Monday, February 25, 2013

Technology, disability and raising awareness

Access Ability at the San Diego Museum of Man

image of girl with physical disability riding an adapted bike.
A Public Exhibition Focused On Accessibility

I’m fortunate this week to be attending the CSUN event in San Diego, which is the largest AT related conference in the world with over 5000 professionals in the field with a great focus on eAccessibility and the needs of the blind. It’s a great location to meet with people in the field, exchange ideas and share resources, but the truth is it has a limited impact on people outside of the world of access to technology. But whilst here I took an opportunity to visit the San Diego Museum of Man, which was addressing very similar issues, but in a very different way.

Access Ability is a public exhibition which is seeking to raise awareness of “many ways to do the same thing” It is targeted upon children and families and is loosely divided into two types of activity. The first part offers people the chance to use some of the technologies that help people with a disability, you can print your name in Braille, try out a high tech sports wheelchair in race simulation, try to navigate a maze with a white cane and a mask and a range of tools such as communications aids. The kids I saw were fascinated by some of the items on display, especially trying to get up a ramp in a wheelchair and through closed door, you could see how they began to understand how much difference the slope on a ramp makes, and how an automatic door opener makes it possible to get into a room which otherwise was almost impossible.

The second area asked the visitors to think about different ways to do the same thing. There were a range of stories by young people about what they used to help them do the same thing as everyone else, and some fun things to try. One exhibit had different door handles and asked people to think about which were easiest to manipulate, another showed adapted cooking utensils whilst a third showed how the same information could be made available in different formats to help young people to learn.
Whilst it was designed to be interactive and fun, the exhibition was hugely informative and helped children shape ideas and attitudes towards design for all which will be of great value to  people with a disability in the future.

If this exhibit challenged young minds, elsewhere in the museum, issues around disability were also being raised. Open questions were asked in the future of mankind section about the ethical issues around gene therapy for conditions such as Parkinson's disease, and a debate about how far would people like to see technology enhancing human abilities, both for the whole population and for people with a disability specifically. For instance the use of artificial hips and cochlear implants is now widely accepted, but are we happy with the idea of robotic eyes for the blind, or though controlled prosthetic limbs? Flicking through some of the thoughts people had, its clear that not everyone  approved, including some people with a disability who feared a culture of enforced surgery, and being blamed for being disabled if they weren't prepared to undergo the required procedures.
Image of Person's Head in Profile with Glasses Linked to Embedded Technology
Where is the boundary for Assistive Technology in a Modern Age? 

I left the museum (which was highly accessible in itself) with many questions. I would have loved to have seen a historical perspective on aids for people with a disability included, something which gave a sense of the pace of progress, but I also wondered if such an exhibition would be valuable and have an impact in Doha, what are your thoughts?      

David Banes, Mada Center CEO

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

World Federation for Deaf Calls on the efforts to unify Arabic Sign Language to Cease.

Unifying Arabic Sign Language?

Image of arabic signs for characters in the Arabic language
Can a Living Language be Standardized?

In a strongly worded statement, from June of last year, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) have expressed their concern regarding recent efforts to unify Arabic Sign Language, claiming that such a move is a violation of the linguistic human rights of Deaf People in the region. 

Their objections to the unification process go back some time, in 2009 the group representing approximately 70 million deaf people worldwide, penned an open letter where it documents what it claims are efforts to unify Sign Language in Arab Countries. 
Efforts for the unification of Arabic Sign Language appears to be have been underway for quite some time.  In 2004, the Council of Arab Ministers for Social Affairs (CAMSA) a committee within the League of Arab States  stated that the unification of Arabic Sign Language was “to meet the needs of integration of deaf persons into society” (CAMSA 2004).

How will all of this effect services for People who are Deaf or have Hearing Impairment in this region?
If the experience of the Deaf community is anything like other social and political groups, this level of discord usually results in two outcomes, first a reluctance of policy makers to enable any meaningful change, and secondly, new developments for the community will be isolated and will be difficult to disseminate as widely as is required.

Meanwhile as the debate continues, developments in IT and Telecoms infrastructure and further work on services for people who are deaf may provide independent opportunities for ordinary citizens who are deaf to play an ever growing role in Arab society, and perhaps, influence the debate directly.  

There was a time when using a computer was ......(part 3)

About how will we use new technology?

Future Technology - man interacts will hologram
Will Technology go Minority Report on us?
“After growing wildly for years the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy”
John R Pierce, Bell Labs, 1910 - 2002

The definition of technology has changed over the years from computers to information technology (IT) to information and communication technology (ICT) and so on.  Microprocessors’ are ubiquitous, it has become difficult to find devices that are classified as technology that do not have a microprocessor at the core of its operation.  
Back in 1999, when we all lived in fear of the impending doom of the Y2K bug, it started to dawn on us that no matter what our opinion was or our personal feelings about computers, there were very few places left on Planet Earth where we could avoid them.

We now consider ourselves ICT users, if we use a Smartphone, access the web on a mobile device, use APPS, type an e-mail on our laptop, or sit at our desks to upload our photos to a cloud based storage drive.

The number of ways we now interact with ICT has also changed because the nature and breadth of the devices has changed.  It could be argued, that we now need to be able to type, use a mouse, interact with a touch screen (of varying size and shape).

Arguably, it took the advent of the iPad to move ICT from the desk into people’s hands.  It opened the possibility of using technology in a way that does not involve clumsy peripherals.  Moving the keyboard and mouse to the side of the access debate has introduced the world of ICT to a much younger audience, seeing children of 2 and 3 years in a car or on a plane journey is now a common sight.  Making Smartphones a gateway device for the Internet and services such as Twitter, Facebook, newsfeeds etc., has also drawn older users into the ever widening ICT family.

It could easily be argued that we are at a junction, where the future of how ICT is used is standing at a crossroads.  We encounter arguments that people will continue to use desktops and laptops as “office” machines - will there even be such a thing as an "office", let alone an "office machine".  
Will a tablet device require a keyboard to be useful and who will win the "Battle of the APPS" to become the dominant mobile operating system.   
The analogy of the crossroads may not in this case be the most accurate; rather it might be better to describe the situation like a tree, waiting for the conditions required to allowfor the emergence of new branches. 

There was a time when using a computer was ......(Part 2)

Making ICT Mobile

"The great thing about a computer notebook is that no matter how much you stuff into it, it doesn't get bigger or heavier"
Bill Gates - Microsoft Founder

Reading the Steve Jobs biography recently, there was a story mentioned where Jobs in a team meeting during the early days of the Macintosh development in the early 1980’s, produced a little notebook and claimed that this was his dream for personal computers.  
  I remember my first laptop, shared amongst an entire department of 12 people and considered so precious that I had to sign it in and out of the office.  At the time, I remember arguments from people that they would never replace the desktop computer, because people liked sitting at a desk to do their work, or that it would encourage people to work at home.

Hobbyist computer users in particular were appalled, why would anyone create a motherboard where you couldn’t change expansion cards, add memory to slots, etc.?  At one point a previous manager I had in his wisdom decided to buy us all Luggable Computers (does anyone remember these?), these were often referred to as “Lunchboxes”, although mine resembled a Sewing Machine, and weighed in at around 12 kilos, to there wasn’t anything very portable about this particular generation of portable computers.

Thankfully Laptops came down in price (and size!!!!), and lo and behold, people started to realize that using a computer might not require a desk as an essential extra.

For people with a disability, particularly those with Communication Needs, laptops offered a whole new realm of opportunities; communication from a wheelchair, communication at home, at school, in McDonalds.  It also opened opportunities for software designers to move communication software to a cheaper, mass produced device that had more processing power than the old dedicated devices that were created solely as dedicated communication devices.

It also presented the opportunity to provide a person who couldn’t speak to use their personal communication device as a tool for learning, a writing tool, a means of accessing the Internet and of communicating with people at a distance.  Laptops, in effect began to make realistic the concept of having a multifunctional device for people with a disability at relatively low cost.

There were a couple of pretty disastrous forays into the world of Tablet Computers.  Anyone remember, Microsoft Tablet?  I do remember visiting a trade show and everyone marveling at how wonderful it might be to use a computer with a keyboard, or hey presto, with a pen.  I remember my first thought was, “I know I’d lose that pen”!

There was a time when using a computer was.......

The Desktop

Imagine of Computer on sale in a Garden
You Cant Even Give It Away!

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”

Ken Olsen, President Digital Equipment, 1977

During the heyday of the Home Computer, being able to use a computer meant that you had to be able to read off screen and use a keyboard or mouse.

Working with people with a disability, effectively we just looked at alternatives to these.  
In the case of people who couldn’t read off a screen, we proposed using Screenreading Software.  For people who couldn’t use a keyboard or a mouse effectively, we looked for hardware alternatives, one handed keyboards, rollerballs and joysticks instead of the standard mouse.  We replace like for like, often without radically changing the way the computer is used or is intended to be used.

Even for people with significant physical disabilities, those that required using a switch to access the computer, effectively what we have done in the past in replaced the traditional keyboard and mouse combination with a switch and a software alternative to both of these items of hardware.
During the early proliferation of computers, particularly in schools, there was an obsession with teaching typing skills.  It seemed for a while that the best hope a person with a disability had in terms of getting a career was to learn to type. 

We were still awfully precious about using computers, mainly because they were (certainly in schools) a rare and much desired commodity.  One colleague of mine, on recommending a Mini Keyboard for children with motor disabilities would often photocopy the keyboard and provide that to the child in question for a few months so that they could practice their typing skills without damaging the precious keyboard.  In the early days of using technology, for children with a disability there was often a sense that they had to earn the right to use such a device, or demonstrate their worth by performing trials of fire in therapy or in class over a series of months.  I also remember at the time, teachers and therapists recommending that children with a disability should at least be in secondary school before they consider using computers.

The real effect of this was that it meant that we, the so called, experts told people with a disability how they should use ICT and for what.  Because ICT was expensive and still considered a luxury for the bright and able, it meant we also had a significant influence not just on how and for what people with a disability used a computer but also where and for how long.

Extending Eye Gaze Technology for Natural Writing

Abstract Image of EYEGAZE Technology

Using Eye Gaze control systems has become a realistic option for providing computer access for people with severe physical disabilities.  For people with very minimal, controlled movement for example people with Locked In Syndrome or Motor Nuerone Disease (Amylotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), such technology has provided access to communication, entertainment, safety, home control as well as the standard functions offered by computers.

Eye Gaze Control systems work by using a range of cameras mounted in a computer monitor to track your eyes as they move.  The computer then, after a period of training, associated this movement with the movement of the cursor on screen thus giving the person control over the mouse.  
Clicking is controlled either by the person blinking, or alternatively dwelling in an area until the mouse automatically clicks.

Typically a person who wants to type, would use this system to control a virtual keyboard on screen by moving their eyes, and consequently the mouse to a particular letter and then selecting the letter by clicking. 

Such a mechanism for typing is obviously very slow, however, new research by neuroscientist Jean Lorenceau at the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University in Paris, France, has found a way to write onscreen using your eyes by using an optical illusion called "reverse phi motion". The reverse phi effect means that moving your eye in any direction while looking at the screen makes it appear as if an on-screen dot is moving in that same direction, this makes it possible to trace shapes onscreen in a continuous movement, thus providing a person with the opportunity to draw letters, numbers and even pictures.

Such developments could see people with significant motor disabilities extend how they use computers, giving opportunities for a more creative expression through writing or indeed producing art.

For more information click on the link below:

For profiles of people with a disability using this technology click on the link below:

Need for Increased Use of Hearing Loops in Public Spaces

Hearing Loop Symbol
International Symbol for Hearing Loop

The need for increased awareness and use of Induction Hearing Loops has been highlighted in a recent report pointing at the slow adoption of this useful and relatively low cost technology, particularly in the US.
As we live longer lives surrounded by the sounds of traffic, construction and loud music in public, the rate of hearing loss in the general population has steadily risen, with more and more people using small discrete hearing aids to assist them on a day to day basis. A Hearing Aid is a device which typically fits in or behind the wearer's ear, and is designed to amplify sound. 

One of the problems reported by Hearing Aid users is that in noisy, open or public spaces all of the ambient noise is amplified, and therefore it is difficult to focus on particular sounds, like the sound of someone speaking, public announcements etc.  The technology is an Induction-Loop System (known as a Hearing Loop), whereby electromagnetic waves produced by a microphone, public address system or telephone receiver induce a current in the loop. The loop can broadcast the signals directly to a hearing aid equipped with an appropriate detector—specifically, a tiny copper telecoil wire, which picks up the signal (also via induction) and then sends it for amplification and transmission out of the earpiece.
Audio Induction Loops or telecoils have been described as “Wi Fi for Hearing Aids in that they  allow audio sources to be wirelessly broadcast to a hearing aid, which makes it easier for  the wearer to filter out background noise. They can be used with telephones, FM systems (with neck loops), and induction loop systems (also called "hearing loops") that transmit sound to hearing aids from public address systems and TVs.

In order for a Hearing Aid user to avail of a hearing loop in a building or public space, their Hearing Aid must be fitted with a T-Switch or must be programmed to be compatible with such loop systems.  Following the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act in the UK, every public building, wherever it is reasonable to do so, must fit a Hearing Loop in order to make their activities accessible for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.
It is clear however, that the need for similar work elsewhere in the world is now more important than ever.  This has been highlighted by the recent “Get in the Hearing Loop” campaign by the American Academy of Audiologists.

For Qatar, there appears to be much work to be done, ensuring firstly that people who are hard of hearing know about and understand the benefits of Hearing Aids and secondly increasing the awareness amongst those responsible for buildings and public spaces, that providing a Hearing Loop can make all the difference in ensuring a more inclusive society for the country.

More information is available from:

New Developments in Robotics

Picture of a Lady using a Robotic Arm to Drink
Picture of a Lady using a Robotic Arm to Drink

Working in Assistive Technology, we are always waiting for the next "killer APP", the technology that will come along and have a transformative effect on the lives of People with a Disability.  For many years we've looked in hope to the emergent field of Robotics for that breakthrough.

Researchers working on the Braingate Project at Brown University in Rhode Island, U.S.A., have successfully tested a Robotic Arm with a 58 year old woman paralyzed in 1996, enabling her to lift a cup of coffee to her lips independently for the first time since her accident.  Lead researcher John Donoghue reported that "for the first time in 15 years, she was doing something for herself”.

Previously the team at Brown University had used similar technology to allow a paraplegic man to control a mouse cursor on screen so as to use computer applications.
The technology currently being tested depends on small sensors being implanted in a person’s brain, these pick up signals from neurons in the motor cortex - the part of the brain that governs movement.  Through a series of exercises the sensors pick up particular signals and in turn “teach” the system which ones relate to particular movements.

Similar developments have been seen in recent research in the related area of Brain Control Interfaces (BCI), where researchers have been achieving similar results without the need for invasive sensors being implanted directly on a person’s brain.  Such non-invasive BCI’s tend to use senors that a person can wear on their heads, these pick up brain signals such as EEG (electro-encephalo-gram) signals which are similarly transferred into movements for robotics, controlling a computer or other devices.

Donoghue says the results are an important step towards assistive devices that can be controlled directly. "You can imagine an arm like this mounted on a wheelchair," he says.  Similarly, in the future we could see such cutting edge ICT used to connect people with significant disabilities with all of the potential that the internet has to offer.