Riskon in the News

January 17, 2002
New Technology Making Life Easier For People with Disabilities
By Lynn Walford

Some devices let you send messages
Even if you are unable to speak or write

Technology could bring good news to people with disabilities.

New software and hardware products aim to remove disability barriers.  So-called assistive technology lets people communicate, learn and work more easily.

Assistive technology bridges the digital divide and levels the playing field so that people with disabilities can be competitive,” said Dmitri Belser, executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology in Berkeley, Calif.

How can you take advantage of such technology?  If you have a disability and you're researching computer equipment, you may want to start with the largest database of assistive technology at abledata.com.  The site's sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, part of the Education Department.

The Center for Accessible Technology also could help.  Along with advising severely disabled people, it supports the increasing number of Silicon Valley workers with computer strain injuries.  They can be accommodated with alternative keyboards, pointing devices and speech recognition software.

For people who are quadriplegic, a head mouse can be used.  A dot on the user's forehead is read by an infrared receiver, and the mouse is clicked in various ways.

The latest development for people who are completely paralyzed is the Cyberlink from Brain Actuated Technologies, Inc.  It uses three electrodes to read brain waves and muscle tension to move the cursor and operate the computer, says Belser.  People with Lou Gehrig's disease can use the device to communicate via a computer after they've lost the ability to speak, he says.

You may also want to contact the Alliance for Technology Access, a group in San Rafael, Calif.  The organization has access centers, where you'll be able to try out different computer equipment and match it to your needs.  If you can't visit a center, you can e-mail or phone for advice.

The alliance also offers the book, “Computer and Web Resources for People with Disabilities.”  It's a good way to start researching assistive technology, says Mary Lester, executive director of the Alliance for Technology Access.  The book is available online at atacess.org.

It matches abilities with various devices and software programs.  You'll find links to manufacturers such as Keyboard Alternatives and Vision Solutions, a company in Santa Rosa, Calif. that sells special keyboards.

Technology isn't just alleviating physical disabilities.  It can help with cognitive and learning disabilities, experts say.

Numerous literacy software programs, such as Clicker and Write Out Loud, are available, notes Mary Ann Glicksman, executive director of the Computer Access Center in Los Angeles.  These programs do require training and time with a teacher or therapist, but they can achieve amazing results.

Commitment is important, says Glicksman.  She recalls one client (a 40-year-old man who was illiterate and could not speak or communicate) who required 100 hours of training to learn how to use an alternative augmentative communication device, also called an AAC.

An AAC lets the user input word phrases or speeches via a keyboard that can be activated at any time to speak and display messages.  The device is small enough to take anywhere.  So the user of an AAC called Lightwriter from Zygo Industries Inc. can go into a store and place an order and be understood by anyone.

Computers have assisted all kinds of people with disabilities, including executives.  Barry Honig, president of Riskon, Inc., an executive search and consulting firm in Tenafly, NJ, is blind and uses Jaws text-to-speech software from Freedom Scientific Inc.

The software lets him read e-mail, browse the Web and download books.  Jaws reconfigures Web pages for easy access.

The Web has many other resources and forums for people with disabilities.  At iCan.com, for instance, you'll find resources for buying computer equipment and seeking employment, as well as news and issues.