At the Assistive Technology Industry Association conference in Chicago this week, tablets and applications are taking the industry by storm. The iPad, iPhone and iTouch, for example, are three mainstream technologies that have access already built in. The bonus? Assistive technology vendors can now develop new specialized apps for people with disabilities that work seamlessly with these hot-off-the-shelf gadgets.
As more consumer products make headway in the assistive technology space, “buy-in” is on the rise — and is changing the field of rehabilitation, says Laura Plummer, a rehabilitation technologist and sensory specialist at Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Plummer says there’s a new way to weigh whether someone will fully use and interact with a device, or leave it in the desk drawer. It’s called the Acceptability Factor, and follows other, older criteria, like the Bootstrap Factor (“Well, might as well make do with this thing”), the Carrot Factor (“If you use this, you’ll be rewarded”) and the Compassion Factor (“This technology was made to help people like you”). There’s also, Plummer says, the Business Factor, which is simply: “Can I afford it?”
With the Acceptibility Factor, the emphasis is on coolness, portability and usability. The iPad, iPhone and iTouch, Plummer says, hit all the right notes. All three have universal access features, like built-in text-to-speech, voice command, auto text, video chat and magnification. And they function as multiple devices in one gadget for people with different disabilities, from aiding people who are deaf in communication, to providing people with developmental disorders help with tasks and scheduling, to assisting those with learning disabilities in reading and writing.
For the deaf and hearing impaired, users can talk on the phone via Skype and lip-read, or use Facetime, a new video chat tool that lets users sign conversations to each other. People who have difficulty with memory and scheduling can use these devices to build to-do lists, create calendars, and use apps like Shopper to create daily lists, such as for food shopping.
Meanwhile, those on the autism spectrum and others who are non-verbal can take advantage of apps that are far less expensive than traditional speech-generating devices. Apps like Proloquo2go and SpeakIt “open the doors for communication and control,” says Inga Smith, a mother of two kids ages 11 and 9 who are on the autism spectrum. Smith, who is a Ph.D candidate for a degree in Exceptional Student Education, is researching ways to improve outcomes for young people with autism.
In the U.S., it is estimated that approximately 1 million working-age adults have autism, and too often, this group remains underemployed or unemployed, socially isolated, and does not live independently. The key, Smith says, is to teach kids with autism how to use “everyday technologies” — from the iPad to Microsoft’s Kinect game console — to build skills that are essential to attain success in today’s workforce. Her goal is to help her kids and others gain meaningful employment in the areas of science, technologies, math and engineering, where many people with autism can excel.
For learning and reading disabilities, one of Plummer’s favorite apps is Dragon Dictation, which lets users speak into the phone to create document. Audible.com has an app that lets students listen to audio books, instead of reading them, on the iPhone, Blackberry and Droid. And ShoutOUT is a free messaging app with voice dictation. It lets you speak your Facebook and Twitter status updates on iPhone or address your contacts on Android and Brew by voice.
As smartphone competition heats up, the Droid is emerging as a leading contender. Not only is the Droid’s app store getting stronger, it also has a new type of text-input technology called Swype that is a cool alternative to the QWERTY keyboard. With Swype, users can drag their fingers on the multi-touch keypad to create words, and avoid having to touch pinpoint specific letters. Randy Marsden, CEO of assistive technology company Madentec, originated the concept of the Swype keyboard.
Swype is a great example of a specialized tech that went mainstream. It’s popularity, and the merging of more mainstream devices like the iPad into the assistive tech field, underscores how the industry is evolving. The welcoming of off-the-shelf gadgets once reserved for only those without disabilities will mean more acceptability — and more coolness– for all.
Related article: ATIA’s Dikter: What’s New in Assistive Tech
Image courtesy of Apple