes.  Modifications to the CNC machines were made easier by the selection of machines that were PC based with an open architecture.  This allowed the facility to make alterations to the display and input mechanisms without interfering with the machine’s proprietary control algorithms.  For machine operators who were totally blind, machines were modified with screen reading software and voice output hardware.  Digital readouts were adapted to send the digital signal through a standardized SPC (statistical process control) output port to a Mitutoyo Voiceman speech synthesizer.

Tool Utilization - assisting with tools used to augment primary CNC machine functions:

Measurement tools were used frequently in this facility both to setup machines and to check the final dimensions of finished parts.  For operators who had low vision, hand held magnifying glasses and/or CCTV workstations were used.  This enabled the operator to see standard calipers and measuring tapes.  For less precise measurements of larger parts, a metal measuring stick was fabricated with grooves cut at ½ inch intervals to provide tactile feedback.  An electronic edge-finder (used for setup of the milling machines) was modified to make an audible tone when the edge of the material to be cut is found.  Digital calipers, micrometers, and table-based linear measurement devices were used in conjunction with the Mitutoyo Voiceman to provide speech output for more precise measurements.

Information Transfer - using accessible formats for information needed to complete job tasks:

Conveying information about the production schedule was accommodated for blind operators through the use of Braille translation software and a Braille printer.  Relevant details about the part to be fabricated were typed into a work order template, which was then translated and printed in Braille.  Also, relevant documents were scanned and printed using large print.  Safety guidelines and operating instructions (large print and high contrast) were posted at various workstations.  CNC programs were augmented with comments to guide the operators in the setup of the machines for particularly complex parts.  Operators who are deaf were provided with vibrating pagers to inform them about break times and emergency alarms.  Sign Language interpreters were also on staff to assist with face-to-face communication needs.


Based on the information gathered, it is possible for people with significant sensory impairments to successfully operate automated manufacturing equipment.  Several of the accommodations used to provide access to equipment, tools, environment, and information can also be beneficial to employees without disabilities.  For example, additional lighting and larger/clearer monitor displays can help to reduce eye-strain.  Use of voice output for digital readouts can allow sighted operators to keep watch on the tool while accessing the tool’s precise location.  Operator notes imbedded in the CNC program can be used for training of new employees in the proper operating procedures.  Efforts should be made to increase these universal design aspects of manufacturing equipment and environments to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  This will serve to reduce unemployment among people with disabilities and will help employers prepare for expected labor shortages.


The authors wish to acknowledge the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind for their cooperation in gathering the information for this research study.  This research was conducted through RERC on Workplace Accommodations, which is supported by Grant H133E020720 of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. Sun, H. (2000). Current and Future Patterns of Using Advanced Manufacturing Technologies. Technovation, 20, 631-641.
  2. Barnet, R. (1993, September). The End of Jobs. Harper's Magazine, 287, 47-52.
  3. Saraph, J. V., & Sebastian, R. J. (1992). Human resource strategies for effective introduction of advanced manufacturing technologies (AMT). Production and Inventory Management Journal, 33(1), 64-70.
  4. Bayo-Moriones, A., & De Cerio, J. M.-D. (2004). Employee Involvement: Its Interaction With Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, Quality Management, and Inter-Firm Collaboration. Human Factors and Ergonomics In Manufacturing, 14(2), 117-134.
  5. Eisen, P. (2003). Keeping America Competitive -- How a Talent Shortage Threatens U.S. Manufacturing (White Paper). Washington, D.C.: National Association of Manufacturers, The Manufacturing Institute, and Deloitte & Touche.

Author Contact Information:

Scott Haynes, MBME
Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA)
Georgia Institute of Technology
490 10th Street, NW
Atlanta, GA  30332-0156
Phone: voice/tty (404) 894-9156


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