By John M. Williams
Two or three times a year, I receive calls from people asking me, â€œWhat can assistive technology products for people with disabilities?â€ I am always pleased to learn that people want to discover what these products can do for users with disabilities. Because, I know they can do a lot personally, physically and psychologically.Â
Â Assistive technology is technology used by individuals with disabilities to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Assistive technology can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, as well as hardware, software, and peripherals that assist people with disabilities in accessing computers or other information technologies.Â Â
Assistive Technology products breakdown traditional communication barriers that have kept blind people from having access to information they need; they provide visual opportunities to people with low vision; they give voice to the speech challenged; they give fluency to the person who stutters; they allow people who are deaf to use the Internet and telecommunications products; they provide learning tools to people with intellectual disabilities; and they provide individuals with physical or dexterity an opportunity to use a computer. Â They are empowering tools.Â
For example, Braille Note and Braille Display user William McKay tells me, â€œWithout Braille, I could not read by myself. I could not learn by myself. I could no write by myself. I could not be employed. I could not be independent.â€ Â A Braille display is a tactile device consisting of a row of special ’soft’ cells. A soft cell has 6 or 8 pins made of metal or nylon; pins are controlled electronically to move up and down to display characters as they appear on the display of the source system – usually a computer or Braille note taker. Soft Braille cells have either 6 or 8 dot pins depending on the model. Advanced Braille code features 8 dot Braille, but most will probably only use the 6 dot code. Dots 7 and 8, if present. can be used to show the position of the cursor in the text or for European 8 dot Braille. They can also be used for advanced math work and for computer coding.Â
McKay uses Braille three-to-four hours daily. He wishes his Braille printer wasnâ€™t so expensive. He will not say what he paid for his Braille printer. A mid-westerner, McKay is a free-lance technical editor. He says he is never without work, and he is thrilled at being his own boss.
McKay is not alone in his praise of assistance technology products. Juan Martinez has Cerebral Palsy. â€œMost people do not understand me when I talk. Their inability to understand me is beyond my comprehension,â€ he says laughingly. He uses a text-to-speech product to speak for himself. He says, â€œThe ability to communicate is precious to me. I could not communicate to others except by writing until I was 17 because I did not have access to this technology. Thank God. I do now.â€Â Â A shy Martinez has a Masterâ€™s degree in computer science from the University of Maryland. He is unemployed, though he says he has several job offers and will accept one shortly.Â
Cecelia Pulaski stutters. Sometimes severely. She is upset when she stutters before more than two people. Stuttering has produced struggles for her personally and professionally. Using a variety of speech therapy devices, she says, â€œI have achieved a degree of fluency that I never thought was possible.â€Â Â Â Â A lawyer,Â Pulaski does not mind using the devices in either a professional or social situation. She says fluency builds her confidence and increases her stamina.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Suzanne Aldrich is legallly blind. A researcher, she uses a CCTV (Closed Circuit TV) at work and carries a portable handheld magnifier in her pocketbook. Legal blindness is defined as having vision acuity of Visual acuity of 20/200 or worse in the better eye with corrective lenses (20/200 means that a person at 20 feet from an eye chart can see what a person with normal vision can see at 200 feet.
Aldrich uses her CCTV as many as five hours daily. She says she could not do her work without it.Â When asked how she feels about it she says, â€œI am self-conscious of the fact that I use it, and so are my clients. But without it, I could not do my work.â€Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Aldrich uses her handheld magnifier sparingly in public because it draws attention to her and her disability. However, she admits she would be lost without it. Aldrich also uses a small tape recorder in lieu of taking notes. Â Aldrich believes that technology puts her on an equal footing with her sighted pairs.
Cleveland, Ohioâ€™s Jason Cord is dyslexic. Dyslexia is a term that has been loosely applied to reading disabilities. Specific definitions for dyslexia vary with disciplines. Those in medicine define dyslexia as a condition resulting from neurological, maturational, and genetic causes, while those in psychology relate dyslexia on the basis of the specific reading problems evidenced and give no reference to causation. All disciplines would probably agree that dyslexia is evidenced by persons of otherwise normal intellectual capacity who have not learned to read despite exposure to adequate instruction.
A software engineer, Cord has always had to struggle with reading comprehension. As a child he thought he was stupid because he had severe difficulty reading and understanding. At 10 years old, he was in the third grade. When he was almost 11, he was diagnosed as being dyslexic. The term frightened him because he thought it was an incurable disease. When he understood he did not have an incurable disease he was relieved.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
At 33, Cord uses software that reads material to him at a speed that he picks. He can adjust the background color on the screen, and adjust the height and color of the text. These simple functions increase his understanding of the material he is reading. While he still has some difficulty reading and some comprehension challenges, he says, â€œMy reading and comprehension have improved dramatically. These tools allow me to do my work.â€Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Cordâ€™s boss, Carl Gardner, says, â€œCord has done remarkably well in adjusting to his challenges. He asks no special favors. His work is as good as anyone here.â€Â Â Â
Cord belongs to a support group comprised of people with intellectual disabilities. The group meets twice monthly, and he says, â€œWe learn from each other.â€Â
Learning from each other is what Barry Haroldson does. A 26-year-old paraplegic, Haroldson has been investigating AT products for 12 years. From his laptop on his wheelchair, using voice recognition software, he can write, turn on and off all the appliances in his house, make telephone calls and design brochures and other materials.Â Â
Over a decade, Haroldson has talked to a score of people with disabilities about the types of hardware and software they use. He heard about alternative style keyboards, voice recognition programs and other products. He is delighted to have learned so much. He says, â€œAssistive technology gives me the independence I need to know that I do not have a disability.â€Â Â Â Â Â Â