Sophie Prunty has a rare neurological disorder that makes it difficult for her to get around and communicate. But fastened to the front of the teen's wheelchair is a computer that has changed her life.
Looking like an overgrown iPad, the touch-screen tablet allows Sophie, 16, to control devices such as a television and an MP3 player. Most importantly, when she pushes buttons on the screen, a robotic voice speaks for her.
"She can hold a conversation, although like most teenagers she likes to keep it short," said her mother, Jody Prunty, of Wheaton. "It has opened up a new world."
Technology is creating new opportunities for countless people with disabilities, and many of the latest gadgets were on display last week at a Schaumburg trade show, where the Pruntys were browsing for educational software.
The show, put on by the Chicago-based Assistive Technology Industry Association, included music players that can also tell you the color of your shirt, devices that translate Web pages into Braille and computers that are controlled by eye movement.
Some say these are mere forerunners of a larger revolution that is yet to come. They envision products designed so that anyone can use them, appliances that automatically detect a person's needs and become more user-friendly, and a transformed Internet that welcomes the blind and developmentally disabled.
"There are a lot of things people are exploring that can be game changers," said Gregg Vanderheiden, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor who works on making technology accessible.
Yet for all of technology's promised advances, some worry that the cost will keep helpful devices out of many people's reach. Others are concerned that governments, schools and institutions might think that high-tech gadgetry has relieved them of their responsibility to serve the disabled.
"Technology is not a solution for every problem," said Paul Schroeder of the American Foundation for the Blind. "It doesn't replace the need for quality teaching. It doesn't replace the need to teach social skills."
Marca Bristo, president of the Chicago-based advocacy group Access Living, said not all technical advances are electronic. Her titanium wheelchair, for example, is half as heavy and much easier to push than the model she first used after suffering a broken neck in 1977.
But as computers and other digital devices become ever more widespread, she said, it is vital that they be made so people with disabilities can use them.
"What we want to see is technology that uses universal design principals, meaning it's designed for everyone from the ground up," she said. "Technology moves so fast that unless you commit yourself to universality at the front end, you'll always be catching up."
Some people at the show said one product that has come close to that sort of usability is the smart phone.
Robert Thompson, who works for the Chicago Lighthouse, a service agency for the visually impaired, has extreme tunnel vision and once needed a magnifying glass to use his cell phone. But he recently got an iPhone, whose easily adjustable text size make it much simpler for him to use.
More specialized devices, though, can be extremely expensive. A scanner featured at the show that reads text aloud cost $2,300. A camera system that allowed a computer to be controlled by eye movement was more than $10,000.
David Dikter, CEO of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, said that although school systems and federal insurance programs sometimes pick up the cost of new devices, families often must pay the tab themselves.
"This is always what technology is," lamented Marie Simmons, of Griffith, Ind., whose two sons have a rare genetic disorder that forces them to spend much of their lives in wheelchairs. "You buy something this year, next year something comes out that's newer and better."
Justin Benes (pictured), 14, of Waunakee, Wis., had a $7,000 computer attached to his $35,000 wheelchair, but his grandfather Jim Benes said the state picked up the cost. As they browsed the trade show booths, looking for a better way to fasten the computer to the chair, Jim Benes said the devices have enhanced his grandson's quality of life.
Justin, who has a condition similar to cerebral palsy that affects his motor skills, works at a cafe at his high school. He uses the computer to speak for him, welcoming other students and telling them about the daily specials.
"This allows him to communicate," Jim Benes said.
Vanderheiden, the University of Wisconsin engineer, said the next frontier is the Internet, with the U.S. Department of Justice exploring whether Web sites, like public buildings, should be accessible. That means designing them so that text-to-speech readers and other adaptive technologies can work easily, Vanderheiden said.
In the more distant future, he said, he expects everything from home appliances to airport kiosks to adapt technology that allows them to change their interfaces depending on who is using them, offering larger text, voice commands or whatever is necessary.
Bristo, of Access Living, said such advances would also be a boon for America's aging population.
"Up to this point, the disabled community has really been seen as a small market," she said. "That's going to change. Things made for us will benefit other people."
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Assistive Technology Industry Association show in Illinois highlights newest technology for people with disabilities
The Chicago Tribune:
Posted by BA Haller at 3:57 PM