As recently as six years ago, the technology that expanded the world of disabled people was no more advanced than it was in medieval times. Today, breakthroughs in computer technology enhance the quality of life for many handicapped people. Computers also throw open doors to new educational and employment opportunities.
"Since the beginning of time, people who had severe disabilities were measured by what they couldn't do. Now we look at what a person can do, no matter how minimal, and bring technology to augment their diminished abilities," says Bud Rizer, director of the Technology Resource Office in the Maryland Rehabilitation Center. Without technology, the disabled would still be relegated to pointing at picture boards or suffering the frustration of communicating through incoherent gestures.
In the past six years, we've seen an explosion in the amount and sophistication of technology crafted to help the disabled people in our society. Most of the recent advances are in two product categories: assistive devices that compensate for decreased mobility and adaptive devices which are designed to advance communication skills.
These devices increase the self-confidence of disabled people and amplify their sense of control over their environment. "With speech synthesis and text-to-speech converters, we are seeing handicapped children come alive," says Sidney Schneider, a language pathologist at the Everhart School for exceptional children in Tallahassee, Florida. "Self-esteem is a wonderful word to describe the kids' reactions. Their facial expressions say ‘Hey, I'm not locked in this unresponsive body—I do have control over my environment.’"
Goal Seeking and Game Playing
Technology's implied goal is to increase the amount and quality of time that disabled people spend interacting with others. Schneider uses computer games to decrease the unrewarding hours kids spend alone and to provide them with a measure of achievement. "Game playing produces a cause-and-effect relationship. The kids say to themselves, ‘If I push this button, I will see the results of my action on that screen.’"
For handicapped children, game playing serves as a bridge to other kids, an entertaining expedient to communicating and finding companionship. The computer functions as a translator, shrinking the differences between mainstream and handicapped kids.
Molly Shannon, a teacher in the Hurst-Euless, Bedford School District in Texas, attaches even greater significance to game playing. "For the physically handicapped child, there are not many opportunities to play. Playing is an important part of a child's day." Shannon says. "If you can't play, you cannot learn how your body works. And there are many other things they miss, things like social interaction."
Shannon and Schneider see technology as a tool, a means of delivering needed services to the disabled. And, just as a key unlocks a door, technology unlocks potential.
"Whether it's computers or computer games, the goal is to allow teachers, therapists, and clinicians to exploit technology's capacity in returning and integrating the disabled back into society," explains Dr. Michael Behrmann, director of the Center for Human Disabilities at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "This includes the recreational, living, and work environments. With remote-control devices, the disabled can control lighting, TVs, heating, and air conditioning; open doors; or perform a multitude of everyday tasks."
TECHONOLOGY LINKS DISABLED PEOPLE TO THE WORLD
Technology's Solutions and Shortcomings
The wizardry of technology provides help for children and adults who suffer from speech, motor control, visual/aural, emotional, or learning problems. Within each of these groups, educators employ computers in a distinct way.
To compensate for inadequate motor control, solutions range from oversized keyboards (with one-inch square keys); mouth-, foot-, and head-activated switches; and breath-operated switches. Disabled children can even control Nintendo games with an adaptive device that combines a puff switch with a chin-operated joy-stick. By using head- or limb-activated switches, infants as young as ten months old can use technology to ask for attention or operate toys.
Voice commands augmented by speech-recognition devices assist speech-impaired kids. The sounds need not be recognizable as words; all the computer needs are uniform, repeatable sounds.
If users aren't visually impaired, they can use speech recognition to perform gainful work in offices (interacting with computerized data) and in industry (especially in quality-control tasks). These devices also allow handicapped people to participate in conversations with others.
Given the results that can be achieved with technology, why isn't it more widely employed? The answer has two components: inadequate training and inadequate funding.
In competition with many other academic programs for scant budget dollars, programs for handicapped kids suffer because of a flawed image. One speech-language therapist in a Westchester County, New York, school district, believes much of the funding problem stems from a lack of "glamor." In an unusually candid observation, she says, "Daily, we face the reality that funding for programs to aid the handicapped is not popular. What's worse, if by some miracle we do achieve a superior program, parents, desperately seeking the best opportunities for their children, move into the school district and overtax the program's resources. School boards frown on such ‘success.’"
Maryann McCandless, special education technology assistant for the City of Hartford, Connecticut, strives to make the best of her limited equipment and funding. Her school district has 30 computers allocated to special education students spread among the district's 30 schools. Yet McCandless remains optimistic; she feels that the administration is sympathetic, and she has achieved modest success raising funds from private and government sources. "Realistically, I don't expect to ever acquire the topnotch level of technology I'd like to achieve, but I will nevertheless continue to seek outside funding sources," she says.
One source of funding is the federally financed Technology-Related Assistance Bill. Administered by the National Institute of Disabilities and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Tech Act provides funding for stales to develop a coherent technology-information and -dissemination resource program. To date, nine states have received $500,000 grants. During the life of the act, all 49 states that applied initially will receive similar funding.
Many people interviewed spend some portion of their time fund-raising. While no accurate statistics exist, these people said that they spend 10 to 20 percent of their lime influencing budget committees or writing grant proposals. Sometimes it's on behalf of an entire program; other times the efforts are for several especially deserving children. McCandless says, "I deal with some kids who are very impaired. Kids who live in the inner city and endure not only their handicap but poverty and family troubles as well." McCandless champions the cause of these kids as she tries to find outside funding sources. Only sometimes is she successful.
More hardware and software constitutes only one part of the solution. To exploit technology's potential, the profession admittedly needs more trained personnel. "The present level of training is not adequate," says Behrmann, of the Center for Human Disabilities in Virginia. "There is a crying need for trained personnel so we can infuse technology, where appropriate, into new and existing programs." As is often the case, technology has progressed faster than people can be trained to use it.
As a partial solution, Behrmann suggests using expert systems, a branch of artificial intelligence, to reduce the demands upon the limited pool of trained teachers and clinicians. In expert systems, the expert transfers his or her knowledge into a computer program. Then, guided by this recorded knowledge, less-trained people determine the subject's abilities and implement specific goals. Theoretically, the program delivers the same recommendations as the expert would if the expert were available.
Expert systems, while far from foolproof, do work. And, once debugged through constant honing, they can significantly broaden the distribution of professional services.
Perhaps the most promising embryonic technology is neural networking. Unlike regular computer programs, which dutifully execute instructions, neural networks imitate the human brain. They can, for instance, learn from past errors, execute midcourse corrections, and recognize patterns.
Complicated, and far from perfected, neural networks hold the greatest promise for the quality of life of handicapped people. In addition to providing tangible assistance, computers benefit the disabled indirectly by allowing teachers to be more effective. Using neural networks, the computer temporarily becomes the child's instructor and allows the teacher more time to deal with other children. Likewise, computers also simplify teaching children with varied intellectual skill or children of mixed physical abilities. And since computers are nonjudgmental, children do not feel rejection when a machine, with a bell or a beep, reveals their errors.
Hardware, too, continues to advance. Intensified research efforts result in unprecedented new developments, such as those listed below.
- L. C. Technology's acclaimed EyeGaze System lets a computer accept input based oh eye movement. While a person focuses on a particular character, word, or icon on a monitor, low-power infrared waves read the eyes' position. At the same time, special software correlates the line of sight with the targeted reference point on the monitor and displays the related information. The system enters words on a monitor and activates appliances in accordance with these EyeGaze commands.
- Scanning instruments read text directly from a printed page, enlarge the characters, and display the text on a monitor.
- Prab/Heath/Zenith's robotic arm activates switches and appliances as well as grasps objects, answers the telephone, and even feeds severely disabled people. The device is controlled by voice commands.
- Text-to-speech converters, such as IBM's Screen Reader, "speak" the words displayed on the monitor screen.
McCandless describes the awe some of these devices inspire. "We find students talking to the machines. In one case, a little girl was directed by a speech synthesizer to touch a circle. She complied, then leaned into the speaker and said ‘I did. What do you think?’"
Behrmann relates a story about a 35-year-old retarded man who was physically unable to communicate. "We suspected he knew how to read and write, but, since he was unable 10 express himself, we never knew it. When provided access to a computer and adaptive devices, the man surprised us by writing an article for the training center's newsletter."
By allowing the disabled to communicate, computers impart a sense of accomplishment. Properly applied (and that denotes using skilled instructors along with the proper equipment), technology decreases drudgery and increases motivation.
The following organizations offer information about computer options for people with special needs.
With the right mix of hardware, software, and expertise, kids and adults with disabilities can participate in the same kinds of activities as their peers do. They achieve the ability to reach beyond their own physical limitations and enter worlds long closed to them.
McCandless poignantly describes the future: "Handicapped children will always be special, but it need no longer be because they are less a person than any other child."
Howard Millman works for Columbia University in New York and frequently contributes to several national computer magazines.