Whiz Bang Technology for the Disabled

Hope C. Mcpherson

The following is reprinted with permission from the July issue of Computer Wave.

In the mid-1980s, Stephen Hawking's look said it all. The world-renowned theoretical physicist communicated one letter at a time.

Surgery and Lou Gehrig's Disease had left Hawking without speech and with very little movement. When someone holding a spelling card pointed to the letter he wanted, he signaled--by raising his eyebrows.

But, he writes in Black Holes and Baby Universes, "It is pretty difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper." Then an adaptive computer system created in California gave Hawking a new voice. With a single switch and a voice synthesizer, he has since given numerous lectures, written several scientific papers and two books--including the best-seller A Brief History of Time.

Hawking isn't alone in the futuristic world of whiz-bang computers. An estimated 30 million Americans with disabilities can be helped at work, home, and school with adaptive computer technology.

"Anybody who has a physical or sensory disability that affects their ability to use a computer should probably investigate ways to adapt the computer," explains Peter Borden, communications director of well-known Trace Research & Development Center in Madison, Wisconsin. "There's something for almost anybody's needs."

Some assistive devices are as simple as enlarged keyboard letters, some are so sophisticated that they allow a person to operate a computer with a blink of an eye. Thousands of devices and software programs already exist, a few include:

Switches, like the one Stephen Hawking uses, come in about 50 designs. Different movements can activate them, and often the switches are coupled with a scanner that highlights menu choices. The computer user trips the switch once the desired choice is scanned. Some switches are large and can be mounted on a wheelchair; some are held in the hand; some are positioned so that a person's head or foot activates them.

Sip and Puff switches activate a computer when users "sip and puff" Morse Code through a plastic straw.

Eye blink systems come in two types. In one, a blink of the eye interrupts an infrared beam, triggering a switch. It works much the way other switch-driven systems do. The other eye-blink system is more complex and for people whose best-controlled voluntary movement is their eyes. The computer has a video camera that actually tracks the movement of the user's pupils.

Alternative keyboards that are large (about 14 inches by 24 inches) have big square keys that need only a light touch; mini keyboards (about seven inches by five inches) make it easier for one-handed typists.

Keyguards are thick plastic templates that rest on a keyboard. Holes are over each key, letting a user with a mobility impairment select keys accurately and without inadvertently pressing other keys.

Dragon Dictate by Dragon Systems, Inc. recognizes the voice of its regular user (or users) and allows a person to control a PC by speaking through a microphone headset rather than using a keyboard.

Track Ball by Kensington, Inc. is a ball easily controlled by finger movement alone and replaces a mouse for people with a limited range of motion.

Screen flashes signal an error for users with hearing impairments. This option is also helpful for computer users in noisy environments or ultra quiet ones, including libraries.

Enlarged text and graphics on computer screens for people with impaired vision. It's already standard on some programs.

Braille 'n Speak by Blazie Engineering is a mini computer with a six-key braille keyboard. It can talk, has a built-in spell check, and connects to a PC via a serial port. It can print to a braille printer and a standard text printer.

Screen reader programs read a computer screen with a voice synthesizer for people who are visually impaired.

One-Finger Software by Computers to Help People, Inc. lets users who can't press more than one key at a time do multiple key combinations such as Ctrl-Alt-Del by pressing keys sequentially.

Computer-design maestros continue to develop adaptive computer systems, enabling people with disabilities to pursue the same employment and education opportunities as those without disabilities--something Congress intended when it passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Yet high-tech gizmos are useless if potential users don't know what assistive technologies are available, which can offset their disabilities, and how they can pay for them. A federal grant program is supplying some answers. Adding a few states per year, the federal government began awarding assistive technology grants in 1989.

Last October, Washington received its grant. Now with a main office in Olympia and a resource center at the University of Washington, the Washington Assistive Technology Program offers people a cornucopia of information.

"If someone calls our 800-number and they want to know about a piece of equipment, we will be able to answer the question," says Dagmar Amtmann, program manager for the resource center. "If they want to know about training that's available, we'll be able to tell them what kind of training is available....We're trying to integrate all the services that are available within the state of Washington and provide people with comprehensive information."

Although the assistive technology program is still in its infancy, "comprehensive information" is the name of the game in Washington. The program offers a newsletter and legislative action bulletin, informational videos, books, and magazines. The center also houses an assortment of adaptive hardware and software that people can "test drive" to discover which works best for them. Because the cost of adaptive equipment is frequently another barrier, the program will offer a computer recycle/exchange program to help keep costs down. Within the year, it will also provide a handbook that lists hundreds of funding sources.

Potential users aren't the only people who need to learn about whiz-bang adaptive technology. "Employers have to be aware that [the technology] is not as expensive as they might think, and people have to be aware of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements," says Borden at Trace R & D. "It's a change in the way things are done in business and in society and in government."

With that in mind, the designers of Washington's Assistive Technology Program will work to influence state and federal government as much as the lives of individual computer users. "We anticipate the program director will play a key role in educating legislators, insurance executives, and Medicaid folks, because the primary barrier to assistive technology is never the access to technology, it's always funding" says Kurt Johnson, Ph.D., principal investigator for the resource center and head of the UW Division of Rehabilitation Counseling.

Healthcare reform will be at the top of their list, he adds, because neither the state nor federal healthcare reform proposals include provision for rehabilitation services or assistive technology. Yet both are vital to people with temporary or permanent disabilities. For a person who's lost the use of his or her voice, an augmented communication device may be as important as a prosthetic limb.

"Yet a health care provider probably wouldn't [feel that way]," Johnson says. "You might very well find out there was no source of funding," showing politicians and bureaucrats the advantages of adaptive equipment is key, he adds.

"We know that when people have access to appropriate assistive technology, not only is it a humanistic civil rights issue, but it's also an economic issue," he explains. "People are able to remain independent....They are able to work."

Equal access to employment is a prime mover for many who investigate adaptive technologies. Education is another. Less than a generation ago, note taking and double-checking assignments were luxuries for some people with disabilities. Special education teacher Bonnie Roth is blind, and recalls using non-adaptive equipment such as typewriters while in school.

"We had no way of knowing what we typed once we typed it," she says. "When computers became available, we had the opportunity--just like anybody else--to go back and proof read our work and correct it."

In her Federal Way classroom, Roth now teaches visually impaired students the ins and outs of computing with voice synthesizers and enlarged text systems. Other students with disabilities that inhibit speech use computers as communication boards. Elsewhere in a classroom of sighted students, a teacher shows pupils how to scan a text book. What they scan into the computer will eventually be sent to a braille printer and printed out for the visually impaired students.

Says Roth: "What computers have done for the handicapped population is pretty incredible."

The Washington Assistive Technology Program and the Trace Research & Development Center answer questions and offer suggestions. The Trace R & D Center also produces a book and compact disc that lists thousands of adaptive computer products for people with disabilities.

University of Washington 
Assistive Technology Resource Center
Mail stop WJ-10
Seattle, WA 98195
1-800- (voice/TDD)

Washington Assistive Technology Program
Department of Vocational Rehabilitation
Mail stop 45340
Olympia, WA 98504-5340
1-800-637-5627 (voice/TDD)

Trace Research & Development Center
S-151 Waisman Center
1500 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53705-2280
(608) 262-6966 (voice) (608) 263-5408 (TDD)