Technology transforms lives of the disabled
By Eileen O'Connor
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
(CNN) -- My Uncle Neil has a love-hate relationship with technology.
Wounded in World War II, he's a paraplegic, and technology enables him to get into his specially equipped van and drive. Getting out of the house, he says, is essential to his sanity and survival. At age 75, he's already defied the odds, surpassing the life expectancy of most paraplegics.
Uncle Neil is an avid reader and current affairs addict. But he refuses to buy a computer or to get onto the Internet. "It would open a whole new world," I said to him.
"No," he said, "I'm afraid I would never leave the house. I'd be addicted to it."
He has a point. It would be enticing to remain linked to the world without all the pain associated with being 75 and in a wheelchair, wheeling yourself up a ramp to get into a van.
My uncle says he's technophobic. But he's excited his new van will have an electronic ramp, hand controls and a system that lets him turn on the engine from inside his house to warm it up ahead of time.
Uncle Neil says physical activity is the secret of his longevity. He still does "wheelies," as he calls them, around the track of a local gym to keep fit.
"I go there not just for physical activity, but to see people," he said. "It's the same with grocery shopping or banking. I have to do things the old-fashioned way because it's good for me. I see people, I get out and I don't get depressed."
My uncle describes himself as technophobic. But he admits he's excited that his new van, along with an electronic ramp and hand controls, will have a system that allows him to turn on the engine from inside his house to warm it up ahead of time. That will encourage him to make even more trips out into Cleveland's cold weather.
Cool gizmos that make a difference
Technology is transforming the lives of many people with disabilities.
"What is exciting about technology is that technology enables people with disabilities not only to keep up, but to level the playing field," said Jonathan Young, White House liaison to the disabled community. "It promises more opportunities in many respects than generations before."
It's dual-use technology in some cases. Take those Global Positioning Satellite devices available on some luxury cars. That same technology is being packaged into backpacks and linked to a CD-ROM talking map to help the blind navigate around an unfamiliar city. A person wearing the device, called GPS-Talk, can punch in where he wants to go, and the backpack device audibly gives directions such as "Walk one block, turn right."
"It gives you landmarks, tells you what street you're on, something a dog and a cane can't do," said Matt Ater, who runs technology training programs at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
A recent exposition in Washington showcased the GPS-Talk device, made by Sendero Group, and nearly a dozen other examples of new applications of technology for the disabled.
Touchsense, made by Immersion Corp., enables users to "feel" the icons on a computer screen. This is especially important for people with low vision who would otherwise require significant magnification of the material.
Cyberlink is a headband with sensors that pick up brain waves that result from muscle contractions. This enables the wearer to direct a computer mouse. The device can help those whose hands are only slightly or temporarily impaired, as well as those with minimal movement.
"We had one young man with Lou Gehrig's disease," said Andrew Junker, CEO of Brain Actuated Technologies, the maker of Cyberlink. "He would sit all day and surf the Internet because it's a hands-free device."
Technology, especially the computer, is helping disabled people enter the workforce.
Junker believes this type of technology increases quality of life by emphasizing what people can do instead of what they cannot. "People with disabilities have a broad range of capabilities, so when they have a device like this, it brings them to a place of empowerment."
Putting technology to work
The national unemployment rate has been hitting record single-digit lows. While statistics vary among types of disabilities and among states, federal government officials report the national unemployment rate among the disabled is above 60 percent.
Advocates for the disabled say technology, especially the computer, is helping on that front.
"There's a shortage in this country for technology workers, and now we find that the blind and the visually impaired and other people with disabilities can do those jobs," Ater said.
That is how the American Automobile Association's Chantilly, Virginia, office came to hire a blind customer service representative, one of a number of disabled workers that the AAA employs around the country.
"We're having difficulty getting people to do customer service here in Chantilly, Virginia, and it's a 24-hour operation," said Diane Corina, a human resources analyst at AAA. "With such a low unemployment rate, we have to be creative in our recruiting strategy."
AAA recruiters attended a job fair sponsored by Mainstream, a Maryland-based group that helps place people with disabilities.
The blind employee "accepts calls from AAA members in need of roadside assistance," Corina said. "She gathers information that we need to dispatch help, like where to get a tow truck. She types everything on a keyboard but to verify what she types she uses ... software which will read it back in Braille or audibly."
Corina said there were bugs to work out at the beginning but added, "I'm happy that we've done it. It takes a little patience but it's worth it. We have a really good employee who has been here every day, who is doing a good job. That's our goal. She's taking care of our members."
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Corina says the Chantilly office wants to recruit another visually impaired employee. "Now we have a good relationship with Columbia Lighthouse and others, so why not use that to get good recruits through the door?"
But even technology cannot overcome all the barriers, Ater said. "There's still a major education boom that we have to do in terms of helping people understand that a blind person or a disabled person can provide the same type of skill in a workplace that anyone else can."
Uncle Neil was a successful florist. He once told me the story of how he chose that as his profession.
"I was in the military hospital, and an occupational therapist came through the ward, saying, 'Okay, you can choose: Shoe repair or flower arranging.' I thought to myself, 'I always liked flowers.'"
Nowadays, he would have different choices. But I am sure the positive attitude that made my Uncle Neil successful would not have changed.
Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Department of Justice)
Brain Actuated Technologies, Inc.
Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind
National Federation of the Blind
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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