Citizens With Disabilities - Ontario


Technology Removes 'Dis' From Ability

By Stephen T. Watson
Buffalo News, NY, USA
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Software, devices open opportunities for work, education, socialization

Caption: Although Bill Johnson does not have a video phone at home, he can chat with his wife from his office at St. Mary's School for the Deaf via a sign language interpreter, shown on the screen, who relays her remarks. Dennis C. Enser/Buffalo News

Bill Johnson is deaf, as were both his parents and many relatives. In the 1940s and '50s, as Johnson was growing up in Iowa, family members had no easy way to give advance notice when they wished to visit a deaf relative.

They just piled into the car and drove to the residence.

If the relative wasn't home, they left a note in the box that all deaf families kept outside their homes and drove back.

Today, Johnson sends e-mail and text messages. He uses software that converts speech into text that he can read. And he can use sign language to communicate with another deaf person over two video phones.

"Technology has allowed us accessibility. It's allowed us access into the general community that was pretty much unheard of before," said Johnson, 65, superintendent of St. Mary's School for the Deaf. It also has changed their lives.

Although the new technology is interesting and informative to the nondisabled, these latest communication devices and other adaptive technologies are changing the lives of people with visual, hearing, physical or cognitive impairments. The technology offers them not only a greater sense of self-reliance, but also advanced education and career opportunities.

"On the computer, all things are equal," said Doug Usiak, executive director of the Western New York Independent Living Project, who is blind.

The blind or visually impaired can use software that converts text into spoken words or into Braille on a refreshable keyboard. People with limited use of their hands can operate a computer by voice, or by head or eye movements.

And the Internet itself provides everything from information on the latest adaptive technology to chat rooms for people with disabilities.

"The whole purpose of the augmentative communication devices is to make [people with disabilities] communicatively independent," said Ronald R. Houk, a speech language pathologist on the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services assistive technology team.

Some obstacles remain, but the technology is helping more people with disabilities pursue higher education and enter the work force.

And the future holds the promise of devices that will allow people to surf the Web, drive a car or manipulate any other object just by reading and interpreting someone's thoughts.

"They're doing research into moving the mouse just by thinking it," said Robert Van Etten, a rehabilitation engineer in Florida who previously worked in Western New York.

In recent years, adaptive technology has come a long way and become more portable. It now can be connected across multiple platforms, said Tina Oddo, director of client service at the University at Buffalo's Center for Assistive Technology, or CAT.

At CAT, employees assess the abilities of disabled adults and children, then determine what assistive technology best fits their needs.

Verbal Drawbacks

Melinda Young sat in front of a computer in the CAT offices on the UB South Campus.

Young, now 47, was diagnosed with HIV in 1993, and the virus affected the nerves in her hands. She said she had to give up her job as a cosmetology teacher and go on disability.

Using a computer is difficult because her hands jump suddenly and she has trouble putting the right amount of pressure on the keys.

"My hands don't have the control to do what I need them to do," said Young, who lives in Belmont, near Olean. "It's like they're not connected to my brain sometimes."

CAT staffers Amarja Desai and Sumana Silverheels helped Young use a device called MouseHead, which allows Young to control the cursor with slight movements of her head.

Young also is learning to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which translates the words she speaks into a microphone into text on the screen. The program takes some getting used to.

"My name is Melinda Young," she slowly said.

"Plenty is Melinda Young," the computer responded the first time.

"Lying in bed's Melinda Young," it responded the second time.

Still, Young said learning to use a computer could help her return to work and the Internet may help ease the isolation she feels as an HIV-positive person in a small community.

"I basically thought I'd never be able to use a computer at all, and I was losing so much," Young said.

Pearl Arnold has used assistive technology for seven years in her job at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Buffalo, where she answers the phones and provides other services for guests.

She received training through the National Statler Center for Careers in Hospitality Service, a program of the Olmsted Center for the Visually Impaired.

Arnold, who is blind, uses the Jaws screen-reader program, which reads text as spoken words. She also has a refreshable Braille display that translates text on the screen into Braille type.

"I wouldn't be able to do the job without it," said Arnold, 51, who lives in Buffalo.

Video Phone Options

For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, assistive communications technology has improved a lot in recent years.

Alan Hurwitz, a vice president and dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has a video phone and a pair of TDD devices in his office and a BlackBerry on his belt.

The TDD device, an older technology, allows him to conduct an electronic conversation over a telephone line using a standard keyboard.

Upgraded technology allows phone calls to be conducted through a relay operator.

On a typical call, Hurwitz types his statement, the operator reads the words out loud to the other party, the other party responds verbally as the operator types the words for Hurwitz.

Video phones allow the hearing impaired to cut out the relay operator and talk directly to each other through sign language.

"Right now, technology has made it possible for people to have options," Hurwitz said.

For people who have limited use of their hands and arms, possibly because of cerebral palsy or paralysis after an injury, the limitations don't stop them from operating a computer.

Adaptive technology can help control the mouse with a sip-and-puff device, or with the movement of the user's head or eyes.

This technology is producing substantial benefits in schools, teachers and support staff said.

"It makes the children compete at the same level as their peers," said MaryAnn Oyer, who works with visually impaired students at Erie 2-Chautauqua- Cattaraugus BOCES, which serves southern Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

Just taking information that was accessible only in Braille textbooks and putting it in electronic format, where blind students can listen to it and easily search through it, has helped tremendously, Oyer said.

She recalled one 10th-grade social studies textbook that, in Braille, took up 42 volumes.

"They can go to the information and learn the information instead of wasting so much time finding it," Oyer said.

Oyer's students include Tony, a Gowanda High School sophomore who is blind, hard of hearing and uses a wheelchair.

He uses a BrailleNote note-taking device to keep up with his schoolwork. The device has a modem that allows him computer access as well.

"As far as the BrailleNote goes, I can surf the Internet and do e-mail and all sorts of other stuff. Listen to music. Write stuff," said Tony, 17, whose foster parents asked that his last name not be used.

Broader Opportunities

Disabled students are succeeding in college without having to rely so directly on the assistance of others to take notes and perform other tasks, said Susan Locke-Scott, Erie 1 BOCES assistant director for school support services.

According to the federal Education Department, about 11 percent of undergraduate students in 2003-04 reported having a disability, up from 6 percent in 1995-96.

Further, people with disabilities now have more opportunities for employment, experts said.

About 18.5 million people with disabilities are employed in the United States, according to the federal Labor Department.

That figure represents 55.8 percent of all working-age people with disabilities, whether a physical or a learning disability. In comparison, 66.1 percent of the working-age general population is employed, the department reported.

The Internet allows people with disabilities to telecommute and work from home in such fields as Web design, said Todd Vaarwerk, disability rights advocate at the Western New York Independent Living Project.

The Internet itself is a boon for people with disabilities.

"I just knew instantly this was going to change everything," said Randall E. Borst, UB's director of disability services.

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