Jul 17 2015

How Tech Removes Boundaries

Assistive technology and mobile devices help people with disabilities regain their independence and live without limits.

When Jennifer’s eyesight deteriorated to the point that she could no longer read the newspaper or mail, this small-town Minnesotan could only wait and hope patiently that a friend would come by daily and read to her.

Fortunately, Jennifer found an easier, more convenient way to keep up with the local news and her personal business. A year ago, she learned about Minnesota’s System of Technology to Achieve Results (STAR) program, a division of the Minnesota Department of Admin­istration that helps residents of all ages gain access to innovative assistive technologies that can help overcome disabilities or functional issues.

A STAR community partner presented Jennifer with several possible solutions. She opted for a specialized scanner and reading machine. To use it, she simply scans her personal letters, newspaper articles and bills, and the device reads the material aloud. With this relatively simple piece of technology, Jennifer has gone from a life of dependence to one of independence, fully able to listen to everything on her daily reading list.

For Kim Moccia, director of Minnesota STAR, recounting stories like this one rank as the best part of her day. “Today’s assistive technology is really life-changing to the people we serve,” she says. “They can be active, productive and independent in a way that was difficult, if not impossible, before. And in the process, they gain dignity and a chance to really get out and be a part of their community.”


Percentage of those who use screen readers on mobile devices, compared with just 12% in 2009

SOURCE: WebAIM, “Screen Reader User Survey #5,” January 2014

What makes Moccia’s job even more satisfying is that many people don’t even realize that such technologies are available until they meet with her organization. STAR is tasked with helping to provide access to assistive technologies to anyone who needs them.

“Nothing touches my heart more than hearing about a parent who says, ‘My child has never spoken a word, and now all of a sudden you’ve helped us discover an app or a device that allows my child to communicate with me,’” Moccia says. “It’s amazing to have a role in enabling success stories like that.”

Latest and Greatest

Ben Wimett, an assistive technology access specialist for the Vermont Assistive Technology Program (VATP), has cerebral palsy and has experienced the evolution of assistive technology as both a user and a professional. To him, assistive technology has made a quantum leap in usefulness and availability over the past decade.

“Before, you were kind of on your own to figure out what was out there and what could work for you,” Wimett says, noting that technologies were usually too expensive, bulky or difficult to operate. “A lot of times, you just had to make do without because there just wasn’t that much available, it was more trouble than it was worth, or it was too cost-prohibitive.”

That has changed significantly thanks to advances in mobile technologies that make assistive devices more convenient and more affordable. Minnesota STAR, VATP and other state and local agencies partners with organizations that offer demos of speech-generating devices, mobile eye trackers, LiveScribe pens, Dragon Naturally Speaking software, Bluetooth-enabled switches, refreshable Braille displays, sound field systems and iPads and other mobile devices that come equipped with built-in Universal Access tools such as speech-to-text and screen-reading capabilities, subtitles and captioning, text enlargement, and adjustable screen colors and contrasts.

In some cases, modern technologies become even more meaningful when used by a person with disabilities. Wimett recounts the time he was called in to help a man recently diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. “It was very important to him that he could somehow continue to communicate even as his disability progressed and began to affect his speech,” he says. “But his wife couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to hear his voice.”

Wimett and the VATP team came up with a solution that met both needs: They suggested an iPad app called GoTalk Now, which is able to generate speech in the user’s normal voice.

“The client was able to work with a speech and language pathologist to record his voice saying customized words and phrases so that as he progresses to the point where he can no longer speak, he’ll still be able to communicate with his wife and sound like himself,” Wimett explains. “When we told his wife that we could do that, it was the first time I saw her smile the whole day.”

Breaking Through

For some, the introduction of an assistive device can seem like a miracle. When New Mexico Technology Assistance Program Supervisor Tracy Agiovlasitis and her team provided a college-age car accident victim with a speech-generating tablet, it was the first time that the girl was able to communicate with her family and caregivers since the wreck.

When Agiovlasitis returned for a follow-up visit, the girl’s “mom cried, telling us how [the tablet] had finally brought basic communication back into her daughter’s daily life and how it had such a huge impact on her overall rehabilitation progress because her spirits had been lifted so much,” she says.


Estimated amount Vermont has saved by using the GetATStuff.com online assistive technology device exchange over the past three years

SOURCE: Vermont Assistive Technology Program

Wimett notes that new advances in assistive technology bring hope to even the toughest situations. He points to his work with a middle-aged paraplegic who lived in a rehabilitation facility for more than a year after a devastating accident. “He wanted to move back home, but all he could move was his head, so the big barrier that kept him from his goal was figuring out how he would use the phone to call for help when he needed it,” Wimett says.

A relatively new solution did the trick: Wimett suggested a Tecla Shield, a Bluetooth-enabled interface switch that is mounted to a headrest on a wheelchair and can be programmed to work with an iPhone, iPod touch, Android device or wheelchair joystick.

To activate the calling function and the Siri natural language user interface, the user touches the device with his head and holds it for five seconds. The phone goes to speaker mode by default, so he only has to speak the phone number he wants to call and he’s good to go.

Depending on how long he holds the switch, the user can also access email, post to Facebook, take pictures or perform any other function that can be commanded with Siri.

The client will soon be heading back home, and Wimett and his colleagues at VATP are thrilled.

“Without assistive technology and this program, he wouldn’t have been able to ever live independently and regain his life,” Wimett says. “Now he can. There aren’t words to describe how it feels to see a breakthrough like that. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Assistive Technology

Hands-On Help

Although assistive technology is more mainstream, affordable and easier than ever to use, people with disabilities need hands-on experience with a product to determine if it’s the best tool for them, advises Tracy Agiovlasitis, supervisor of the New Mexico Assistive Technology Program.

Agencies funded under the Federal Assistive Technology Act program offer a variety of programs to pair people with the solutions, which may include the following:

Assessments: Assistive technology specialists aid clients in determining which products best meet their needs. The Vermont Assistive Technology Program, for instance, has over 1,000 different pieces of equipment in inventory.

Technology demonstrations: Program officials demonstrate a short list of devices in action. For example, the Minnesota STAR program demonstrated a variety of mobile tools and software to a 17-year-old with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder who was struggling in school. After outfitting him with an iPad and its built-in universal access and organization tools, he’s improved to an A student, says Kim Moccia, Minnesota STAR program director.

Short-term loans: Assistive technology programs allow clients to keep solutions for a 30-day trial and provide short-term device loans to clients awaiting a new purchase or repair.

Long-term loans: When technology is no longer quite cutting-edge, programs will sometimes loan that equipment on an ongoing basis to clients with financial need or who meet certain criteria.

Technology reuse: When clients no longer need a certain device, they can donate it for use as a loaner or they can sell it through an exchange, such as GetATStuff.com.


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