Accessible Technology Keeps People with Multiple Sclerosis Connected
By Ellen Kampel & John M. Williams
Staying connected by maximizing all that technology can offer is one way to live well with MS. Accessible technology makes it easier to gain access to information about treatment options and provides increased opportunities for connection to the MS community and other resources.
Accessible Technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment or system that increases, maintains or improves functional capabilities of individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments or disabilities.
AT encompasses both accessibility features and assistive technology. Accessibility features such as the options on your computer that allow you to change font size and color for better visibility, are built into software and other technology products. These simple adjustments to your operating system offer free solutions and will make the computer easier to see and use. Assistive technology includes products or equipment, such as screen readers or alternative keyboards that people with disabilities often use to improve their functional capabilities.
Accessible technology can help to eliminate information barriers that can lead people with MS to rely on others when, with the right tools, they could do more on their own. AT enables you to communicate with others, access the Internet, explore a wider range of entertainment options, manage your work, and control your environment.
Often called the great equalizer, AT expands information and communication opportunities among people with MS who have muscle or motor symptoms such as ataxia, vision symptoms such as optic neuritis, difficulty expressing sounds or words, and cognitive impairments such as memory difficulties.
How Do I deal with Hand, Arm and Wrist Pain?
If MS forces you to live with dexterity challenges, AT offers alternative keyboards such as touch screens, laser operated keyboards, on-screen keyboards and speech recognition programs that can reduce your fatigue and expand your access to information worldwide.
The following types of AT dexterity products, used alone or in combination can make it easier to use a computer:
A touch screen is an input device that allows you to operate a computer by touching the display screen, which eliminates your need for a mouse.
Laser operated keyboards use a head- or eye-pointing device to direct a harmless laser beam at a keyboard. Some people consider laser operated keyboards science fiction becoming reality.
On-screen keyboards display a virtual keyboard on the computer screen, which enables people with dexterity impairments to type by using a pointing device or joystick.
Speech recognition allows you to operate a keyboard with voice commands. An advantage of voice recognition is that you can control your entire environment-computers, telephones, home appliances, and other devices-with your voice alone.
How Do I Deal with Cognitive Changes?
In MS, cognitive impairments may include difficulties in memory, attention/concentration, problem-solving, speed of information processing, organizational skills, and abstract reasoning. People confronting these challenges can make use of the many reading and comprehension tools available. Programs include those that scan, reformat, navigate, or speak text out loud. These programs benefit people who have difficulty understanding conventional print materials
Other available tools include a Pocket PC with specialized software that provides solutions in a variety of settings. For example, you can enter appointments or events by recording an audio message and designating the day and time for the message to activate. And you can record step-by-step audio instructions explaining how to perform educational, vocational or independent living tasks.
What if I Can't See My Computer Screen?
When you have vision problems, you can turn to the world of screen magnifiers and screen readers. Screen magnifiers enlarge a portion of the screen, which can increase legibility and make it easier to see items on the computer. Family pictures, once too small to see clearly, are now visible.
Screen readers read everything on the screen out loud in a computerized voice. This includes text, graphics, control buttons and menus. Screen readers transform a graphic user interface (GUI) into an audio interface. They can enable you to read newspapers, magazines and books online, so you don't have to rely on other people.
What if My Voice Is Weak?
If you have language challenges, Text-to-Speech (TTS) or speech synthesizers can speak for you. You hear letters, numbers, punctuation marks and words spoken as you type them. Synthesizers also speak for you when you are experiencing speech difficulties by simultaneously giving you information visually and orally.
TTS synthesizers also can help you practice speaking, allowing you to carry on conversations with yourself by pre-programming responses to your questions. If you stretch your imagination, your person-to-machine conversations can become as sophisticated as the discussions between the astronauts and HAL, the talking computer in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Over the upcoming months, we will continue to look at how accessible technology benefits people with MS. You can expect product reviews and practical ideas about how to integrate technology into your life to manage your MS, how to stay connected to others, and how to be more productive. You will read stories and discover tips on how other people with MS are using technology to increase their independence.
Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft. John M. Williams has been writing about disability issues since 1978 and coined the phrase "Assistive Technology".
Before buying equipment, consult organizations specializing in specific disabilities. For example, for vision there is the American Foundation for the Blind (www.afb.org); for motor contact the American Occupational Therapists Association (www.aota.org); for speech contact the American Speech Language Hearing Association (www.asha.org); and for cognitive challenges contact The Coleman Institute on Cognitive Disabilities (www.colemaninstitute.org).