Enabled and well connected

 

The high-tech world is gradually catching up with those who have disabilities by providing assistive technology that delivers results

WHEN STUART Lawlor was growing up in Ireland, he had few expectations about the type of career that he would choose. Being totally blind from birth meant that it was pretty likely that he would work as either a piano tuner or a telephonist as these were two of the very few work options open to him as a blind person.

Today, thanks to the arrival of new technology, he is not only a computer whiz but works training others at the National Council for the Blind (NCBI) on how to use the technology of the sighted world and compete on equal terms.

“Without assistive technology a blind person simply wouldn’t have access to the world of work today. Such technology brings access to e-mail, the web and the mobile phone. It allows us to operate in a sighted world on equal terms. We can read an e-mail or text and reply to it.”

Lawlor says the fact that software can be loaded onto standard mobile phones means that becoming connected has never been easier or more affordable for those without sight.

“The technology has broadened the range of work a disabled person can do and it has also broken down barriers. Someone with low vision for instance has access to CCTV magnifying options onto a computer screen. It also means greater access to education as well.”

Lawlor says that he is waiting for the arrival of a truly great GPS system which will allow him to navigate and travel to new places independently. He also says that there is still room for improvement in terms of access to websites that are not designed with those with a disability in mind.

“Technology makes things easier for everyone but it makes things possible for those with a disability.” This is how Niamh O’Donovan, a speech and language therapist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dún Laoghaire, sums it up.

O’Donovan regularly deals with patients who have lost their ability to communicate through accident, injury or stroke. She says that while it is liberating for the patient to be able to communicate again, often the family may be traumatised to think that this is only possible to do by using assistive technology.

“If you can’t communicate, you are isolated. The technology which turns text into speech enables the patient to communicate at all different levels. And there is new, more sophisticated technology coming down the line all the time. Both iPhone and Nintendo DS now have applications available to those with speech difficulties.”

O’Donovan says the tech companies are very interested in providing solutions for those with disability because such applications also appeal to the average able-bodied person as well. Apple’s new touch screen iPad launched recently is very much a case in point. There is no keyboard so it is accessible to all.

Vincent Ryan, managing director of Compuspeak which supplies Dragon Naturally Speaking software in Ireland, says he has successfully trained many people with severe physical disabilities to run their business using voice commands only. “While voice-recognition technology is hugely popular with able-bodied professionals, it offers a lifeline for many who could not manually operate a computer.”

However, while new technology solutions are coming on stream all the time, the cost of them is often prohibitive, according to O’Donovan.

The results of the National Disability Survey published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) recently indicates that half of all Irish adults with a disability in Ireland have difficulty coping with daily tasks. Michele Verdonck, an occupational therapist who is currently completing a PhD on assistive technology for the disabled, says we have a long way to go to compete with countries like Canada.

“I recently inspected a house in Canada which is fully adapted for a person with severe disabilities. The truth is that the technology already exists. What we need now is the will and the financial commitment to make it happen here.”

TECH GADGETS:  HELP AT HAND

Click-to-phone kit:This kit enables a person who cannot press the keys of a mobile phone to operate the phone with a single switch or the joystick on their powered wheelchair. Once connected, the switch or joystick can be used to navigate the phone.

Echo Voice EV4

This is a speech amplifier for those with volume and intelligibility problems such as those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, MS and cerebral palsy. It offers a trans-dermal microphone, worn around the neck so the user may move around freely.

Dragon Naturally Speaking 10

This is a voice-recognition software package that can be trained to recognise your own voice. It accurately converts voice into text at up to 160 words per minute. It allows you to completely control a PC with your voice and automates complex workflows with voice commands.

Dolphin Pen with Supernova

This device combines a screen reader and magnifier with Braille support on a USB drive. It allows a person with no or low vision to use and operate any regular PC which gives greater freedom and independence in the workplace.

Eye tech TM3

This is a mouse replacement device designed for Microsoft Windows. It allows the user to move the mouse by looking at the desired location. Can be used to surf the web, send e-mail or do anything a mouse can do.


Useful contacts:National Council for the Blind in Ireland offers specialised computer training to those who are blind or have low vision. Tel: 01 8307033; ncbi.ie

National Rehabilitation Hospital. Tel: 01 2355000, nrh.ie