Feature Story in Fall MAD 2011- Technology: Enabling Bright Futures

Accessible/assistive technology is redefining what is possible for people with disabilities. In the community, at home, in school or the workplace, rapid technological advancements are happening right now allowing people with disabilities to lead more independent lives.

Building on the Past.
The push to use technology for people with disabilities has been around for a long time, spearheaded in large part by the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The cause got another major boost when a report was released by the Congressional Web Based Education Commission in 2000.

The Commission’s report, “The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving from Promise to Practice,” called on parents, educators and researchers to use the power of the then explosive potential of the internet to provide relevant training and high quality education with approaches that embrace “anytime, anywhere, any pace learning.” While the report concentrated on improving education with technology, one of the many other goals was to move away from the concept of making the user adapt to the technology and instead focus on adapting the technology to the user. It emphasized that there should be structural changes that support effective searching, use and understanding of the user in order to provide the information.

The vice chair of that Commission was Rep. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Now a Senator, Isakson has seen the Commission’s charge come to fruition in many ways, including helping those with disabilities.

“The advancements in assistive technology that resulted from the Web Based Education Commission’s work have certainly helped individuals with developmental disabilities lead improved, more independent lives. The Commission examined the digital delivery of educational content and encouraged investment in innovation and expansion to make educational content more accessible to students of all types. As a result, some of the biggest beneficiaries have been individuals with disabilities,” said Isakson.

The Commission was not the only group advocating for a change in how to provide accessible technology for people with disabilities. In the 1990s, several groups and agencies began addressing web accessibility and making websites user-friendly for all people including those with or without disabilities.

In 1998 the US Congress enacted amendment Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act requiring federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Although this amendment encouraged a step in the right direction for promoting web accessibility for all persons, the law only applied to federal agencies and not private websites.

Since then, the Department of Justice has strengthened the laws for state and local governments and private businesses who use federal funds or grants or those who are contracting with government entities regarding web accessibility for all users, as well as access to goods and services. Updates to the laws on accessibility are in process in order to stay relevant with today’s improving technology.

Other standards and guidelines were also created to make sure that commercial entities provide web accessibility for all users. In 1997 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to improve the functionality and accessibility of the web for people with disabilities.

The WAI joins together several working and interest groups including people from the industry, disability organizations, government and research labs to develop guidelines and resources to ensure people with all types of disabilities have accessible web options. The initiative concentrates on increasing accessibility to web content for websites and applications, web browsers, media players, authoring tools such as content management systems and developing tools to evaluate accessibility. W3C is still working today to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities to access web technologies.

From the Past to the Present.
Technology has come a long way helping people with disabilities overcome the accessibility barriers of the past. Accessibility is about opening up avenues to all people regardless of any limitations.

From e-readers to day-to-day applications, there are prototypes being built, programs underway and items already being marketed that are, or soon will be, helping those with physical and cognitive disabilities live more independent lives.

What is the best way to develop assistive technology products that provide the most accessibility? Get information straight from the source. Intel developed the Intel Reader in 2009, and the idea originated from an employee who was dyslexic himself and relied on pre-recorded books and other reading material while in school. He presented his idea to the creative brains at Intel, and through slow but steady research and trial and error, the Intel reader emerged combining a high-resolution camera with a processor that converts printed text to text that can be read aloud. Several  companies have developed various versions of e-readers over the last several years that help those with disabilities, from dyslexia to low vision and even blindness to point, shoot and “read” almost anything.

E-readers can be used in all aspects of life from reading your schoolbooks and recipe directions out loud, or in Brittany Herlugson’s case, a 19 year-old from Georgia, her poems. Brittany loves to write poems and stories and has been using her ECO reader for around five years to assist her in writing and recording her poems inspired by songs, her family and other people in her life.

Years ago there weren’t any mainstream products that were universally accessible. With the rapid technological advancement in computers and cell phones, people with disabilities can now get the same product at the same price as everyone else.

The creation of text messaging on cell phones made possible new forms of communication, and by 2008, texting became the rage in the US where many phone users were sending more text messages than calls. A substitute for voice calls, texting provided new independence to people with hearing disabilities. No longer did they have to specifically rely only on a TTY (a special text telephone) or a pen and paper to communicate with those who do not know sign language.

Built-in iPad Accessibility
• VoiceOver: Tap the screen and it describes the item under your finger
• Zoom: Magnify anything on the screen up to 500%
• White on Black: Control and adjust the contrast on
the screen
• Mono Audio: Allows users with hearing loss to route all sound into one audio channel


Texting provides a convenient way for persons who have hearing impairments to take advantage of what everyone else is afforded – quick, easy communication. Cell phone companies continue to develop messaging capabilities, and now you can even send images, videos and sound contents.

Although texting is still extremely popular, cell phones have made even more strides in the communications field. The BlackBerry, Android and iPhone are all a part of the smartphone craze that provide applications that have become deeply integrated into our daily lives. Whether you are using a GPS system app to get where you are going or trying to search for your favorite song, smartphone applications, known as apps, provide assistive technology to everyone.

Today there are hundreds of smart apps relating specifically to disabilities ranging from assistive speech apps to a bar scanning code app to read labels at the grocery store or on prescription bottles.

Smartphone apps have been widely received in the disability community and Apple has even created a special education section in its app store that provides apps specifically for sign language, communication, diagnostics and reference, emotional development, seeing and hearing, language development, literacy and learning, organization and life skills available for use on Apple’s iPhone, iPad or iPod devices.

Most recently, Apple has developed the iPad tablet computer, which is known for its built-in accessibility features that assist people with all different types of disabilities including visual impairments, hearing impairments and those with physical or learning disabilities. The tablet is also becoming increasingly popular with high schools across the country. Some schools have even begun issuing it instead of textbooks.

One of the main reasons smartphone apps and the iPad are popular within the disability community is that they offer accessible, user-friendly and often cheaper alternatives to other assistive technology designed for people with disabilities. For example, JAWS screen reader software for people with visual impairment is nearly double the price of an iPad. Many of the apps that are available for use on all smartphones and iPads only cost a couple of dollars or are even free to download.

You now know a little about readers, smartphone apps and the iPad, but what about iSkills?

“iSkills is a project designed for individuals, primarily teenagers and adults with developmental disabilities to provide a portable, easy-to-use way to have access to videos of things they have to do in daily life but may not remember how to do all that effectively,” ays Kevin Ayres, principal investigator of the project and an associate professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education’s Department of Communication
Sciences and Special Education.

iSkills is working to develop a free iPhone application and an online video library that would allow parents, teachers and other caregivers to upload videos for their loved ones or others who might need them.

“It was conceived as a way to help individuals be more independent and less reliant on the support of others so they can essentially support themselves, and either teach themselves or prompt themselves.”

The original project goal was to get about 50 initial videos in a library, but they were able to surpass this goal and now have about 120 videos. The video actors are people with disabilities who perform tasks that deal with “anything from how to make a grilled cheese sandwich to running a load of laundry to cleaning a toilet . . . functional life type of things,” according to Ayres.

One of the advantages to iSkills is the opportunity for a person who may need help (or a helper) to make out a daily schedule. “They can lay out the videos in the sequence needed,” says Ayres. “They could set it up so that when they wake up in the morning, they have to brush their teeth, fry an egg and iron their pants because they have a job interview.”

Ayres is enthusiastic about the potential of the iSkills concept, noting that “it might be thought of as a handheld video cookbook for everyday tasks … as we’re going through something we’ve done many times before, we sometimes don’t remember the order of the steps. (The iSkills videos) can help. If people don’t need a particular video, they don’t have to access it. But if needed, the videos provide that kind of support.”

The project is being funded by a three-year $1.2 million dollar grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences, which is part of the US Department of Education. A wide range of people are involved in the project including co-investigator, Lloyd Rieber, as well as other UGA-based individuals such as doctoral students with special education backgrounds, former classroom teachers and students in instructional technology.

Community partners include Joan Baird, the special education director for Madison County Schools who is on the iSkills Advisory Board, as well as her daughter Hannah Baird, who has disabilities. The director of Hope Haven (a community program in Athens for individuals with developmental disabilities), Mike Walker, is also on the Advisory Board.

The system and videos are still being tested and edited right now and are not yet ready for the public, but the iSkills website will hopefully be activated for the public by next June.

Working on the Workplace.
The Department of Education (DOE) through the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), funds Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs) at sites like Georgia Tech University. The Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA), which is the research center located in the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech and other RERCs focus on identifying, developing and promoting new technologies that maximize independence and participation of people with disabilities in the workplace.

“The NIDRR funds a number of different research and development mechanisms, one of which is the RERC program,” explains Jon Sanford, the director of CATEA and an associate professor in the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech. Sanford explained that there are 20 or 21 RERCs nationally, three of which are located at Tech and two of them at CATEA. They also have other programs including a research and training program, a disabilities in business technical assistance program and an investigator-initiated research program.

One of the grants at Georgia Tech is the Wheeled Mobility RERC, which focuses on wheelchair design, seating design and other wheeled mobility devices such as a pediatric transport design that is like a pediatric Segway.


Currently, there are many projects dedicated to understanding user needs, the accommodations currently available and how effective they are, as well as understanding where the gaps are in order to accommodate workers so they can better perform their job tasks.

“We have a project to develop a device for people with developmental disabilities and cognitive issues that would basically provide constant reminders for doing job tasks,” Sanford reports. “The device would automatically track what jobs should be done, and if a sequence of tasks was interrupted, it would prompt and remind the user that something was not done in order.”

“Conceptually, if you were to videotape the steps necessary to perform a task, the computer would recognize those steps. If one wasn’t performed, the software that was developed would recognize that you missed a step and tell the user to go back,” says Sanford. “For example, open a box, put something in the box and move it along. If you just opened the box and moved it along without putting something in – the computer knows what the tasks are and it would prompt you that the sequence wasn’t followed.”

Another current device that uses similar technology is for people with communication disabilities. It allows their augmentative communication devices to create sentences that have voice output.

Right now it takes a long time for the user to actually communicate because people with the devices often have motor skill problems, and may not be able to type quickly or easily.  “(The difference would be) using technology to recognize where you are in the environment and with whom you are communicating,” Sanford notes.

“As an example, if an employee goes into his or her boss’ office, the device would recognize that area and pull up typical conversations you might have in that situation with that person.”

“It’s a system that first organizes language and communication into more appropriate
‘chunks’ for that situation, recognizes the situation and pulls up those chunks that are necessary.”

According to Sanford, testing remains a slow process. “We’re actually looking for people now with communication disabilities to test the difference between this new system versus a typical device that’s off-the-shelf.”

These new ideas come from many sources. Most of the people working on the projects are now or have been providers of service, but workers with disabilities are also interviewed and surveyed so their problem areas can be targeted for research.

Funding for these types of projects occurs every five years, and during the fourth year of each project, there is a “state of the science” conference held where the Georgia Tech researchers identify the problems people are having and the needs they can help solve.

The work being done by the Georgia Tech RERC and others is obviously not cut and dried. There are no simple solutions, and progress is often incremental rather than happening quickly.

“The projects are still in development and it will actually be several years before they are available. We have been working with manufacturers of current products to allow us to ‘hack’ them and improve them with our technology” remarks Sanford. “Bringing usable devices to market will be done in steps.”

What’s important though, is that the work is being done. The research is taking place, the testing is happening in the field. And it may not even be a new idea, rather a matter of taking existing technology and bundling and configuring it differently in ways that take advantage of products already on the market.

The Communication Industry is Listening.
While individuals and research groups are creating specific technological advancements, the industry that supports much of their work is also working on devices that will make it possible for these discoveries to be used by those who need them most.

For example, mobile industry executives, application developers, disability and accessibility experts and policymakers all have a key role in making technology available and need to work in a concerted almost choreographed effort.

The M-Enabling Summit is the first global summit dedicated to mobile applications and services for senior citizens and persons with disabilities. The summit will take place this December in Washington, DC and is being organized by the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (GloG3ict/EJK Program) in cooperation with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

There will be dozens of experts who will share their knowledge with the leading representatives in the communications industry, who can help put in practice more accessible technology for all persons. The experts will cover a wide range of topics such as accessible and assistive mobile applications and services for education, independent living, health, e-commerce, travel and tourism related to public services and mobile emergency response and disaster preparedness applications and services for seniors and people with disabilities.

“Mobile technology innovations open up a whole new world of accessible and assistive applications and services for persons with disabilities, including senior citizens living with age-related challenges,” says Axel Leblois, executive director of G3ict, an advocacy initiative of UN-GAID, the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT Development that facilitates the implementation of the Digital Accessibility Agenda defined by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

“Several examples of enabling mobile technologies that are now being used by a number of applications and services are accessible interfaces, geo-positioning, near-field communications, web-enabled devices, optical character recognition, speech recognition and text-to-speech,” noted Leblois.

The M-Enabling Summit will concentrate on addressing several topics including:
• Exploring the leading mobile phone applications and services for senior citizens and persons with disabilities.
• Reviewing the new accessibility requirements of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility
Act and international legislation.
• Finding out how to successfully use accessibility strategies, expand the customer base and improve
services for all users regardless of their abilities.

“However, for those technologies and applications to be fully used to benefit persons with disabilities, it needs to be a collaboration between mobile service providers, persons with disabilities, handset manufacturers, application developers, e-government services, large users of mobile communications with the public, mobile websites and services, local government and telecom regulators. The 2011 M-Enabling Summit will be the first opportunity for all stakeholders from around the world to share experiences and establish a direction for the emerging global mobile accessibility eco-system.”

What does the future hold?
There are countless companies and products, government agencies and research centers focused on making technology and its effects available to everyone. People with disabilities are consumers just like everyone else. The innovative work happening within the mobile and computer industries is just scratching the surface of improving accessibility. Telemedicine, smart-houses and robots are all on horizon for the future.

Results are not always immediate, but plenty of places are eager to help. Technology is creating a vast new world of possibilities, and as time passes, each improvement in technology allows for increased independence and improving the overall quality of life for people with disabilities.