Siobhán Long meets people benefiting from 'assistive technology' - a part of the technological revolution that has very real and practical benefits for a wide group of people
Monday, April 9, 2001
So you think you know all there is to know about computers? The latest palmtops, the coolest downloads, the flashiest web-design software? Every newsagent's is overflowing with "how to" PC magazines. Their ubiquity has bred a culture of what the linguist Noam Chomsky might have called surface-structure knowledge.
Scratch the surface and see how many of us have a grasp of what this so-called technology revolution means, apart from bandying about buzz-words such as "bandwidth" and "online communities"? The next revolution - assistive technology - may not be televised, but it will be worth staying up for.
Assistive technology is a broad church. It encompasses everything from alternative ways of using computers - apart from the standard mouse and keyboard - to communication aids that use synthetic speech, power chairs operated by switch-controlled interfaces, and environmental-control systems offering total remote control of lights, doors, windows, curtains, personal stereos, televisions - and pretty much anything else you want to control at home or at work.
Shane Ryan is a second-year student at University College Dublin, where he is studying politics and sociology. Among the many assistive technologies he uses, Ryan has harnessed the potential of voice-recognition software in particular, to enable him to complete his heavy assignment schedule.
"I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking on my home PC," he explains as he wades through his spring assignments during his mid-term break. "I also use a scanner to scan in textbooks so that I can read them more easily, on the computer screen. This saves me having to haul books around with me. Because my arms aren't that strong, I use the mouse to move through the text, so I can read more without the hassle of having to turn pages."
College life hasn't always run so smoothly. Despite the fact that Ryan knew what technology he needed before he started his course, he had to wait from October until the following March before all of it was funded through college. This meant there were five months when he had to lurch through college while waiting for the tools that would give him free reign over the course. It's not an experience that bears repeating, he says.
"Nearly the whole year was gone," he recalls. "Fortunately, my old school, Ballinteer community school, let me hang on to a computer that they had got for me a few years previously. Other people weren't so fortunate. If you don't have the technology it can be really difficult."
Máiréad Manton is sanguine about the effect assistive technology has had on her life. She uses a power chair to get around and a Lightwriter to communicate; this portable device, which is like a palmtop computer that can synthesise speech, has been a huge factor in removing the communication barrier she used to feel was impenetrable.
"I can't live without my Lightwriter. It's hell when it breaks down," she says. "People treat you more normally once they see you have power to move and communicate."
Manton lives alone, and her communication aid is central to her independence. She laments the rabid pace at which we're living our lives, and thinks that multi-tasking isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"Time is very important to let people like me say what we want to say," she explains. "People are too busy to wait. Their minds are going down too many corridors as you are trying to chat to them."
A partial solution to this "real-time mismatch" is e-mail. Manton revels in its transparency and immediacy, yet it still allows her time to compose messages and communicate on a par with anybody she corresponds with in cyberspace. "I enjoy emailing friends," she nods. "It's better than using the phone to communicate."
Manton's Lightwriter is a dedicated communication aid. Now, though, a plethora of assistive technologies is emerging from the mainstream. Palmtops can be loaded with voice-output software, and so double as speech aids.
Every Windows operating system comes with accessibility features that allow users to customise their keyboards, their mice, and even the appearance of icons on their desktops. Suffering from an acute bout of repetitive strain injury? Why not try out the onscreen keyboard that comes bundled with Windows 2000? Assistive technology is finally coming out of the closet and on to the shelves of every mainstream computer dealer in the country.
James Brosnan has pushed assistive technology to its limits, test-driving everything from power chairs to communication aids. "I am one of the lucky ones, living on my own on DCU college campus," he smiles. "I can't function without AT. I need it for every word I speak and every essay I type - all via a switch operated by my chin. No doubt 20 years ago I'd be found stuck in a home. And I know there are still one or two people like me across the country in institutional homes. Luckily, I feel blessed living a student life with AT and three personal assistants."
Brosnan uses a rugged Panasonic laptop - originally designed for the SAS, but still creaking under the weight of the demands he makes of it - to communicate. He runs a software program called EZ Keys, with synthetic speech, which he operates with his chin switch.
"I remember when I got my first talking computer," he recalls. "When I could call out for my mother, she was stunned. It is indescribable to have your vacuumed voice heard by the outside world."
Brosnan admits that the vagaries of assistive technology are as challenging as anything he's had to grapple with on his communications degree course at Dublin City University.
"Technology isn't always reliable and infallible," he remarks. "I usually am hooked up to a laptop on the top of my wheelchair desk. Sometimes I look like some little pathetic Action Man behind all the machinery. However, I'm the average Joe Soap. If I got a penny every time my system went down, I'd be as rich as Rupert Murdoch.
"Between compact software being too faulty with fragile plugs and switches having loose connections, I sometimes am in a situation of having no AT. That means I am imprisoned in my own world without any output. There should accordingly be some support or service established."
Funding - or, rather, lack of it - is an unnecessary albatross around the necks of assistive technology users, he says.
"I am a student. So that means I can apply for grants off the Government," he explains. "However, for the rest of the disabled population, organised groups raise these funds through charity - i.e. flag days and pub quizzes. People feel exposed going under the exploitative banner. It can be compared to begging.
"The image of disabled people being synonymous with passive suffering and pity is an anachronism. There should be direct purchases of equipment made from the level of government rather than by the individual with disability. Disabled people are average, responsible human beings also. I think this is done in Sweden and Germany."
Assistive-technology users and potential users include children and students with disabilities, employees who become disabled and need alternative ways of working, and people whose speech becomes unintelligible due to progressive conditions such as multiple sclerosis and or motor neurone disease. The potential of assistive technology is limited solely by our imaginations.
Assistive-technology advice and evaluation services are available through Enable Ireland in Sandymount and the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf. An assistive-technology information centre is being established at Trinity College, while University College Dublin also offers some assistive-technology support to students with disabilities. Further initiatives are under discussion at many third-level institutes. It's only a matter of time before assistive technology is made available far more widely. It remains to be seen whether its wider availability will bring a greater democracy in funding resources.
Enable Ireland is at 012695355; Central Remedial Clinic is at 01-8057400
© 2001 ireland.com