The Thread-Benefits of Mainstream Tech

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Recently I posed the following question in our Internet discussion forum and offered a $50 prize for the most outstanding contribution. Below you can read the rich conversation that ensued. Congratulations to DO-IT Ambassador Priscilla for her prize-winning contribution!

Sheryl: We are writing an article for DO-IT News with ideas about how technology that was not designed specifically for people with disabilities is useful to people with disabilities. We're hoping to have lots of examples from people with a wide variety of disabilities. So what technology benefits you and others with your disability, or what technology have you noticed benefits people with other types of disabilities? We will have a prize for the best contribution from a DO-IT Ambassador, Scholar, or Pal, but others can suggest items for the article, too.

DO-IT Ambassador: This is kind of an obvious one but I thought I would just throw it out there. The technology is modern word processors, specifically the spell check functionality. These features are so important for me as a student with a learning disability. I will always struggle with spelling, but spell checkers allow me to communicate effectively and efficiently.

DO-IT Mentor: deaf friends and I have found text pagers (or text messaging features in cell phones) to be helpful communication devices!

DO-IT Pal: Tape players are a big one for the blind, especially when listening to textbooks. Also, being able to assign a certain ring to a certain person on a cell phone helps blind people know who's calling. Some regular phones now have talking caller ID, which is also nice.

DO-IT Ambassador: ... spell checker, and not just in word processing programs, but EVERYWHERE—email, Excel, etc. It gives me a lot more confidence in my writing. The built in thesaurus and dictionary fall into that category as well.

DO-IT Pal: Spell checkers as well as grammar checkers are important to the blind as well. Because of contractions in Braille, a blind person might not know how to spell something. For example, "receive" is simply "rcv".

DO-IT Ambassador: I have a reading disability and one tool I use a lot on the computer is the "find" function. Especially on web pages where I'm looking for one thing in a sea of words. Also my email provider allows me to Google search all the text of my messages so I can find a message without reading anything. Good topic!

DO-IT Mentor: I love e-books particularly because of the convenient use of the "find" command. That's not just because I'm basically lazy, but also because I don't have the fine motor skills that makes turning pages easy. So, for instance, if I'm looking for "genome" I don't have to look in the index and then at twenty-five different pages. Instead I can use the "Find" command. Reading newspapers online is easier for the same reason.

DO-IT Ambassador: Word processing was the first thing to come to mind for me... but I got thinking, and one that is equally important for me is the Internet. It helps me in a variety of ways: first, many books are available free in electronic formats, and this has been a tremendous resource for me... even aside from text-to-speech software. Because I am not able to skim books to find quotes (especially for papers) if I can find the full text online, I can search it using my web browser.

Another place I find the Internet incredibly powerful is when I need to look up information. I am dyslexic and have trouble alphabetizing things, so finding something in a paper dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia is slow. With the Internet I can go to Google and type define:MyWord, and it comes back with sometimes 20 different definitions from different places with a brief description, and all I need to do is skim them down for the one I want. In the same way, instead of needing to do research in a library, I can find materials online and search them for the specific information I want. The Internet, and Google, are probably my pick.

DO-IT Pal: I find computers, especially the Internet and email, are useful to blind people who can get screen readers. The Internet is a good way to look up information, especially because Braille is not easy to skim through when looking for information, not all resources are available in Braille, and Braille takes up a lot of room. Email is nice because you don't have to worry about the Braille getting crushed in the mail. Also, you can send your sighted friends email without having to worry about making an envelope. They can also send things to you without transcribing it into Braille. The computer itself is helpful for formatting papers. Current programs make it easy to apply styles without worrying about how it looks.

DO-IT Ambassador and prize winner: Being a person who has a few disabilities at the same time, I benefit from a number of different technologies out there.

  • Cell Phones—I use a cell phone for mainly emergencies, such as if my power wheelchair quits working, I can call for help. This actually happened to me once when I got my first power wheelchair. I learned the hard way that I was desperately in need of new batteries.
  • Cordless Phones—A cordless phone allows me to use a headset (on almost all cordless phones) to hear better and be able to carry it with me, instead of having to struggle to reach or not be able to get it at all.
  • Headsets & Speakerphones—I have a hard time holding the phone for more than a couple minutes, so headsets and a speakerphone really help me when I'm not using a TTY. Plus, nowadays many headsets allow me to adjust the volume to hear the person better.
  • Audiobooks—Although I'm a visual learner, I use audiobooks in addition to the printed book so that I can read faster and longer.
  • Remote Controls—For the computer, DVD, and TV, if I didn't have a remote control, I would need assistance to operate them.
  • Spell Checkers—I usually know how to spell, but when I write down or type, letters are flipped around, and I may not realize it. A spell checker corrects my spelling mistakes.
  • Computers & Internet—The computer and Internet allow me to connect to/with the outside without the difficulties of getting to places, even when I'm in the hospital.
  • Instant Messaging & Email —This allows me to communicate with others much more easily, more conveniently/effectively and for longer periods of time.
  • Glider Point Mice—This type of mouse is easier for me to use, allowing me to use the mouse with a single finger.
  • Voice Recognition—Speaking to my computer allows me to get things written faster.
  • Portable Notetakers—As a person who types much faster and easier than I write, I use a portable notetaker to take notes.
  • Scanners—A scanner allows me to scan text and have it transferred to my computer so I can enlarge text that would otherwise be too small for me to read.
  • Tape Recorders—Tape recorders allow me to record class lectures and make notes of things I may have missed during class time.