Linda Scribners’ co-workers at the League of the Blind and Disabled are accustomed to hearing two voices in her office.
The first voice – Scribner’s – is animated, direct and quick to turn into a laugh. The other voice – one that speaks through her computer speakers – is predictable, stilted and flat.
Scribner is legally blind, but that hasn’t kept her from joining the workforce. She uses Window-Eyes, a software program for the blind, to write letters, take notes and update the non-profit’s database. As Scribner types, an electronic voice announces each letter that appears on the screen.
While she doesn’t love the voice, she depends on it.
When the system goes down, I go crazy and I can’t get anything done, says Scribner, senior blind services coordinator at the league.
Adaptive technologies like Scribner’s computer program are increasingly playing an important role in the lives of Americans that have partial or full loss of hearing or sight, or have disabilities. According to a 2004 survey by the National Organization on Disability, one-third of all people with disabilities said they’d lose their independence if they lost access to their assistive technology. Seven percent said they’d be less productive at work, and 6 percent said they’d lose their jobs.
Even the smallest device can make the difference between a person being isolated from society and a person being part of society, said David Nelson, president of the league.
Adaptive technologies have evolved significantly in the past 20 years, Nelson says. And as technology has improved, so have some prices. Nineteen years ago, when he first joined the league, Nelson says a scanner for the blind that would convert print into audible speech cost up to $1,500. Today, it costs around $500.
The most helpful adaptive technologies are usually simple and fairly affordable, Nelson says.
You would be amazed by how a $10 piece of equipment can make a difference, he says. I usually tell people (adaptive technologies) are everything from Velcro to van lifts. If you can’t tie your shoes because of cerebral palsy, you can adapt those shoes with Velcro, and Velcro becomes a piece of adaptive equipment.
Still, many of the latest assistive technologies can be too expensive for many Americans.
Scott Drahos, president of Illinois-based SAJE technology, has pioneered voice-activated environmental control systems – arrangements that allow people with limited limb use to make phone calls, open doors, control the TV, regulate room temperature and perform other tasks, simply by using their voice. Although some of his systems, such as those that control one or two devices, can be as low as $1,000, many of his more extensive installations cost at least $10,000, he says. Outfitting entire houses with wireless, voice-activated technology can cost thousands more.
The league assists people that have partial or full loss of hearing or sight and people with disabilities find equipment to suit their needs. If people cannot afford the equipment, the league tries to discount the cost or find ways of giving the equipment for free. Indiana’s Easter Seals locations also help connect people with affordable adaptive equipment. The organization has equipment loan specialists based in Indianapolis who have access to a large collection of adaptive devices. Customers can try the equipment before they decide to buy it.
Patrick Robinson, Scribners’ colleague at the league, has partial vision and is dependent on assistive equipment. He sits at the league’s front desk every day, using a large screen magnifier to read mail and a talking clock to track the time. He urges every person that is blind, hearing-impaired or has a disability – or anyone who needs a little help – to explore adaptive technology.
Unless you make an effort to associate yourself with the types of material available to you, things can be difficult, he said. There are many people who have experienced vision loss and things of that nature for many years, and as a result of their denial they won’t use the adaptive devices out there. They could make their lives so much easier.
For those interested in equipment, we’ve included a quick description of several devices:
For the blind and people with partial vision:
The Zoom-Twix is a device that scans printed material as fast as 20 to 30 pages per minute and then connects to a computer where the material is read aloud to the user. Information can be saved to a computer or converted to Braille. Price: about $3,500
knfbReader Mobile is a device similar to the Zoom Twix, but used on a cell phone. It uses the cell phone camera to take pictures of text, which it then reads. Price: about $1,400
Closed-circuit televisions can use electronic magnification reading systems that enable people with partial vision to read. A CCTV uses a stand-mounted or hand-held video camera to project a magnified image of any printed matter onto a dedicated TV screen. Price: about $305 to $4,900
Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional Solutions is speech recognition software that allows users to write with their voice. Price: about $895
For people with hearing impairments:
Alerting devices use flashing lights or vibrations to alert people with a hearing loss to environmental changes. Alerting devices include the baby cry signaler, a carbon monoxide detector, a doorbell signaler, a smoke alarm signaler, a telephone signaler, a wake-up alarm signaler and a weather alert. Price: ranges from $60 for a flashing doorbell to $130 for a smoke detector with a strobe light
The Sorenson VP-200 videophone allows hearing-impaired people to communicate with others through an interpreter using American Sign Language. During the call process, cameras allow the hearing-impaired person and the interpreter to see each other on a TV screen. The hearing-impaired person signs to the interpreter, who then tells the impaired person what is being said. The process requires a high-speed Internet connection. Price: Calls are placed, for free, through Sorenson Video Relay Service. For hearing-impaired people, the equipment and installation are free.
For people with disabilities
SAJE Technology offers a wireless, voice-activated telephone system that connects to a user’s Windows XP computer. A headset can be worn, mounted or used with a SAJE speaker phone kit. Price: $400 to $500
Break Boundaries offers a remote electronic access and control system called Reach that allows people to control lamps, fans and dozens of other products in their home. People can operate Reach with touch, head control, voice and switches. SAJE offers similar systems called environmental control units. Price for Reach: $6,450 and up. Price for SAJE systems: about $8,000 and up
Fort Wayne’s Turnstone’s Center for the Disabled, on Clinton Street, has fitness equipment for people with disabilities The center, open to anyone with a disability, has wheelchair-accessible weight machines and cardio machines. Price: free