info tech || An Assistive Technology For The Disabled

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info tech || An Assistive Technology For The Disabled

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Advances in technology have always meant better, faster and cheaper products which make life more convenient and organised . For people with disabilities, the promise is greater. Technology helps in turning their Jong cherished dreams into real ities. Dream to play a game of chess with their friend, write a letter to their mom or give a presentation i n the annual corporate meeting-without any assistance from any one. The ultimate goal is independence and self-reliance. It’s al l about making the Jess fortunate people free from bonds of reliance and taking charge of their lives.

Technology is receiving the attention of families, advocates, legislators and professionals due to its potential for enhancement the lives of individuals with disabilities. Computers with communication devices, the world of technology offers to many children and adolescents with disabilities, the tools necessary to be more successful i n school, at work and at achieving independence i n daily living. Indeed, opportunities which were unimaginable ten years ago are now becoming an available real ity to some children with disabilities. With the assistance of new technology, the emerging technologies are raising new hopes for others.

Computers were the beginning of the new information technology. Information (facts, knowledge, data and news) technology (materials, tools, systems and techniques) is the key to economic growth. It is l likely to bring about substantial changes in society and may change the lives for better or worse in a very short time. It will improve the quality of life for many people by making information more accessible and providing more information at low cost which will increase opportunities for all. The greatest gain will be to the educationally disadvantaged and among them the students with disabilities (Hawk.ridge, Vincent and Hales, 1985).

Opening New Horizons

Emerging technologies are helping the disabled people not only to gain physical independence but also the requisite skills to become an important part of the society and the economy. Till recently people with certain disabilities could not fully exploit the potential of PCs. For instance, if they were unable to use a keyboard or mouse they could not input information. But, this has changed. Computer man factures and software developers are focusing on assistive and adaptive technologies. The traditional input devices such as keyboards and mouse require good dexterity and thus cause problems for most users with physical disabilities. Likewise output tools such as standard screen displays are of little help to the visually impaired .

Computer aided tools meant  for the mentally retarded, attempt to asses their knowledge and use the visual media as a tool for training. It helps to make the children interact more effectively, to test and analyses their performance, so that, they may develop self-1.:onfidence and self-esteem.

Deaf children can learn easily by seeing pictures. Teaching these children with the help of computer and the visual media is an interactive and interesting process. Vaghmi software for the deaf is being used successfully for speech therapy. It helps them to understand the subject content and also improves their speech abilities.

Individuals with hearing loss, now have many devices available to them. Text telephones known as its, toys or TDDs enable presenter to type phone messages over the telephone network. The telecommunications service (TRS) make it possible for ICT users to communicate with virtually any one via telephone (schwartz ,1996; Nichcy, 1998).

Apart from sensory disabilities like deafness and blindness, the reason for poor academic underachievement may be due to specific learning disability. If lessons and text are presented on a computer effectively these can be made interesting to children with learning disability. Assessment process can be made interesting with the help of computer-aided tools. Similarly, remediation could also be done more effectively through the visual medium.

The response of the children , who have been using the computer-aided lessons, is very encouraging. Children love to click the buttons and see the pictorial representations. They welcome this kind of joyful method of learning (Shah  et.al.,  1998 and Khare, 2007).

Here are some other alternative access tools that make their life easier.

  • Track Balls

The closest alternative to a mouse, track balls, allows users with limited hand movement to steer cursors. It can be mounted on a mechanical arm from a wheel chair at head height for chin control and access.

  • Screen Magnification

Enables user to magnify the screen output as much as eight to sixteen times.

  • Screen Readers

Targeted at visually disabled people, screen reading software allows users to hear what is displayed on the screen-right from columns to text to graphics description.

  • Braille Displays

Working on the l lines of Braille language this assistive technology enables the visually impaired user to track a cursor and read the screen by moving fingers across the raised  dots.

  • Voice Input

Popularly known as speech recognition, allows users to speak into a microphone connected to the PC. The computer obeys the oral commands.

  • Alternative Keyboards

Similar to the traditional keyboard, they have larger keys or buttons for convenience and accessibility.

  • Single Switch Scanning Displays

Large colorful switches to control a computer through an onscreen display that simulates a keyboard. Users can activate the switch with hand, foot and facial motion.

  • Screen Displayed Keyboards

Using any mouse alternative tool, disabled persons with little or no dexterity can activate keyboard functions with an on-screen keyboard.

Assistive Technology for Mild Disabilities

Lahm and Morrissette (1994) outlined seven areas of instruction where assistive technology could assist students with mild disabilities. These areas include (i) organization, (ii) note-taking, (iii) writing assistance, (iv) productivity, (v) access to reference materials, (vi) cognitive assistance and (vii) materials modification.

(i) Organization :It Incl udes teaching students to organise their thoughts or work using flow charting task analysis, webbing or networking ideas and out lining. These strategies can be accomplished using graphic organisers to assist visually impaired students in developing and structuring the ideas.

(ii) Note-taking : A simple approach is for the teachers to provide copies of structured outlines for students to use in filling information. A high-tech approach might include optical character recognition, which is a software that can transform typewritten material into computer-readable text using a scanner.

(iii) Writing Assistance : Word processing may be the most important application of assistive technology for students with mild disabilities. Computers and word processing software enable students to put ideas on paper without the barriers imposed by paper and pencil.

(iv) Productivity : Assistive productivity tools can be hardware based, software based or both. Calculators for example, can be the credit-card type or software based which can be popped and used during word processing, spreadsheets, data based and graphics. Software also offer productivity tools, enabling students to work on mathematics or other subjects that may require calculating, categorizing, grouping and predicting events.

(v) Access to Reference Material : Many students with mild disabilities have difficulty in gathering and synthesizing information for their academic work. In this arena telecommunications and multimedia are providing new learning tools for the students. A computer and modem can transport students beyond their physical environment to access electronic information. Multi­ media based tools are another way in which information can be made accessible to students. In multimedia the use of text, speech, graphics, pictures, audio and video in reference-based software is especially effective in meeting the heterogeneous learning needs of students with mind disabilities.

(vi) Cognitive Assistance :A vast array of application programme software’s are available for instructing the students through tutorials, drill and practice problem solving and simulations. Many  of the assistive technologies described previously can be combined with instructional programmes to develop and improve cognitive and problem solving skills.

(vii) Materials Modification : Special educators are familiar with the need to create instructional materials or customise materials to meet the varied needs of students with disabilities. Authoring software allows teachers and students to develop instructional software that incorporate video, pictures, animations and text into hypennedia-based instruction. Multimedia authoring software is very easy to learn and use.

Becoming Bond Free

The internet also is becoming an important rehabilitating tool. Take the example of Stephen William Hawking, the noted British author of ‘A Brief History of Time’ and other bestselling books who is suffering from sclerosis. Hawking has been confined to wheelchair for over 20 years and can only move only few fingers. He uses a computer and voice synthesiser software to communicate with the outside world . In a famous interview in 1996, Hawking expressed his views about net that while his body may be confined to a wheel chair, his mind can go to any part of the earth, thanks to the internet.

ICT has opened new avenues for the disabled people i n the job market. More people are being hired in the ICT sector despite their visual, hearing, mental or motor impairments. The logic being that most disabilities hamper physical environment, but not the grey cells. Armed with mobile computing technology, disabled people can stay at home and telecommute.

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The web hosts a gamut of sites relating to information and assistance on disabilities. Search the databases for medical help, attend a conference, discuss legal issues with law firms, look for a company that has special facilities for accommodating the disabled people. For specific information go to sites such as www.deaf.world.org.

The internet also provides emotional support and bounding to the fraternity. All major chat sites special rooms and channels where people with similar handicaps can get together and talk. For example, Talkcity-it has over 900 chats a week. Most of them have disability related topics. Whether its selerosis or visual impairment, there is something for every one to discuss and combat emotional challenges stemming from their impairments.

Working Towards Empowerment

Cash rich private firms are pouring investment into assistive technology. Likewise Governments worldwide are taking steps to promote computer education among the disabled. Global ICT giants including Microsoft, Sun, IBM and Apple are committed to advancements in assistive technology. They are striving to make better IT products and software for the disabled. Microsoft has an accessibility and disability site which has exhaustive information technology and tools that can help the handicapped to manage their lives better. The Redmond Giant released the latest version of Active Accessibility-the technology software that developers use to make programmes more accessible to people with special needs and use accessibility aids like screen readers. IBM is not far behind in its efforts. It recently launched homepage reader for spoken web access for the blind and visually impaired. The new talking browser orally communicates all the content and information presented on the computer screen including graphics descriptions, tables and columns. Digital equipment corporation-a leading player in text to speech technology, has special DEC talk software which lets developers to create and employ application’s that speak electronically to users. The software can transform ordinary text into natural sounding speech. Intel too has special products for the disabled people. For those people, who have difficulty in pressing two keys simultaneously, Intel-keys al lows the user to press the SHIFT Key followed by a letter key to type capital letter-two keys in sucession, not two keys at one time.

The Government of Egypt has developed a national strategy to introduce and encourage the use of such technology, by developing special technology centre for the disabled. I n Italy, Handimpresa is an on-line initiative that aims at bringing together public institutions, businesses and employment agencies i n helping the handicapped find employment and respect their ability Similarly in the UK, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf has rolled out a nationwide video telephone system ‘Type talk’ that will assist people with learning disability; Another example is ‘Bet Sie’ which has made BBS site work well for the visually impaired people. Germans have developed a technology and associated software wherein computers will sense the signals from the head of a paralysed person, through two attached electrodes and thereby, allow him to surf the net like a normal person. These facilities will transform the lives of the physically challenged.

Assistive technology is gaining ground in India too. NIIT Ltd., leading ICT training and software company, has developed an interactive software called l . learn. The DOS-based software, developed under the leadership of Prof. Isasc, is targetted at the children who cannot use computer keyboards. Spastic students can access the computer either by touching a disk shaped pad or interrupting High through a slight hand movement or by making a sound. Similarly Delhi ‘s Blind Relief Association is running a computer centre for the disabled to make them ICT savvy and increase their market value in the ‘must be computer literate’ corporate jungle. The association uses a simple text to Braille which can be printed on a Braille printer.

Bringing succour to the disabled is a demanding exercise in terms of raising money and awareness. In the last four years, almost all leading India charities and help organisations have setup their own sites like www.cry.com. Or www.silenceIndia. Com. and www.india world. co. in home/sahayata to reach out to disabled people.

A lot remains to be done. The primary concern is cost. Most firms regard the example for assistive hardware or software as ‘added burden’ and shy away from investment. More so, in the case of India. Braille printers cost any thing from 2 lakhs to 20 lakhs. Another obstacle in the way of adaptive technology is unhealthy rivarly among research firms which try to upstage one another while introducing a new break-through. Experts feel if only they join hands and work as a team, they would stand better chance of getting the funds they are looking for. Ultimately, the question is not about just providing better tools but about enhancing the life of the disabled persons.

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