Thursday, May 26, 2016

Observations From Below: Automan's Utility Belt


Batman has his utility belt, James Bond has Q, and Supercrips like me often rely on assistive technology. Assistive Technology is any item, equipment, or software program that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. I'm fortunate to have been born in 1990, around the time when personal computers started to propagate. I was introduced to computers in preschool when I was around 2. My teachers thought that typing out words would be an easier way for me to communicate. They brought alphabet stickers, and placed them on the keys so I could learn the keyboard layout. They also gave me a key guard to place over the keyboard that allowed me to only hit one key at a time. These aids helped, but it still didn't increase my speed, as I am still very slow at typing.

My computer is equipped with several different programs to help me with simple tasks. The first one is my word prediction software called EZ Keys. One aspect of the program is that it predicts words as I spell them, so I don't have to type the word completely out. It also remembers my most commonly used words, as well as words that typically phrase well together. One drawback is that it also remembers misspelled words, leaving me to have to correct them manually. Correcting all those mistakes sometimes offsets the time I saved by actually using EZ Keys in the first place. EZ Keys is far from obsolete, and I use it primarily for its other features. For example, it's still used as an AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication)/Speech Device. It allows me to type in something I want to say, push enter, and a voice will say exactly what I just typed. The most famous user of this particular AAC is Stephen Hawking

In addition to typing, another task that assistive technology helps me with is reading. My cerebral palsy makes it difficult for my eyes to focus on written words, especially as I get tired. I tried wearing glasses for a short time, but they didn't address the problem, so I stopped wearing them. Although I am literate and can read on my own if I have to, it just takes much longer without my aids. Therefore, I use a program on my computer to help me read more comprehensively. The program is called Kurzweil 3000, and can read passages that I highlight from other websites and word documents. Sort of the same way a book on tape functions, I can copy and paste the text into the generator, and listen to it that way. Kurzweil 3000 is also extremely helpful in that it allows me to take notes and make outlines when I create blogs, papers or lectures.

Ever since the advent of the tablet, I've come to embrace a couple of the more popular ones on the market. I really enjoy my Kindle, especially its text-to-speech feature and vast library. Being that it is difficult for me to hold a book or to turn a page, the layout of my Kindle is perfect. I'm all for using the best technology that you can get, so I'm starting to use my iPad when having to write an email. It turns out that my iPad is a lot more intuitive with predicting words and phrases than my EZ Keys has ever been. The iPad's iTunes Store has a whole section that has chosen to highlight accessibility apps, providing assistance to people with all different types of disabilities.

A fascinating device that I used throughout college and still utilize today, is called a smartpen, designed by Livescribe. This pen can record full class seminars and interviews by pressing a button located on its specially designed pad. The pen is equipped with a tiny camera, and its memory will notate the specific time during a recording session to coordinate with the exact time you wrote your notes onto the pad. After you're done recording, you can listen to specific parts of the speech instead of the entire thing, and you're able to sync everything you've recorded to save as a file onto your computer.

The one prominent piece of assistive technology that I use on a regular basis, would be my wheelchair. I have been using a wheelchair basically all of my life, making it second nature as an extension to every aspect of my daily routines. I am in my wheelchair from the time I wake up, to the time I go to bed. I also have a van that's been disability adapted with an automatic ramp and restraints to hold my wheelchair in place during trips. This specialized van allows me to travel. I'd prefer a self-driving car, but those are still in development.

Not all of the assistive technology aids I use are state of the art. There are numerous low-tech gadgets I use every day that are beneficial to accomplish the smallest of tasks. I don't have the motor skills to open packages, so I use scissors to do so. I know of people who aren't able to close their hands all the way, so they use certain types of restraints, such as Velcro, to fixate silverware or a writing utensil to their hand. Another low-tech innovation that I use daily, is the ramp that allows me access to my front yard. There's no computer module or power switch for it, but without my basic ramp, I would be forced to perform the daunting and risky adventure of rolling my wheelchair down the steps.

I'm happy to see that the big technology companies like Apple and Google embrace people with disabilities as an important and viable market. Google has recently donated $20 million to 29 different non-profit organizations to assist in making the lives of the world's almost 1 billion people with disabilities more accessible. Now it's time for the rest of society to catch up.

That's how I roll...

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