Assistive Technologies Awe MS Group
By John M. Williams
After nearly three decades of writing about the empowering benefits of assistive technology for consumers with disabilities, I still enjoy observing people experiencing on demonstrations for the first time. . The versatility of these products produces a sense of physical and intellectual thrill. Erin Milner, who has multiple sclerosis, recently watched a demonstration of Lomak (light operated mouse and keyboard), told me, "I am awed, totally awed, by what I see."
Milner is one of nine members of the steering committee associated with the MS Technology Collaborative. The steering committee is comprised of people with MS who help ensure the outcomes from the project truly address the unmet technological needs of people living with MS. Recently, the members spent several hours visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Target Center in Washington, DC.
The Center's mission is to ensure that all USDA employees have safe and equal access to electronic and information technology by assessing, educating, and advocating for the integration of assistive technology and worksite accommodations. Its workstations are available to the general public for hands-on demonstrations and evaluations of assistive technologies. They are equipped with a variety of hardware and software solutions that provide accessibility to employees with visual, hearing, speech, mobility, cognitive or dexterity limitations.
The MS Technology Collaborative steering committee received a brief introduction on the Center's mission and capabilities from Kevin Curtain, the Center's manager. After the introduction, groups of three and four received interactive demonstrations of various types of technology at four stations. They spent 30 minutes at each station using the various programs and asking questions. When finished, each group rotated to a new station.
The demonstration included screen magnification programs that enlarge and enhance everything on the computer screen, making applications easy to see and use; a Lunar Screen Magnifier - for partially sighted computer users who find themselves straining to read the screen, whether it is text, graphics, toolbars, icons or emails; and a ZoomText Large-Print Keyboard that provides large, high-contrast lettering that's easy to see, even in low light conditions.
Additionally, the steering committee was introduced to screen readers. Screen readers use a software speech synthesizer and the computer's sound card to read information from the screen aloud, providing technology to access a wide variety of information. Printed documents and graphic based text was scanned and converted into an electronic text format and read out loud to them using Kurzweil 3000.
To demonstrate the technology that can assist those with muscular challenges, voice recognition was also on display.
Steering committee member Chris Armstead who occasionally experiences dexterity challenges, said, "I am overwhelmed by what I see. People with MS need to see the different types of assistive technology to know how productive they can be as the effects spread."
Armstead praises the benefits of assistive technology for people with MS. "Access to technologies like voice recognition software, especially for people with mobility issues, is so important. Most people who could benefit from taking advantage of things like this or other technologies either don't know about them or are afraid to ask," he says.
His MS activism is facilitated by the internet. "Technology definitely helps me cope, in the sense that if I feel confined to the house by my fatigue or dizziness, using the Internet allows me to communicate, stay connected and combat isolation," he says.
Other technology on display included head-tracking systems, vertical mouse, ergonomic keyboards, software for cognitive challenges and portable hand-held devices to help you read items such as grocery store labels or restaurant menus.
Voice recognition user and steering committee member and Business Transformation Analyst, Keith Askin, who uses a wheelchair, and has limited use of his hands, was most interested in alternative keyboards. He said, "This is an educational experience for me."
Dr. Elizabeth Morrison, also a steering committee member summed up the feelings of the committee, when she said smiling, "All this accessible technology is simply great technology that helps give all of us here hope for a better future."
Dr. Morrison uses Web-streaming video conferences and instant messaging to help keep up with work. In her words, "Through technology, I find a way to adapt so that I can participate in activities that I care about and find meaningful, despite my MS."
John M. Williams has been writing about disability issues since 1978 and coined the phrase "Assistive Technology". Ellen Kampel, public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft, edited this column.