David Dikter is the chief executive officer of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, a post he has held for the last nine years after spending nearly two decades in Boston’s school system. At the ATIA’s conference in Chicago this week, attended by more than 1,500 people, Dikter talked with abledbody.com about new developments in assistive technology and why vendors are learning to embrace mainstream gadgets like the Droid and the iPad.
Q: David, what’s new in ATIA this year?
A: Definitely the mobile devices and applications, like the iPad. We’re really also getting to the point where mobile products can help people with severe disabilities, like intellectual disabilities. They’re helping people communicate tremendously. And we’re also seeing a push with learning and education tools for people on the autism spectrum. Assistive technology vendors are starting to embrace mainstream gadgets and develop apps that specifically work for people with disabilities. They’re getting creative because they see how well these products work, from Apple to Android, and it’s inspiring. Companies like Apple have created a business model that makes it easy for people with disabilities to purchase and use these apps, and for developers to create them.
Q: What are some of your new favorite products at the conference?
A: There’s a great online app that teaches math to all students, including those with disabilities, called Conceptua Math. I also like a new product for intellectual disabilities from The Conover Company. They provide computer software-based assessments and curriculum for social and emotional learning, and independent living skills, using the iPad and iPod touch.
Q: As technology becomes a global solution for people with disabilities, how is ATIA working to become a key influencer in the global space?
A: We’re really interested in this area. I’m heading to Beijing this week to speak on accessibility from a global perspective. It’s not enough to just give someone in a less developed nation the technology; we have to train them how to use it, and support them. We also have to train developers in other countries how to build accessible technology for people with disabilities. We have to teach kids to read and to communicate to be functional and independent. It doesn’t matter how good the technology is; it’s what you do with it. A student who is blind, by the time they become a young adult, if they haven’t gone to school to learn, if a country has not built the ecosystem to support them, they won’t succeed.
Q: With many mainstream products having more built-in assistive technology features, will there still be a need for specialized products?
A: Yes, there will always be a need. A good example is braille literacy. We know that teaching a blind person to read braille is very important in giving them the foundation for higher literacy skills. The only way for someone to use braille with a computer today is with braille displays [an electro-magnetic terminal that connects to a computer and displays braille characters via raised dots]. Without these displays, a person’s only choice would be to learn to read and write with audio tools. Another example is the switches and adapters that let people with mobility impairments control computers and devices.
Q: What can we do to reduce the costs of assistive technology?
A: It is what it is. Assistive technologies are custom so they don’t have the economies of scale like the mainstream products do. But if we were to give a student, say, exactly what she or he needed to succeed in school, they could use that technology for a long time. I was a teacher, and I had three special needs students who had three different ways of learning. You can give a student with a learning disability a mainstream product with built-in assistive technology like a speech engine, but it might not be what they need. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
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