Saturday, September 19, 2009
An article of interest on my site - The New York Times wrote a piece on health insurers' refusal to pay for speech generating devices if they performed other functions like email or a web browser. Because essentially, this turns the device into a computer and the insurers aren't in the business of buying people's personal technology, so the arguement goes. Roger Ebert, the film critic who lost some of his voice after cancer surgery, weighs in, as do others. Check out my comments here.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Many of you know that I have a website Abledbody.com. I would be thrilled if you checked it out. While I love the design, it leaves little room for random ramblings -- and Twitter just doesn't feed the crave. So I'm resurrecting this blog as a place to put all the other stuff that doesn't seem as professional. It may be about deafness and disability; it may not. But you'll be able to find these posts by tag. I'll also be working on redesigning Abledbody to make it more bloggy, less magaziney. Would love your thoughts. Thanks!
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Today I launched a new website, abledbody.com, a news platform for the 54 million Americans and 20 million families touched by disability. Abledbody.com is the first consumer website to focus on the technology and innovations that help enable people with disabilities in their workplace and lifespace. I'm really excited about this new venture and I hope you'll all join me at the new site, which will still include my Profoundly Yours blog.
Here is the news release. Thanks for your readership!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
A group of Washington state residents have filed a lawsuit to force movie theaters to make closed-captioned movies available more frequently to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Washington State Communication Access Project, who filed the suit, says more accessible entertainment should be available under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Movie theater oweners disagree, saying that they only need to provide access to the theater, and not to the films. This is a diplomatic way of saying they don't want to spend the money. I know because I wrote about this issue in 2001 for BusinessWeek; not much has changed eight years later. Movie theaters, backed by the Motion Picture Association of America, are reluctant to spend money to burn open captions onto films, which they say they could "drive away" hearing viewers. The current solution, rear-window captioning, requires a piece of Plexiglass that sticks into the soda cup and projects open captions onto the device from a special projector in the back of the theater. It is one of the silliest technologies I've ever used. Read about my experience at Jurassic Park 3 here: Read Any Good Movies Lately? As recently as six months ago, I tried to attend a rare, captioned movie at an AMC theater in New York City and waited patiently on line at the customer service center for the free Plexiglass piece. Nobody could find it. It took 15 minutes until someone figured out where the device was stored. I had to turn in my driver's license as collateral. Needless to say I was late to my seat and had to sit in the front row, where the captions didn't work at such an awkward angle. So I got a refund and left. Ironically, when I spoke to General Cinema spokesperson Brian Callahan back in 2001 he said this: "No one is in a position to spend $10,000 on a technology [rear-window captioning] that might be obsolete in a few years." Well, it has been eight years, Mr. Callahan, and we're still using them. It's time for an upgrade.
Craig Grimes today launched the world's first instant online booking engine for disabled travelers: www.accessible.travel. Grimes, who is a seasoned traveler and a paraplegic, has spent the last few years living in Nicaragua navigating the country's inaccessible roads and stores via a wheelchair. It hasn't been easy for Grimes, who broke his back 12 years ago. But, if anyone can do it -- Grimes can. The British-born advocate already operates the travel-guide websites AccessibleNicaragua.com and AccessibleBarcelona.com, two ventures that he began after realizing the dire lack of information about accessible adventurous vacations.
The need is definitely there. It's a $13.6 billion annual market in the US alone, according to a study by the Chicago-based advocacy group Open Doors Organization. A separate study by the group revealed that 21 million US adults with disabilities traveled for business or pleasure in 2003-04.
Grimes hopes that www.accessible.travel will serve as a "Travelocity for disabled travelers," according to an article in The Christian Science Monitor. The booking engine will allow travelers with disabilities to search handicap-accessible hotels by city, price, and levels of accessibility, then book their rooms directly online. Users can also book airport transfers in specially equipped vehicles, mobility equipment, guided tours, and museum passes, among other services. The site will list in-depth information and hotel descriptions for people with disabilities, and will eventually allow visitors to view virtual maps of hotel bathrooms to make sure the dimensions and specifications meet their needs.
At first, accessible.travel will start by offering booking options for eight cities around the world: Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Oslo, Paris, Prague, San Francisco, and Melbourne. Once the page starts generating revenue, Grimes hopes add at least one new city to each month.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Amazon introduced on Monday a new version of Kindle, its electronic book reader. The Kindle 2 has several new features, including a text-to-speech function that allows readers to listen to books with a computerized voice. Though CEO Jeff Bezos didn't say so, Amazon partnered with a key assistive technology company, Nuance Communications, the maker of RealSpeak software. RealSpeak is the same technology that enables text-to-speech on Nokia cell phones and Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen readers to make them accessible for the blind and visually impaired. Nuance also makes Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech-recognition program that's popular among workers with mobility impairments who can't type on PCs. But Amazon didn't take advantage of Nuance's full accessibility features, such as its menu of custom voices. Kindle 2 users can only choose between a male or female voice, which makes the speech function adequate for reading a recipe or a short article, but not a longer novel. However, Amazon calls the text-to-speech function "experimental" -- so perhaps they'll upgrade to more sophisticated voices in future versions. As with Kindle 1, Amazon noticeably failed to consider accessibility in the new device's design and function. For example, a person with a learning or reading disability would benefit much more if the text could be highlighted and spoken at the same time. Amazon cited "improved ergonomics" for holding the Kindle 2, but didn't address how the device might help readers with physical impairments who cannot hold traditional books. For those with limited vision, the Kindle 2 offers six fonts, but only up to 18 points, which isn't sufficient for a person with more than an eye-strain issue. Likewise, images -- but not text -- can be zoomed to full screen size. There's also the issue of how the books are formatted. Bezos says his vision is to have "every book ever printed, in every language" available on the Kindle. But he neglected to say in which formats. There is no Braille support, no large-print support and no speech capability for operating the Kindle if you can't see the buttons. Overall, Amazon missed a huge opportunity to market this new device to people with disabilities. Perhaps Amazon doesn't think the disabled can afford the $359 price tag, but people with disabilities are apt to spend twice as much on technology that will improve their lives. Unfortunately the Kindle 2 isn't one of them.
Friday, February 6, 2009
The latest innovation from Google is Google Latitude, which pinpoints the location of your friends and family on a map. This application excites me to no end because of its possibilities for aiding the disabled, like the deaf and hard of hearing. I think back to the early ‘00s, before I had my cochlear implant and relied on a hearing-aid. I was unable to hear on the telephone and SMS (text messaging) was available only if you and your friends used the same service provider. A typical Friday night: "We’re at McFadden’s!" my friends would scream into the phone. "The corner of 49th and Second avenues!" In the midst of noisy Manhattan, I can’t decipher what they’re saying and I don’t know where to direct the cab driver. I give up and go home. Beyond drinking adventures, the deaf and hearing-impaired can, conceivably, use Google Latitude if they lose their group at an amusement park or concert where it can be hard to hear on the phone. Yes, SMS is ubiquitous these days, but what if your friends don’t know the address, or can’t pinpoint their location? Plus, GPS and WiFi is real-time, more integrated, more detailed and free to use. For the blind, Google Latitude also has immeasureable application. When I was at SATH last month, Carlos Garcia of Human Network Labs showed me a prototype of a "situational awareness" device that would help blind parents keep tabs on their children. The device uses data-tracking technology, not GPS, and will require the parent and child to wear a communications device about the size of an iPod to speak the remote locations of a child, his or her distance from the parent, and explain how to reach the the child at this location. Using Google Latitude with speech capability instead, a person who is blind can achieve the same results if both they and their children are carrying mobile devices -- and what kid isn’t these days? Google Latitude will work on most color Blackberries, most Windows Mobile 5.0 devices, most Symbian S60 devices, and phones powered by Google’s Android mobile software, such as the T-Mobile G1. It will soon be calibrated to work on the iPhone and iPod Touch, too. (The iPod Touch has built-in speech with VoiceOver.) This is a seriously killer app with life-enhancing benefits for the blind and deaf.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
President Obama has chosen Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and a veteran of the Iraq war, to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the role, she will be responsible for the VA’s public affairs operations and programs for homeless veterans. I had wrongly predicted that Obama would pick Duckworth as VA Secretary, but he chose Gen. Eric Shinseki, who has more experience in Washington and was removed from the then-impending Illinois senate scandal. Before former governor Rod Blagojevich was charged with trying to sell the Illinois senate seat, Duckworth had been mentioned as a possible choice to replace Obama. Her chance never materialized, though it's likely she wasn't influential enough for Blagojevich's ambitions. Duckworth, who lost both her legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in 2004, ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2006.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Before I start blogging about the gadgets and devices that I discovered at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, I wanted to write about something I have been chewing on for the last 24 hours, which has ultimately altered the way I am going to approach my upcoming book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology (due out in late 2009). While there were lots of cool, new technologies exhibited at ATIA, I also had the chance to attend a half-dozen seminars that, when tied all together, painted a fantastic yet mostly under-reported picture of the future of assistive technology and the driving forces that will allow people with disabilities -- whether they are born with one, have been injured during a war, or are experiencing the effects of aging -- to live longer and more fruitful lives. Here are five trends that today are shaping the assistive technology environment:
1. Globalization of access. A young boy in an African village uses an old cell phone, which provides the majority of Internet use among poorer people in Africa, to download books to teach himself to read and learn English. He also uses a global commodity trading site to benchmark daily prices of chickens and goats to sell and trade in his village. Whether this boy has a disability matters not, because he is still able to educate and employ himself using the power of the Internet that began in wealthy nations and is trickling down to the third world. Globalizing information to make it available and accessible to everyone, with or without a disability, regardless of whether they have a computer, is a philosophy that has recently been coined among a group of researchers as "Raising the Floor." This team is working to develop a free, open-source model among researchers and developers by which users anywhere in the world can log in to their profile, which has been customized for their Internet accessibility needs. The concept is similar to Google Language, but for accessibility and disability. With enough resources and dedication, its impact across the world will be astounding.
2. Universal design is the next green. Universal Design is a framework, in particular, for technology that is created to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. For instance, a computer or mobile phone that has built-in access features for anyone with a sight, hearing or mobility disability, which can easily be turned on or off (similar to Microsoft OS Accessibility Options, which have improved substantially in Windows 7.) The Institute for Human Centered Design compares universal design to green design, saying that green design focuses on environmental sustainability, while universal design focuses on social sustainability. Universal design MUST be how companies design -- and consumers interact with -- technology in the future. Having assistive technology built into the process, not just the product, will effectively eliminate the need to distinguish between disabilities -- which is a cornerstone of global disability classifications -- and will also add more sustainability to products as users age or develop a disability.
3. Web-savvy grandmas. When our grandparents were senior citizens, they spent most of their time doing the typical activities: cutting coupons, traveling, finding the early bird specials, enjoying time with family, taking care of health matters, and so on. This hasn't changed, but the computer age has changed how we -- and the next generation of older Americans -- are doing it. The examples mentioned above all can be conducted online now, on websites like Redplum,com, Expedia.com, Yelp.com, WebMD.com. Meanwhile, programs like e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and Skype help us keep tabs on our family and friends. With 78.2 million baby boomers, there's a real need to make high technology accessible. Not only will this generation demand it, they will require it in order to continue their livelihoods. The aging population gives another dimension to the disability technology issue; this group will crack open the market for high-tech assistive technology, and create incredible opportunities for companies like Dell, RIM, Nokia, Google, and others to design technology without accessibility limitations.
4. iPhones of the future. As devices and gadgets become more sophisticated, technology will be more of a harbinger of productivity than ever before. Apple's iPhone, for example, allows you to be a multi-tasking savant: Find the cheapest gas station and a recipe for risotto while learning Spanish and booking a golfing trip? No problemo. (One of the newest iPhone apps is iSpectrum's Color Blind Assistant.) The only way to make these cool gadgets more accessible is to push for and utilize advancements in technology that are still in their pioneering stage, especially for mobile devices, like tactile multi-touch, alternative mouse formats (eye-controlled iPhone, anyone? Apple already put out a speech-enabled one), speech recognition, text to speech, closed captions, screen magnification, and the list goes on. New technologies work best when they're built in from the start, not retro-fitted.
5. America's disability agenda. Barack Obama is the biggest disability celebrity since Casey Martin, who successfully challenged the Supreme Court to use a golf cart on the PGA Tour. President Obama knows the facts: Under his watch he has 54 million Americans with disabilities, two million American children ages five to fifteen with special needs, and 60,000 U.S. service members who have been wounded or become mentally ill from battlefield experience. He has already laid out his agenda for helping people with disabilities succeed, which can be read here, and it includes boosting education and employment opportunities by providing resources such as assistive technologies. What's more, President Bush in September 2008 signed an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act that more strongly ties the ADA to Section 504, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires schools and companies to provide equal access through accommodations and modifications, such as -- you guessed it, assistive technology.
Assistive technology is the hope on which the future hinges for large sections of American society as well as those in developing nations. Assistive technology, it can be argued, is as important to humankind as the protections we are putting in place for the environment as it protects people's creativity, productivity and intelligence from diminishing under artificial barriers. Assistive technology will level the playing field, raise the floor and open the doors. Millions of people will be knocking, and assistive technology will let them in.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA)2009 conference in Orlando is off to a great start. I attended sessions on VoiceOver for iTunes, and Apple shipped in 50 or so brand-new Macs to demonstrate speech capabilities for the iTunes library, a new accessibility feature that will be rolled out by summer. A visually impaired attendee, Adam Gaffney, who works for Florida's agency for blind services, whizzed through VoiceOver and pointed out potential goofs. I couldn't hear on the available earbuds so I tried to follow along somewhat haphazardly. But it's still a very cool feature. Microsoft presented the new built-in screen magnifier for Windows 7. A nice add-in for the visually impaired, if not basic. I also attended an awe-inspiring talk by Benetech's Jim Fruchterman, who I met several years ago when he launched Bookshare.org, an audio book service for the blind that's essentially like Napster for books (only he worked in collaboration with publishers, not against them.) Jim and his research partner, Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Wisconsin's TRACE center for assistive technology research, talked up the invention of a "superbrowser" that will give equal access to content over the Internet to all disabled people, all over the world. More details to come on that initiative, and others, as ATIA continues on Friday.
Monday, January 26, 2009
The New England Patriots Hall of Fame in Foxborough, Mass., is installing a listening and closed-captioning system that will allow people with disabilities to experience the museum in much the same fashion as visitors who are not disabled. An article in The Boston Globe says the hand-held devices are pocket computers that pick up infrared or FM radio signals beamed from transmitters in the ceiling. The system tracks visitors as they move about, triggering audio descriptions for the blind and closed captioning or enhanced audio for those with hearing problems. One of the more popular exhibits is a re-created huddle that includes life-size statues of players and quarterback Tom Brady calling a play. Visitors can stand in the huddle and hear Brady bark instructions. For a visitor who is deaf, the hand-held device runs closed captioning at the same time Brady is speaking. Visitors who have partial hearing can wear headphones that receive enhanced audio from an FM transmitter. For those who are visually impaired, the device describes the scene in the huddle. The system is one similar to the one used at Disney World, which I recently wrote about for BusinessWeek.com. All in all, not many sports establishments think about disability when designing new stadiums and museums, so this is great to read about. The museum admission is $10 and the devices are free to use.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has agreed to settlement a lawsuit claiming that it discriminated against its people with disabilities under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and promised to improve access for persons with disabilities at its stores nationwide. The agreement resolves an investigation that was initiated after the U.S. Department of Justice received several complaints alleging that Wal-Mart had refused to make reasonable modifications to its rules, policies, practices, and procedures for customers with disabilities. In particular, several complainants alleged that Wal-Mart denied equal access to its stores for people with disabilities who use service animals; at least five complainants alleged a failure to provide disability-related assistance, two complainants alleged that Wal-Mart denied equal access by failing to make reasonable modifications in order to accept payment by people with disabilities at different stores; and one complainant alleged that a Wal-Mart auto service department denied him equal access to its services because he was deaf and did not have a cellular telephone. The settlement agreement covers all facilities located in the United States where Wal-Mart sells any good or service to members of the public, including all Wal-Mart stores, Supercenters, Sam’s Clubs, and Neighborhood Markets. The agreement, which will be effective for three years, requires Wal-Mart to take several steps to improve access for customers with disabilities, including:
- an undertaking by Wal-Mart not to discriminate in violation of Title III of the ADA and to provide reasonable modifications to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA, such as disability-related assistance such as helping customers in locating, lifting, and carrying items;
- the adoption and implementation of an ADA-compliant policy of welcoming persons with disabilities who use service animals into Wal-Mart stores with little or no questioning and without repeated challenges by Wal-Mart employees;
- training for all employees on Wal-Mart’s obligations under Title III of the ADA to make reasonable modifications for individuals with disabilities and Wal-Mart’s new ADA-compliant service animal policy;
- additional training for store management and People Greeters, since employees in these positions have additional responsibilities under Wal-Mart’s new service animal policy;
- the posting of Wal-Mart’s new service animal policy on its website and in employee areas at its stores;
- the establishment of a grievance procedure in which Wal-Mart will receive complaints alleging violations of Title III of the ADA at a toll-free hotline, investigate such complaints, and take appropriate corrective actions to resolve any noncompliance with Title III of the ADA, including relief to complainants where appropriate.
Under the settlement agreement, Wal-Mart will also pay $150,000 into a fund to compensate certain individuals with disabilities who filed administrative complaints with the Department alleging Wal-Mart’s refusal to make reaonable modifications, including the denial of equal access to persons with disabilities who use service animals. Wal-Mart will also pay an additional $100,000 into a fund that will be used by the Civil Rights Division to finance a public service announcement campaign to increase public awareness of the access rights of persons with disabilities who use service animals.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Vision Free presented awards to 19 companies and organizations for making products that blind people can use. Vision Free is led by blind musician Stevie Wonder and several organizations that promote equality for visually impaired people. Among the awards this year were National Public Radio for their accessible digital radio broadcast services initiative; Apple for adding speech capabilities to its its iPod Nano and iTunes music library; and Audible.com for providing a good web interface and enabling Audible books on several devices for the blind. In an Popular Science magazine interview, Wonder says huge advances in technology have made life easier for people with physical disabilities, but there's still much more work to be done. "I hear manufacturers say, 'Oh, we forgot about that,' or 'Oh, that's interesting.' Well, think! Make your products a convenience for everyone. Be an all-inclusive company," Wonder said. At the top of the Grammy award winner's list of favorites at CES is the new Apple iPod that lets the iTunes music library "talk" to him and also has more accessible controls. On his wish list? A car that he can use to get around, though he realizes this invention could be a long way off.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The setting: Phoenix. The scene: American Idol, season eight, the momentous singing competition that makes or breaks the dreams of young, hopeful talent. Tonight's two-hour premiere was well worth watching to the very end, when 23-year old Scott McIntyre auditioned for the judges. McIntyre has been blind from birth. Sporting a 'Mind the Gap' t-shirt (a nod to London's famous 'tube' system) that he thought Simon Cowell would appreciate, McIntyre won the judges over with his rendition of Billy Joel's And So It Goes. Because of my hearing impairment, I rely on my boyfriend to tell me whether each contestant has a good voice. "Is he good? Can she sing?," I ask during each performance. I had my fingers crossed for McIntyre. "He's pretty good," my boyfriend replied, somewhat tentatively. When the song finished, I sat up straight in my seat. I had seen contestants with disabilities compete on Idol and other programs before, without success. But I knew the judges saw pure talent in McIntyre, who is also a pianist and songwriter. The final outcome: Four 'Yes'-es from the judges, and Paula Abdul told him she especially liked his "softer tones." I started to tear up, thankful that the judges saw McIntyre's talent (in addition to, or instead of, his disability), his sheer determination, and the guts it took for him to audition without his 'security blanket,' -- his piano. The media has called McIntyre's voice "soulful" and "like Coldplay." I personally can't decipher musical styles nor pitch, but I am delighted for him. Idol's producers may have made Americans wait two hours for this beautiful performance, but it was not in vain. Good luck to you, Scott. May others with disabilities (and talent) aspire to go forth as bravely as you have.
12/14 UPDATE: I want to comment on the blogsphere's ridicule of Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who tried to give McIntyre a high-five after the audition. McIntyre, who has said he has tunnel-like vision that allows him to only see "one [piano] key at a time," missed Seacreast's gesture. Now Idol watchers are making fun of Seacreast, which is wrong. The only way to learn how to communicate appropriately with a blind person is to either ask, or try. I bet most of these Idol fans have never tried -- they should take a field trip to Lighthouse International and learn the etiquette. I applaud Ryan for treating McIntyre like everyone else, and for grabbing his hand and continuing through with the motion after realizing his 'mistake.'
Last week I attended the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality's (SATH) World Congress in Orlando, where I spoke briefly on assistive technology gadgets for travel. I met many interesting people who are helping the disabled pursue their travel passions, including Craig Grimes of Accessible Nicaragua and Accessible Barcelona who puts tours together for people with disabilities (an especially tough feat in developing nations). I also met the infamous Scott Rains of Tour Watch, a social network for travelers with disabilities. He's a personable guy who puts out the excellent Rolling Rains report. I also talked with Sherri Backstrom of Waypoint Charter, who helps wheelchair users enjoy the experience of yachting via fully accessible ships. SATH held a reception at Universal Studios, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Cindy Brown, who has a background in ADA compliance and writes for several publications. Her speciality is cultural tourism; she gave a nice presentation on accessible museums, tours and theaters in the U.S. and tips on how to find them, such as by going to the accessibilty solutions page of the Theater Development Fund and the accessibility page of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.