Saturday, December 27, 2008

Assistive Tech for Fun and Play

I just wrote this article for, For the Disabled, More Power for Play. I thought it was about time that someone wrote about assistive technology for leisure and fun, rather than just for more functional purposes like the workplace. Some readers have commented about the high price of some of these technologies. Fair point, though I'm hoping that as more people purchase them the price will drop, and that my article will bring to light the $200 billion disability market -- giving companies more incentive to create and market their products for people with disabilities.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Audio Aquarium Lets Blind See Fish

More cool inventions coming out of Georgia Tech, this time from the school's Center for Music Technology. An "audio aquarium" is in the works that will help blind people experience marine life. It works by pairing fish and their movements with music via visual-recognition software that creates a symphony of sounds. To be sure, it's not random music emanating from the fish tanks. Specialized software links each fish movement to different instruments that change in pitch and tempo as the fish patrol the tank. Fish that move toward the surface have a higher pitch. The faster they move, the faster the tempo. Georgia Tech scientists hope to install their invention in aquariums and zoos across the nation, including the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the world's largest. The technology can be extended to other platforms, and the team has used it to track ants and other animals. In a article, associate Georgia Tech professor Bruce Walker summed up the efforts: "Many of the things we do help [people with disabilities] solve basic problems -- shopping, working, brushing their teeth ... There are very few assistive technologies that help them do the fun stuff." This new soundstage has tremendous potential (as long as it doesn't replicate that chilling theme song from Jaws)!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Banking Tech for the Deaf

In Texas, new technology will make banking easier for people who are deaf. Video relay interpreting (VRI) in American Sign Language (ASL) is now available at Frost Bank at 16 locations in Austin, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. The ASL translation service is conducted via videoconference with a personal banker in a private conference room. Deaf Link provides the service and interpreters, and Frost plans to expand to other banking locations throughout the state. VRI is an important move for helping deaf banking customers make significant financial decisions in their native language, without having to lip-read or use written notes. While the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require banks to provide sign-language interpreters, they usually will if asked -- but it can take days for one to become available and costs about $100 an hour. (The bank pays.) VRI is a much better solution. It's free to use, and the service is available 24/7. However, that doesn't mean bankers' hours will improve anytime soon. Watch a Fox News clip about the new service.

USC Designs Bar Code Reader

Wal-Mart and Target take note: Science students at the University of Southern California have designed Bar Code Reader, a program to help the visually impaired read information on grocery items by pointing their cellphones at supermarket shelves to hear descriptions of products and prices. That's just one of many products designed during ProjectPossibility, a two-day competition aimed at developing computer programs that help disabled people expand their capabilities. Another futuristic program, which could also help the physically disabled become better online shoppers, is Mind Control, which allows the physically disabled to guide a computer mouse by neural impulses. Yes, you heard it right. Using using brain waves and eye movements to control computers is already at the cutting-edge of bionic research. Earlier this year, researchers at Duke University announced that they had proved monkeys can use their brainpower to control the walking patterns of robots, a major step toward helping victims of paralysis walk again. Mind you, the USC team completed their projects in just two days. According to the New York Times, James Han, founder of ProsForPros, an Internet hosting and consulting firm for small businesses, who was the mentor of the Mind Control team, says: “We were able to leverage open-source codes for mouse control and link to the neural actuator in the first 12 hours,” Mr. Han said. “In the second 12, we created the user interface.” Imagine what these guys can do in a year or two.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Disability (Finally) Parodied on SNL

On Saturday night, SNL portrayed New York Gov. David Paterson in a four-minute "Weekend Update" segment as confused and disoriented -- often looking in the wrong direction and mistakenly walking in front of the camera when it was not his turn to speak. The skit includes Gov. Paterson saying, "Come on, I'm a blind man who loves cocaine who was suddenly appointed governor of New York. My life is an actual plot from a Richard Pryor movie." After watching the skit, Gov. Paterson said it went too far, saying such "third-grade humor" only adds to negative stereotypes. But I'm starting so see a trend here: Disability humor is now up for grabs along with the more traditional racial and ethnic jokes. There was the New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama as an Islamic, and the movie Tropic Thunder that parodied actors who tried to "act" disabled or black, giving us the infamous "R-word" that led to disability advocates boycotting the movie. Disability is starting to become a mainstream minority, and that's actually a good thing. Because once the disabled are recognized as a minority group that collectively brings intelligence, talent and perspective to the table -- the more likely we'll see disability employment rates go up, more stereotypes broken, more national coverage of disabilities in the media, and a larger understanding among abled-bodied people of what it's really like to be legally blind. Yes, it includes not knowing which direction to look in, and not being able to judge body language during a conversation. If a blind person is talking to someone who walks away without saying goodbye, he may stand there waiting, which makes him look foolish -- not because he's too dumb to realize that there's nobody there anymore, but because he can't see, and the seeing person didn't know how to properly engage in tactics that are necessary for blind people to succeed. If anything, that SNL skit should be replayed in Corporate America to give more people an understanding of what it's like to be blind, and how the abled-bodied can help -- rather than hinder -- the professional accomplishments of people like Gov. Paterson.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fuji the Bionic Dolphin

I'm going to tell you a story about the amazing ability of assistive technology to transform lives. This story is about Fuji, a 34-year old bottlenose dolphin at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, the world's second largest aquarium, whose name means "beautiful ocean" in okinawan dialect. Fuji has lived at Churaumi for 30 years, and she has three children who were born and raised there. One day the aquarium's veterinarian noticed that Fuji's tail was turning white. He discovered that Fuji had an infection and circulatory problem that was causing gangrene. The doctors were able to save Fuji's life, but they had to remove her tail fin. This dramatically impaired Fuji's ability to swim and be social, and also she started to gain weight. While medical science saved her, Fuji's quality of life was greatly reduced by the loss of her tail. Looking for a solution, the aquarium's manager contacted Bridgestone, Japan's largest maker of tires. Drawing on their expertise in rubber, Bridgestone designed an artificial tail for Fuji made of silicone, a material that is highly compatible with living tissue. The tail is mounted with an attachment made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic. Fuji spent several months in rehab with her new tail, and like most patients who try assistive technology for the first time, she didn't respond well to the rubber fin. At one point she was treating it like a toy; she kicked too hard and it fell apart. But soon Fuji realized that the tail was giving her a better life, allowing her to swim, get fit, play with her children, and remain an integral part of the aquarium's outdoor dolphin show, where today, she can jump entirely out of the water. For Fuji -- a truly "bionic dolphin" -- quality of life has been restored. Hopefully she'll have many more years of happiness in her subterranean world where, with her rubber fin she'll continue to be treated as equal by the other dolphins --and the true power of her tail will have been realized.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Are Disabilities Ready for Primetime?

Wednesday's New York Times Well column, written by Tara Parker-Pope, talks about celebrities and mental health. It's a timely topic, as Ms. Pope points out. Lately, celebrities from Britney Spears to Dennis Quaid have spoken out on behalf of medical conditions in an effort to raise awareness, which in turn, also makes good tabloid copy. As many of you might have picked up on, there's more prevalance of disabilities on primetime TV, particularly non-verbal learning disabilities. Grey's Anatomy (perhaps in an effort to boost lagging ratings) has just introduced a surgeon, Virginia Dixon, who has Asperger's Syndrome -- a form of high-functioning autism -- and a popular resident, Izzie Stevens, may have a brain tumor. Boston Legal's Denny Crane is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Several other primetime characters are also suspect of falling somewhere along the autism spectrum, including Dr. Temperance Brennan of Bones, two children of Vic Mackey on The Shield, Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal, Dr. Greg House on House, M.D., and many more. Less prevalent, however, are physical disabilities such as blindness and deafness. When these characters do appear, they're generally stuck with disability-specific plot lines, which gives them little room to expand as characters. How fascinating would it be to watch a blind bartender mix exotic cocktails and chat up pretty women, or watch a deaf undercover specialist (remember Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye?) fight terrorists? Until then, celebrities and primetime TV can do much to elevate the disability discussion. We can look forward to more in 2009, so long as there's potential for more headlines and higher ratings.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Shinseki is Obama's VA Pick

President-elect Barack Obama formally announced Sunday that retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki is his pick to be secretary of Veterans Affairs. Obama chose Shinseki, 66, over front-runner Tammy Duckworth, who many, including myself, thought would be chosen as Obama's secretary. A decorated veteran, Gen. Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam and lost part of his foot. Shinseki has been cited as an example by Pentagon critics who say the former Army chief's advice was ignored in 2003, resulting in too few U.S. troops being sent to Iraq after the invasion." The Washington Post obtained a private letter that Gen. Shinseki wrote to Donald Rumsfeld in June 2003 just before stepping down as chief of staff, in which he wrote that "Without people in the equation, readiness and transformation are little more than academic exercises." The letter was never publicly released. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Mr. Obama said there is no one "more qualified" than Gen. Shinseki for the job. Shinseki, like Obama, is a native of Hawaii. Obama made his announcement about Shinseki on the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. If confirmed by the Senate, Shinseki would control one of the federal government's largest agencies, which administers health care and other benefits for the nation's active military and veterans, as well as their families and survivors. The 240,000-employee department is the government's second largest, behind the Defense Department.

Friday, December 5, 2008

'The Black Balloon' Opens in NYC

The Black Balloon, a movie opening today in New York City and Los Angeles, is about an Australian family who has a severly autistic son, Charlie, and must find ways to cope with his emotions and antics. Calling the movie "harrowing," New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden asks: "Would you be able to cope? ... Would you find in yourself the seemingly infinite reserves of love and patience possessed by the Mollisons, the movie’s itinerant, highly stressed army family who have just moved to the suburbs of Sydney? Maybe not." The Black Balloon stars Luke Ford as Charlie, the autistic teenager; Rhys Wakefield as his brother Tommy, and the Oscar-nominated Toni Collette as their mother. With a tag line "Normal is Relative," The Black Balloon is a story about fitting in, discovering love and accepting your family, no matter the price.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Disabled Vet Duckworth May Serve U.S.

Barack Obama's election has left some important seats open in his cabinet and in the Illinois senate. His selection of Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State leaves New York Governor David Paterson, who is partially blind, to appoint Clinton's replacement. Paterson has ruled out self-appointment, and is likely to choose someone who could help him win re-election in 2010. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is a frontrunner. The race for Obama's Illinois senate seat is also heating up, with Gov. Rod Blagojevich set to name a replacement. Among the handful of candidates being considered, Tammy Duckworth is a popular pick. Ms. Duckworth, 40, served in Iraq and flew combat missions as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. During a mission in 2004, her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Duckworth lost both of her legs -- one leg below the knee (BK) and one leg above the knee (AK). After a long recovery process, she uses prosthetics, (such as the Proprio electric-powered ankle shown), that allow her to walk and continue to fly aircraft. Ms. Duckworth ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, and is currently the Director of Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. Even if she's not picked to serve in Illinois, the former veteran may have bigger shoes to fill as Obama is considering her for his Secretary of Veteran Affairs. In this role, she would work to strengthen financial and medical support for veterans, including those with disabilities, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. With an American father and a mother who is ethnically Chinese, Ms. Duckworth was born in Thailand and is an American citizen. She is fluent in Thai and Indonesian and recently completed the Chicago marathon using a hand-cranked bicycle (see photo). Keep your eyes out for the prominent Ms. Duckworth as she continues to represent Americans with disabilities in places where it matters.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

iPhone's Future could be "Touchy"

As I wrote in a previous post, most multi-touch smart phones -- like Apple's iPhone -- aren't suitable for blind and visually-impaired persons. There's good news, however, in the form of a prototype case from Portugal-based industrial designer Bruno Fosi. The Silicon Touch lays on top of the iPhone’s screen and works in tandem with an accompanying iPhone application, helping the user feel the icons and what it is they are typing. There are also many nice features like text to speech and moon type tactile feedback, which the iPhone lacked for the visually impaired until now. In my opinion, what makes Silicon Touch so promising is how Mr. Fosi has re-thought how a person physcially interacts with a smart phone: Surprise! It doesn't have to be just a visual user interface. One comment from a Yanko Design reader: "The idea can be applied to any usage scenario requiring [or] benefiting from tactile signage over the touch sensor ... This might just be the killer mobile platform for the visually impaired." Apple should call the designer right away and put the Silicon Touch into production. It will open up its smart phone to a wider audience, and show that it's serious about accessibility.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Robot, Fetch my Slippers!"

Engineers at Georgia Tech are developing a health care robot for home use. The robot, named El-E (pronounced "Ellie"), can help people with disabilities accomplish some simple household tasks, such as fetching a bottle of pills or a cell phone. El-E is being tested by patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which affects motor skills. Health care robots may be commercially available in less than 10 years. The robots can also help the elderly and those with arthritis. El-E is about five feet tall and is equipped with a laser pointer interface that detects when a user illuminates a location with an off-the-shelf green laser pointer and estimates its whereabouts. The robot is trained to find objects that are on flat surfaces, such as a shelf or table. Once the object is acquired, the robot can place the object on a laser designated surface above the floor, follow the laser pointer on the floor, or deliver the object to a seated person selected with the laser pointer. The project's head researcher, professor Charlie Kemp, has created a video that shows what El-E sees as it navigates across a room.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fighting, and for Disability Benefits, Too

In an L.A. Times story today, many soldiers are fighting another battle -- trying to collect disability benefits after being injured on tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to the story:

In a little-noticed regulation change in March, the military's definition of combat-related disabilities was narrowed, costing some injured veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits -- and triggering outrage from veterans' advocacy groups. The Pentagon said the change was consistent with Congress' intent when it passed a "wounded warrior" law in January. Narrowing the combat-related definition was necessary to preserve the "special distinction for those who incur disabilities while participating in the risk of combat, in contrast with those injured otherwise," William J. Carr, deputy undersecretary of Defense, wrote in a letter to the 1.3-million-member Disabled American Veterans. The group, which has called the policy revision a "shocking level of disrespect for those who stood in harm's way," is lobbying to have the change rescinded.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Kurzweil: The Grandfather of Assistive Tech

Ray Kurzweil is a scientist and inventor of groundbreaking assistive technology, including a text-to-speech synthesizer, voice recognition software, and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. Known as the grandfather of assistive technology, Kurzweil is highly regarded in disability circles as well as the broader technology sphere. He placed 14th on's Agenda Setters list for 2008, mainly for his current work surrounding artificial intelligence and robotics. posted's Q&A with Kurzweil, where he discussed his vision of the future and AI. I find Kurzweil's research and philosophies fascinating. Not only has he improved the lives of people with disabilities with assistive tech, he has been on a mission for the last decade to make bionics and AI a cornerstone of human existence -- and help us live better, smarter, longer lives. Some key points from his interview:

On the law of accelerating returns: "What used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, what fits in your pocket now will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years."

On the most exciting technologies in recent years: "Health and medicine ... We have software that's running in our bodies that's thousands of years old or more and it evolved when conditions were very different, such as the fat insulin receptor gene. And what would happen if we turned that gene off? There are other genes that are necessary for heart disease or cancer to progress that we'd like to turn off."

On the limits of computer intelligence: "In order for a computer or any entity to pass the Turing Test it has to master human emotion ... Getting the joke, being funny, expressing a loving sentiment -- these are actually the most complicated things we do, the cutting edge of human intelligence." [Editor's note: This statement speaks volumes for austism and other disorders, in which such emotions are seemingly impossible to convey yet have no direct relevance on intelligence.]

On whether super intelligent machines will have a soul: "The soul is a synonym for consciousness ... It's not going to be a clear distinction of where humans or biological intelligence stops and machine intelligence starts ... You won't be able to walk into a room and say, 'OK, humans on the left, machines on the right,' because it's going to be all mixed up ... we will attribute consciousness to entities even if they have no biology."

On man vs. machine: "Ultimately non-biological intelligence will be much more powerful than biological human intelligence, but it's not an invasion of intelligent machines from Mars -- it's coming from our own civilization. And we will use it as we do today to expand our own reach--we will make ourselves smarter."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Innovative Ideas from the Disability Forum

What do a professional skier, a Hollywood consultant and a business blogger have in common? A disability, of course. On Tuesday I attended the Disability Innovation Forum in Washington, and met a great group of people who are leading the conversation on hiring and marketing to people with disabilities. The keynote speaker was Bonnie St. John, an African-American leg amputee who became a Paralympic medalist in downhill skiing in 1984. Using comedy and an authenic voice, Bonnie broke down the sterotypes surrounding disability and made everyone in the room feel comfortable. The forum was organized by Working Mother Media's Diversity Best Practices division, with the help of Jonathan Kaufman of DisabilityWorks. An education and policy extraordinaire, Jonathan told me he's about to begin creating a ph.D program in Disability Studies at Columbia University's medical school. He also consults with Hollywood on movies that feature disabled characters. Some lively afternoon panels included executives from Wal-Mart, Verizon and Harrah's Entertainment, who offered their perspectives on hiring the disabled to shore up a worker shortage and build a more representative workplace culture. Jennifer Croft at the U.S. Dept. of Commerce emphasized the Clinton-era Executive Order 13173, which President-elect Obama will reinstate, that will require federal goverment to hire 100,000 workers with disabilities in the next five years. A very successful day, indeed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Extreme Makeover's Disability Message

Last night I watched the latest episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where Ty Pennington and his crew helped two St. Louis-area families, the Martirizes and the Maleks, who are struggling to live life with major disabilities. Emmanual and Dawn Martirez's home was refurbished to make it accessible to their twin boys, Evan and Alec, who have rare neurological diseases that cause extreme physical and cognitive disabilities. And Egyptian-born Sam Malek, who has cerebal palsy, owns a small coffee shop that was demoed and rebuilt to make it accessible to him and his employees with disabilities. In doing so, ABC makes a strong statement for supporting small-business and equal-employment opportunities for the disabled. Since its start in 2003, Extreme Makeover has touched the lives of dozens of people with disabilities by renovating their inaccessible or otherwise unlivable homes for free. Each project, which takes seven days, results in significant structural and design improvements to every room in the house, often bringing tears or joy to those who have lived with the difficulty of navigating through the place they call home. With more than 13 million U.S. viewers, the program gives a high profile to disability issues and inspires Americans to give back to their communities. Equally important is the primetime face-time for vendors that donate the funds to make these homes a reality. For example, Sears provides home appliances, CVS provides medical supplies and scholarships to families and Ford Motor occassionally donates vehicles. Southwest Airlines donates airfare for the families’ vacations, which include trips to Disneyworld, donated by Disney. Hilton and Marriott donate accommodations. These initiatives send a powerful message that companies are serious about reaching the disabled market, which holds a collective $300 billion in discretionary income. Families who want to be considered for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can submit a video, complete an application, and mail both to the show's producers. They can also ask a non-profit organization, church or neighborhood association to submit an application on their behalf.

Friday, November 7, 2008

New Disability Career Sites

Up until recently, job seekers with disabilities have had to reverse-engineer their job search. First, they sought out disability-friendly companies, such as those lauded by DiversityInc. and Careers & the Disabled magazines. Then they set about seeking open positions within those companies. Some disability-career sites are trying to make the job search easier. The newest,, launched on Nov. 12. The site’s resume-builder tool is one of the smartest on the web, and the site has signed on a half-dozen corporations including CIGNA and Pep Boys. GettingHired also hosts a series of videos to prepare a job seeker for potential interviews; the videos are fully accessible and can be viewed with full voiceover and captioning. Another valuable job board for people with disabilities is Disaboom. Launched in late 2007, Disaboom’s job board has gotten more robust and claims to have more than 500,000 job listings. Job listings include those for temporary-staffing agencies, which can be a good way to get your foot in the door. Big-name job board has also gotten into the disability-hiring game. It recently hosted a virtual career fair for job hunters with disabilities. Its job listings include those from Spherion, MetLife, H-P, and Schering. One site that’s geared towards more entry-level job seekers is HirePotential, whose small job board includes listings from IBM and Microsoft. The less-experienced set may want to try the disabled alumni network at LimeConnect, an organization that recruits disabled college graduates. While most of the site’s job listings are culled from the web, an icon next to the job post alerts the member that someone in the LimeConnect network has a connection to the company. LimeConnect also features jobs from companies that are dedicated to hiring the disabled, such as Google, Credit Suisse, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Verizon Telecom.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Gives Disabled a Voice in Victory Speech

Americans with disabilities were given a voice last night with President-elect Obama's victory speech in Chicago. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled -- Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America." By including the disabled as a specific group, Obama has sent a message that he will put disability issues on the map. No other president of our time has done this before, not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, who struggled with an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In order to win the re-election, FDR believed he had to convince Americans that he was getting better; he wore iron braces and leaned on his sons or aides in public, but used a wheelchair in private. Today is a new day for Americans with disabilities, and the opportunities are vast. Take employment: Of the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, only 38% are employed, vs. 78% of those without disabilities, which I wrote in a Wall Street Journal article. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who are returning home with severed limbs and brain injuries need rehabilitation. Children who are being diagnosed with special needs require a strengthened education plan. An aging population that can benefit from new technologies such as hearing aids needs better healthcare options. Obama has made it clear throughout his campaign that his vision for America includes the needs of the disabled, the nation's largest minority group. His task in 2009 will be to listen to these issues and find comprehensive solutions that help all Americans -- disabled or not disabled. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A (High-Tech) Room of One's Own

Someday soon, older adults may not need to move into nursing homes because they'll have a household of technological wonders to keep an eye on them when they become frail. That's what this Dallas Morning News article says, after taking a look at what the University of Texas is doing to keep seniors more independent for longer. UT's Human-Centered Computing Laboratory houses a make-believe one-bedroom apartment equipped with high-tech cameras, motion sensors and robots, and surrounded by computer stations. Robots scoot from room to room to wake the homeowners in the morning, remind them to eat and send for help if someone falls. Sensors embedded throughout home detect when the resident has a sleepless nights or forgets to take his medication. Web-based computer software will notify family members and caregivers. The UT lab will be "the springboard for what experts predict will be an exploding assistive technology industry within a decade," according to the article. No doubt, UT lab's technology can be modified to help people with disabilities, too -- especially those who are unable to care for themselves but wish to live on their own. These are the kinds of stories I love to read, because they position assistive technology as cool, helpful and synonymous with independence.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin's Disability Disappointment

A few hours ago I read about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s first policy speech detailing how a McCain-Palin administration would help children with disabilities.

In Pittsburgh on Friday, Palin dotted her speech with references to her six-month old son, Trig, who has Down syndrome. Oftentimes, these are the most powerful moments in her speeches, where mothers of special-needs children come to her rallies desperate for a remedy to the educational and health-care failures that have plagued them over and over again. Special-needs children are “especially close to my heart,” she tells the crowds.

But Palin isn’t the answer. I repeat, she ain’t the quick fixin’ we’re all needin’ in the disability space.

Many months ago, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama published on his website a detailed plan to support disabled Americans. The four-point plan is designed to improve educational opportunities, end discrimination, increase employment rates, and support independent living for Americans with disabilities, plus any soldiers who might be disabled upon their return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

GOP presidential candiate John McCain never published such a plan. Through his personal anecdotes, however, we know that he has a soft spot for veterans and that his running mate understands special needs. So what will McCain-Palin do for the 54 million Americans with disabilities?

  • Palin said Friday she’d fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Obama has already pledged to do this.

  • Palin would boost funding for special-needs children from birth to age three, marking a split from McCain’s pledge to freeze spending for most educational programs. So will they or won't they? Obama wants $18 billion in new funds each year to revamp education, including $10 billion directed towards kids zero to five years old.

  • Palin pledged more funding to help parents identify a child’s disability earlier. Obama seeks universal screening for newborns and wants to set a national goal for re-screening two-year olds.

  • Palin promised funds to find cures for disorders such as autism. Obama’s got that covered in his plan, too, and has a track record for doing so -- unlike Palin.

Here’s where Palin switches to politics. “Our opponent has an ideological commitment to higher taxes,” she says, adding that an Obama plan would tax special-needs trusts that families have set up to cover medical and other costs. There’s no mention of all the ways in which Obama would help the American disabled population thrive.

I understand how the GOP's lower taxes proposition can promote growth by spurring spending and job creation. But a huge benefit of helping the disabled is that it lifts most of disadvantaged America, too, through improved education more affordable college, expanded health care, and reducing the national workforce shortage.

I have a hunch that, under different circumstances, Palin would have made a fine appointee to the National Commission on People with Disabilities, Employment and Social Security. What's that? Oh, it's in Obama's plan. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Making Moolah More Accessible

Many years before spearheading a $700 billion package to rescue Wall Street banks despite cries from exasperated Americans who didn’t like where their hard-earned money was going, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson found himself in hot water with another group of irate Americans -- 10 million to be exact -- who didn’t like how their money looked or felt. Mr. Paulson was sued in 2002 by the American Council of the Blind (ACB) on behalf of blind and visually impaired Americans, who said the Treasury was being discriminatory by failing to make U.S. currency accessible. According to the ruling, blind and visually impaired people must rely on the “kindness of strangers” for help reading their money, or else use an electronic bill reader to identify and speak the dollar denomination. In a landmark ruling in May 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals said the Treasury Dept. must make U.S. currency accessible to blind and visually impaired Americans under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 -- as soon as possible. Which means in about five to eight years, or whenever the next bill redesign begins. I’m a big believer in assistive technology, and relying on the "kindness of strangers” isn’t very high-tech. Nor is the the “origami” solution, where the blind person folds their currency into different shapes and sizes in order to identify it. Many blind people do use bill-reading machines, such as the Note Teller 2 from Brytech, which costs about $300 and is the size of an iPhone. However, these machines have an 80 percent accuracy rate, and require the user to enter the bills properly. Like vending machines, a bill reader will reject bills that are too old or wrinkled. There is also a peripheral issue, here: Some people I know, my 64-year-old father included, have trouble reading smaller print and won’t carry anything larger than a $20 bill out of fear of tipping the waiter too much. Tactile feedback would be very helpful to our country's aging population. More than 100 countries already have systems of currency where a blind person can pick up a bill and know right away what denomination it is. For instance: the euro, the Japanese Yen, the Swiss Franc, the Canadian dollar, as well as Australian, Argentinean, Chinese, English and Israeli currencies. The Bank of Canada even provides free electronic bill readers to those who need them. It has been suggested that blind people should use their credit or debit card instead of paper money. A credit/debit card could work, if it weren’t for some glaring barriers, the largest being that credit-card users are charged interest for purchases. And debit cards require entering a personal identification number (PIN) at the point-of-sale on a screen that offers no tactile or audio feedback. So while the blind person is relying on the "kindness of strangers" he's putting his bank account at risk, too. Banks like Bank of America have been doing a great job at making their ATMs accessible for the blind through the use of audio features and a headphone. Now let’s make sure that the money that comes out of them is, too.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Iron Man vs. Iraq Superhero

I've often argued that people with physical disabilities are functionally more 'interesting' human beings because they've incorporated machines into their brains and bodies. For those of you who haven't already seen Iron Man, the superhero escapes from a cave in Afghanistan in part by building a pair of robotic legs. This sci-fi movie is more grounded in reality than it appears. Earlier this month, researchers at a university in Japan unveiled a robotic suit that reads brain signals and helps disabled people walk. The suit, known as HAL -- short for "hybrid assistive limb" -- is available to rent in Japan for $2,200 a month. (Cost to buy will be around $15,000-$20,000). This invention will have far-reaching benefits for the disabled as well as the elderly, giving them the "potential to lift up to 10-times the weight they normally could." Other researchers around the world, including those at MIT, are working on similar robotic suits that increase mobility and lighten the burden for soldiers and others who carry heavy packs and equipment. Which brings me to my point. Today I watched a video of Army Sgt. Erik Schei, who was shot in the head in 2005 while serving in Iraq and given zero chance of survival. Schei is now 23 years old and uses a wheelchair. He can't stand by himself. He can't feed himself. But with the help of a computer that he activates with his head, he spoke in an ad on behalf of Tom Udall, a Democrat running for the Senate in New Mexico. To compose his ad, Sgt. Schei used hardware -- a computer screen attached to his wheelchair -- and software, such as an on-screen keyboard and perhaps a word-prediction program. He also used a text-to-speech (TTS) synthesizer to 'deliver' the ad for him. I noticed that his TTS program doesn't offer the best-quality speech -- some advanced programs on the market have very human-like intonation, such as the AT&T Natural Voices, or the voice-over programs built into Windows XP and Mac OS X Leopard. But Sgt. Schei is just getting his bearings; he can always upgrade to better programs, even ones that include fully functioning PCs so he can surf the web and check email. I also mentioned that he activates the computer with his head. This doesn't show in the ad, but it's likely that he uses a wireless optical sensor which tracks a tiny, paper-thin sticker placed on his glasses or his forehead. It connects to a USB port and works just like a computer mouse, with the mouse pointer being moved by the motion of his head. He also seems to have a microphone near his mouth, which he may use for executing computer commands using vocal chords, or maybe for practicing his speech and synthesizing it to the computer for clarity. Sgt. Schei is telling viewers that he appreciates Congressman Udall's push in support of the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007 which became Public Law 110-28. It included $600 million in funding for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Maybe when Sgt. Erik Schei gets stronger, he can run for Congress, too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A New Mouse in the House

Sometimes I get Mac envy. Like today when I was switching between my touchpad and wireless mouse to prevent hand fatigue and cramping, I had wished I owned a MacBook Air, which has a giant touchpad and offers an easier, more fun ‘touch’ experience using several fingers. I began thinking about alternative mouse devices, especially for people with physical and motor impairments. For those with limited motor skills, there are a variety of options that have been around for a while, including the joystick, head pointers, Mouse keys and eye gaze devices. But the coolest non-mouse is known as multitouch, which was popularized by Apple’s iPhone, and lets computer users control graphical applications with their fingers. Touch is quickly becoming a common way of directly interacting with software and devices. Today iPhone and MacBook Air are used by millions of people with and without disabilities, and other companies are bringing products with multitouch to the market. For instance, Microsoft recently unveiled its Surface product that runs on Windows 7 (due out in late 2009) which lets its corporate customers use multi-touch in their stores. While Surface costs an approximate $5,000-$10,000 for each unit, it’s likely that Surface will one day be integrated into consumer PCs and the price will come down. Already, the Dell Latitude XT tablet uses multitouch, which is a good option for someone who can’t grasp a mouse and wants the functionality of a traditional PC. You can use your finger or a stylus instead. Take a look at other cell phones that are utilizing touch to let you zoom in on text, advance through a photo album, or adjust an image. These include the Blackberry Storm and Google's G1 (reviewed here by Information Week). G1 uses a combination of touch, trackball and physical keyboard, which is nice for the user who likes to have navigation options. Some people with motor disabilities already use their chin, elbow, or tongue to control a trackball. The Storm multitouch screen uses something called "haptic touch" so when you press a button on the screen or on the virtual keyboard it feels as if you're actually pressing on that specific spot. It’s tactile, which provides more peace of mind if you're hearing-impaired. If you’re blind, this makes typing and clicking a lot easier. What’s important is that multitouch provides a non-mouse alternative for people with limited physical use of their fingers or arms. And it’s an assistive technology that’s already built into the systems of mainstream technology, so there’s no adaptation needed once you take your new phone, PC, GPS system, etc., of the box. But multitouch can help, say, a person with arthritis, MS or cerebral palsy who can't grasp or click a mouse. Touch isn’t an all-in solution, of course. Some people have no use of their forelimbs at all. That’s why the joystick is operated by tongue; a head pointer is operated by the head. But as technology advances we’ll be seeing more interaction and collaboration with our sensory and motor processes. For someone with a disability, any way that we can manipulate content to get what we want is something we’re great at.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Apple to Aid Blind Users -- Again

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has been quite active in the last couple months. On Friday, the NFB, along with Massachusetts General Martha Coakley, reached an agreement with Apple Inc. to make Apple's iTunes -- the most popular music retail outlet in the U.S. -- more accessible to blind and visually-impaired Internet users.

In September, Apple released, and was praised for, its 4th generation iPod Nano and iTunes 8, which is screen-reader friendly on both Macs and PCs. These new features let blind users manage their libraries as well as purchase and download content from the iTunes store. The new iPod itself is also equipped with talking menus and large font options. On a Mac, iTunes is compatible with Apple's built-in VoiceOver screen reader; on a PC using Windows XP or Vista, it's compatible with GW Micro's Windows-Eyes (and soon, Freedom Scientific's Jaws for Windows) screen readers, which must be purchased separately for around $1,000.

But the NFB wasn't impressed, and took Apple to task to come up with a solution to make iTunes accessible to all screen-access software by June 30, 2009. Apple agreed, and said it will install technology in iTunes that will allow blind consumers to turn on-screen information into either braille or speech so they can search iTunes using keyboard commands. For instance, iTunes will audibly speak whenever a user passes the cursor over important on-screen navigational prompts such as the file commands or movie, music, educational and television titles that are available for purchase and download.

Still, PC screen readers must be purchased separately, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind has said that purchase discounts are available across the U.S. and that the commission itself has bought a large batch of the software and is supplying it free to the blind in Massachusetts. Oh, and Apple will donate $250,000 to the commission to help foot the bill.

Are companies afraid? The NFB already sued Target in August for failing to make its retail website accessible for blind users. Target had to pay $6 million in damages for blind users who were unable to navigate Target's web site, and has agreed to make its website more accessible to screen-reading software.

It's a shame that the NFB is turning so litigious. Apple had already made great strides with its latest versions of the iPod and iTunes. Let's look at the positive side of this. Not only will blind users have more access to this popular social and educational vehicle, but it's a boon for universal design. After all, most American consumers spend all day staring at a computer in the office. It would be nice if they had the option to operate their iPod with "eyes-free" technology such as spoken menus. This would allow them to use their iPods on the go, while driving, working out, reading, knitting, eating, working -- the list goes on.

Perhaps this agreement will lead to more innovation among gadget-makers to consider all of their users, including those with disabilities. Then the voice-activated mp3 player might end up on next Christmas wish list (or the college syllabus).

Friday, September 26, 2008

ADA Bill Passes with Flying Colors

President Bush on Thursday signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, a little more than 18 years after his father signed the original ADA. Bush's father stood by his side as his son signed the bill into law. Barack Obama, one of the bill's co-sponsor's, made a statement saying "it must be a priority for our government to do everything it can to protect and respect the needs of these Americans....Eighteen years ago, enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act was a historic milestone for millions of Americans when it was signed into law. It gave Americans with disabilities better access, more opportunities, and increased independence...While we still have much more to do, this law is an important affirmation of our commitment to Americans with disabilities."

For the record, McCain is a supporter of the 1990 law. Palin, who has a son with Down Syndrome, says she will work to "speed research" up. But it is unlikely that this will include more NIH funding and a reversal of the prohibition of stem-cell research if they make it to the White House. We also need health care plans that won't allow coverage to be leveraged merely for corporate profit.

Obama is the right person to jumpstart the conversation with businesses who can hire PWDs and with technology companies that can make simple adaptions in order for their products to be used universally. I also believe Obama understands from life experience what it's like to be marginalized, but also recognizes that American is a place of tremendous opportunity when you're given the tools to succeed.

And the debate is on again!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Reading Lips" Review

If you would like to understand more about the world of disabilities, you can read the book, Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability, edited by Diane Scharper and Philip Scharper, Jr., M.D. Released in April 2008, Reading Lips is a collection of first-person prose from people with all kinds of disabilities, from deafness to paraplegia. I wrote a story for the book titled Catching Kate, where I describe my experience as a deaf high school cheerleader. I'm not promoting my writing here, rather, I'm promoting a nice review of the book from one of my favorite websites, Disaboom. Read the review here. If you're looking to get a copy of the book you can buy it at here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

ADA Amendment Strikes the Right Balance

Last August, the US Chamber of Commerce, an association of three million businesses, sent a letter to Congress opposing a bill that would amend the Americans with Disabilities Act. Calling it an essential "re-writing" of the Act, the Chamber said it believed such changes would open the floodgates for litigation by "virtually all of the entire working population in the United States " who believed they may have been discriminated against due to disability. "The bill would change the definition of 'disability' so that any individual with an impairment -- such as poor eyesight correctible by wearing glasses -- would be considered disabled and would trigger the employer's duty to accommodate them."

I wrote about disability discrimination litigation for BusinessWeek Online. In a famous 2002 case, Toyota v. Williams, the Supreme Court sided with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, which refused to tailor a job for an assembly-line worker who claimed she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome on the job. In its unanimous decision, the court held that Ella Williams' condition did not meet the ADA's definition of a disability because it had not "substantially limit[ed]" any "major life [activity]."

I agreed with the decision because I believe the ADA is designed to encourage employers to hire the disabled, who may have abilities that are perceived as not being on par as their able-bodied counterparts. (One leg missing is mostly irrelevant when you're smart and educated, but using it as a ploy to get hired is a problem.) In this case, a ruling in Ella Williams' favor might have enticed other U.S. workers to make specious claims, such as passing off an out-of-workplace injury as a disabilities case. There's a place for workplace injury claims. It's the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Today, one year -- and several Chamber-esque tweaks to the bill later -- the ADA Amendments Act passed Congress and will be sent to President Bush to sign. (His father signed the original ADA in 1990.) The revised bill offers better balance between protections for individuals with disabilities and the obligations and requirements of employers.

Under the ADA Amendments Act, the definition of a disability is still a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities." However, the legislation would expand coverage by making changes to the meaning of major life activity under that definition to include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, and most importantly -- any "major bodily function". OK, so basically anything you do while you're alive, but Congress is hoping employees heed the spirit of the law.

I applaud Congress for expanding the ADA to include more life activities. The bill will give protections to those whose disablity is eposodic or may go into remission, such as someone with epilepsy, diabetes or cancer. However, we still needed strong architecture around the ADA or else it risked cancelling itself out. It's a law designed to protect those who need it in the workplace and lifespace. Which brings me back to Toyota v. Williams. I wonder if Ella Williams could win her case under the new parameters.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Love Affair with Assistive Tech

If you haven't heard of Disaboom, you should definitely check out their site. It's a strong community of PWDs who are learning from and interacting with each other. I was the subject of an interview for their Living Forward section that was published today. An excerpt:

Suzanne first fell in love with assistive technology (AT) when she started her second New York City job at Businessweek Online. She was originally hired to cover stock market reports, but was soon asked if she wanted to write a weekly column on assistive technology. “I’ve always had people helping me—sign language interpreters, note-takers, etc.—never technology. It struck me how much independence I could gain through technology.”

Writing about AT was a way for Suzanne to help people with disabilities gain independence. She is fascinated by the way assistive technology can be as simple as a mainstream product used in a special way, but still have a big impact. “Technology has changed my life,” Suzanne states.

A "mainstream product" can be anything off-the-shelf, from an iPod - blind people can load audio content, to wireless headsets - used by the mobility impaired to command a PC. It's up to PWDs to get creative and capitalize on products that are designed to be profit-makers but can also be life-changers.

Kindness in a Can

I was taking the Greyhound bus from Boston to New York earlier this week, and the bus driver decided to stop at Arby's for dinner - my favorite place (NOT!) This is a roast beef chain where, I'm told, the meat comes out of a can. Like Playdoh. I was placing an order of chicken fingers, when Arby's saving grace appeared to me in a laminated sign just above the cash registers. It read something like this:

If you need help with anything please don't hesitate to ask us.
If you're visually impaired we can read you the menu aloud.
If you're hearing impaired we can speak slower or offer you a pen and paper to write down your order.
If you're mobility impaired we can bring your food to your table.

I read this notice a few times, then looked over at the teenagers at the cash register, and then spotted the shift manager. I may be over-generalizing, but I sensed a kindness and camrardarie among the workers that isn't as visible at other chains, like McDonald's. You know, when good business decisions are made from the top-down it really has an affect on employees' attitudes. Watching the workers in play, I could envision Arby's Corporate holding disability-sensitivity training, which is a great step in building awareness and know-how. I didn't need assistance that night with my chicken fingers, but I felt a certain sense of relief knowing that I could ask a teenager at a fast-food chain to sympathize with my cause if need be. Kudos to Arby's, even if it's food comes out of a can.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MTV Knows Drama!

This is interesting. MTV is profiling Deaf teens for an episode of MTV's True Life. In "I'm Deaf," the show follows two Deaf teens, Chris and Amanda, who struggle to thrive in a hearing world. Chris relies "solely on text messages, IMs, and email as forms of communication" and can't hear the sound of his mother's voice. Boy, I remember not having these forms of communication growing up: it was the telephone or nothing. Needless to say, the social calvacade skipped my house. Chris ends up getting a cochlear implant, and it changes his life. Amanda, meanwhile, learns to dance by feeling the vibrations and memorizing choreography -- something I used to do as a high school cheerleader. She hopes to make Baltimore's ballet troupe. What a great inspiration for other teens to see. Though this show already has aired, I'm sure they'll have a repeat. Let's see if we can get MTV to run episodes of teens with other disabilities.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Captions for YouTube - A great benefit for the deaf

This just in from Webware: "In a move to make videos easier to understand without volume or for the hard of hearing, YouTube has given users the option of embedding closed captions." This is great news for the deaf and hard of hearing; YouTube has 34% market share according to ComScore, and I'm betting this figure doesn't include much of the deaf population. And this might not change if video makers don't choose to add captions to their videos - I'm guessing not many will, unless they understand the added benefit of captions for those with disabilities, or even non-English speakers.

There are a small handful of content providers already including closed captioning in their videos, including CNET, MIT, and the BBC. It would be great if broadcast networks (ABC, Fox, etc.) would do the same. Do we really need more regulations to make this happen? Just do the right thing!

Now how do we get podcasts to be captioned, too?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Watch your Tongue!

I'm always on the lookout for new devices. This one could revolutionize the field of assistive technology. It's called the Tongue Drive System. It's a tongue control pad, currently in advanced research at Georgia Tech, that could potentially be used to help quadriplegics control more of their equipment, including a computer, a wheelchair and any assistive technology they might use. The tongue is a serious muscle, and is attached to the brain, not the spinal cord, which is why it will work for those disabled from the neck down. TDS works by placing a magnet under the tip of the tongue, and the tongue operates like a virtual mouse, sending data to a receiver worn on the top of the head. The data is processed by software that converts the movement into commands. Researchers also envision moving beyond the tongue to "turn teeth into keyboards and cheeks into computer consoles," according to the Associated Press. Sure, the prototype is ugly, but early prototypes usually are. Design and software gurus will eventually be swept in to make TDS a viable option to the 'sip and puff' system (issuing commands by inhaling and exhaling into a tube). I like the fact that the magnet is removable. I can't imagine it being very comfortable, but I hope I'm proven wrong. (Look closely to see the man's tongue in the photo.) This research is being funded by grants from the NSF and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and I'm confident we'll see sprouts of success for this system.

Finding the Right Way To Disclose a Disability

This article that I wrote was published in today's WSJ in the Careers section. Here's an online version: Finding the Right Way To Disclose a Disability. I wrote this article because people often ask me if they should disclose, and I'm a believer that it will do more good than harm, as long as you choose a good company and understand how to approach your boss with the types of accommodations you require. I have a disclosure poll up on this blog that you can vote on - I'd appreciate knowing all your opinions.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What I Have in Common with a Ugandan Boxer

A New York Times Saturday profile, A Blind Boxer Inspires Uganda on Bashir Ramathan, a blind boxer from Uganda, sparked my interest, not just for the awe-factor: "Wow, a blind boxer!" but rather because of a statement he made towards the end of the article. Listing the good fortune that has befallen on him since his newfound fame on the boxing circuit, Mr. Ramathan said to the reporter that he would give it all up for two working eyes.

"They think I’m doing this for attention or for money. But I’m not pretending. I want to see, like them."

This is how a lot of driven people with disabilities really think, including myself. I'm a disability writer, but I'd give up a a graduate degree and professional writing career -- and yes, start over -- if I could have hearing in my two ears. I'm not regretful about my disability, but this kind of passion that I have for writing about disability topics stems from a life of being an outsider.

If I didn't have a disability, I'd still be a writer no doubt. But I have always wondered if I would be a better one. I'd have like to have tried my hand at investigative reporting for the New York Times or Washington Post, the kind that wins Pulitzers. Or I might have enjoyed the newswires, even, with their fast-paced days and tight deadlines. On the other hand I know of a deaf journalist in Chicago who is a Book reviewer (though he's probably not employed anymore, considering the demise of Chicago newspapers these days.) I didn't want to be a book reviewer when I started my career because it's basically an editing job, and I wanted to be a reporter. Two totally different jobs, as any journalist will tell you.

Mr. Ramathan is following his passion, despite his disability. Bravo, bravo. He tells the New York Times that his plan now is to start his own worldwide blind boxing league. I wish him all the best.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Oh, No, Here We Go

Ben Stiller’s new movie Tropic Thunder was written as a parody of actors who will go to any lengths to advance their careers. In one of the subplots, Simple Jack, we hear repeated use of the word "retard." One of the movie's lines is, “Are you a full retard?”

A coalition of disabilities groups believes Stiller went too far with the film’s repeated use of this term, which they're calling the "r-word." Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver and others have asked the movie’s studio, Dreamworks, to cut references to “retard”, but Dreamworks has refused. Now the coalition wants Tropic Thunder banned from theaters.

The word “retard” is hurtful to many people in America who have a mental disability, just like the “n-word” is insensitive to African Americans. In focusing his anger on a word, Shriver misses an opportunity to stand up for a more positive cause: The advancement of Americans with disabilities, despite their physical or mental limitations.

Starting with the Civil Rights era, America has provided special protection to racial minorities and women; protection that has been extended to the disabled through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. There are good and bad points to such protective measures. For instance, the ADA has helped curb discrimination in the workplace, made private and public spaces more accessible, encouraged technological advances and created opportunities for the disabled to live more productive lives.

On the other hand, Corporate America, Madison Avenue and Hollywood have smelled the money and cashed in on these measures, giving us Hispanic marketing, women in the boardroom and tear-jerker movies about triumphant disabled folks like Simple Jack.

Tropic Thunder exposes the satire of American idealism, where our government creates protective laws and America uses them to make ads, grow their stock price and win an Oscar. These are not terrible achievements until their roots are exposed by special rights’ groups.

Shriver wants to shut down a movie that jeers at the inherent, capitalistic outcome of disability rights. Instead he should use his public podium to remain focused on how fruitful the ADA has been for the disabled, such as for the Special Olympics and Paralympics, which have been recognized as a chance for athletes to compete against those with similar limitations.

Let's pull off the blinders and talk. We'd all like to be perfect, but some of us need a helping hand, or at least different benchmarks. The Special Olympics cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can we shine only an uber-positive light on the plight of people with disabilities. Just because the Special Olympics and Paralympics are off-limits to criticism doesn’t mean everything else should be, too.

Shriver says he fears that, because of Tropic Thunder, mentally disabled kids will be teased on the playground. Kids don't need movie lines to say cruel things, and Hollywood shouldn’t need permission from disability groups to jeer at the lengths society will go to make a buck.

It's not the “r-word” that's being debated here, but the good things we’re trying to accomplish as a nation while still maintaining our sense of humor.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Really Difficult Reality of MS

I just finished writing a book proposal for a publishing company that wants me to write a book on Assistive Technology for those suffering with Multiple Sclerosis. The proposal itself really opened my eyes to the myriads of symptoms associated with MS, including numbness, difficulty walking and balancing, fatigue, vision and cognitive limitations, speech slurring, and more. I recently met with an executive at Pepsi who has MS and some of these symptoms. He showed me around his office, and showed me the kind of Assistive Tech that he uses to power his workday, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition with a wireless headset, as well as a power wheelchair. Pepsi is a really "disability-forward" company; they gave him a parking spot next to the loading dock so that he could slip into his office with ease, rather than having to park in the regular employee lot. Like many companies Pepsi does have handicapped parking spaces but few people realize that these spots still expose wheelchair users to potholes and slush and all those factors that can wreck an expensive power chair not to mention put the user in jeopardy of slipping and sliding all over the place.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Nike commercial with Oscar Pistorius

Watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing last night, and was stunned by Nike's commercial, titled "Courage." It was an emotionally charged advertisement that celebrated past Olympics winners and other notable athletic accomplishments. I was very, very proud to watch the end of the commercial: South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius running across a field track on his blades.
Click here to see the ad: Nike Courage

According to Nike, "The commercial celebrates courage as the essence of the ‘Just Do It’ spirit," said Joaquin Hidalgo, Nike Vice President of Global Brand Marketing. "The fast paced cut takes viewers on an inspiring journey highlighting obstacles athletes at every level must face and overcome." Go Oscar!

Friday, August 8, 2008

My Wall Street Journal Article

This WSJ article that I wrote, Support Grows for Disabled Workers, appeared on July 22 in WSJ's Career Journal - the lead story. It was intended to be a news story about LimeConnect, a fabulous new organization that links qualified (college educated, driven) disabled candidates with jobs at Fortune 500 companies - mainly companies that are taking a stronger stance at hiring PWDs in order to help diversify their employee base as well as better reflect their changing marketplace. As the article notes: "Corporations are casting a wider net for good reasons. With the labor pool shrinking, U.S. employers will face a shortage of 20 million workers by 2020 as baby boomers retire. What's more, one out of every 10 consumers is a person with a disability, representing $200 billion in annual buying power, according to the National Organization on Disability in Washington."

Please have a read and would love to hear your comments. Another WSJ article coming out soon.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Article on BettyConfidential

So here is one of my first freelance articles that I wrote for a women's site, The story is pretty basis, and discusses etiquette to use in the workplace when working alongside people with disabilities.

I'm back

I finally left my Communications job to focus on freelance writing. Working in a Fortune 500 is incredibly difficult with a disability.

For the hearing impaired, workplace options are expensive and cumbersome, such as video-conferencing, real-time captioning and oral/sign interpreters. All cost about $100-$200 an hour, which can add up. Employers can cite that the accommodation causes "undue hardship" on the company. It's a tricky solution, that "reasonable accommodation" law in the ADA. An employer would probably oblige to the cost if it were truly necessary, but it would cause logistical nightmares every time there was a conference call or meeting. There really needs to be a better infrastructure in place for the disabled in the workplace. In-house interpreters, for instance.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Response to NYT article on ADA

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine's "Unintended Consequences" (Jan. 20, 2008), authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt pose the argument that some “special-interest” laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), may hurt the very people it intended to benefit.

Dubner and Levitt, who are also the authors of the best-selling book “Freakonomics” and a blog of the same name, give a qualitative and quantitative example supporting their case. First up: A Deaf patient from Los Angeles sought medical advice and treatment for her knee from Dr. Andrew Brooks. She asked the doctor to hire and pay for a sign language interpreter, and told him that she was well within her rights to do so under the ADA.

Brooks agreed to pay, but surmised that he'd lose money by treating the patient: "As it turned out, an interpreter would cost $120 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, and the expense wasn’t covered by insurance...That would mean laying out $240 to conduct an exam for which the woman’s insurance company would pay him $58 — a loss of more than $180 even before accounting for taxes and overhead."

I am also Deaf. Like the Deaf patient, I value my independence. During undergraduate and graduate school I asked for and got an interpreter for my larger classes and the college paid for it. Universities must do so under Section 504 of the ADA because nearly all post-secondary institutions receive federal funds. But Section 504 explicity says: "Although the student must request necessary accommodations, the institution must demonstrate that the accommodations it provides are effective."

In other words, a student may request a number of accommodations, but the institution only need provide accommodations that result in effective participation. So, for my smaller classes I chose to read lips. I even finangled a way for a classmate to receive extra credit for taking notes for me. And I used technology as much as I could to help me get through the every day.

My advice to the Deaf patient would have been to meet the doctor halfway. She might have helped to pay for an interpreter, or used an interpreter for the first couple of sessions. She might have had him write notes on his pad (Brooks did suggest this solution, but she refused.) She might have brought a hearing friend or relative with her. Even better, she might have used technology such as Instant Messaging (a universally accepted form of communication for both deaf and hearing people.) The good doctor on his Blackberry and she on her Sidekick. Fun, no?

There is one solution that would have worked perfectly, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would consider funding it. It's called Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). On this type of call, both the deaf and hearing parties can be in the same room and a sign-language interpreter will sign/translate from a remote location on a Videophone. It's currently offered as a paid service by Sorenson Communications, but it's cheaper than hiring an interpreter on site.

Sorenson does offer a free, FCC-funded solution called Video Relay Service (VRS). In this scenario, the doctor dials 888-FAST-VRS and connects to a sign-language operator who calls the patient on a Videophone. The doctor speaks to the operator, who in turn signs to the patient....the patient signs back to the interpreter....and the interpreter speaks her words to the doctor.

Several years ago I met the CEO, Jim Sorenson, when I was an Assistive Technology reporter at BusinessWeek. He's a smart and well-intentioned guy. I tried out the Videophone at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York. I also sat in one of their new Videophone booths that is designed for public spaces, like universities and airports. The Videophone booth looks like one of those $3 photo booths at Coney Island -- sparse, but private.

At the end of the day, the Deaf patient's attempt to get her needs fulfilled (her way and only her way) is at odds with the spirit of the ADA and its "reasonable accommodation" premise. These types of situations could backfire and hurt others who are disabled, which is the argument that Levitt and Dubner make.

In the end, the Deaf patient didn't need the knee surgery. But I can't help but wonder if the doctor felt ambushed. Would he ever accept a Deaf (or disabled) patient again?


Dubner and Levitt’s next example from their article cites findings from two economists who say the ADA has had a negative effect on the employment of the disabled. “Employers, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire disabled workers who happened to be incompetent, apparently avoided hiring them in the first place,” Dubner and Levitt said.

I think Dubner and Levitt make a good case, but I am going to need to do some of my own research. I believe that employers are not as concerned about incompetence (a complete inability to function) as they are about the disabled employee’s ability to consistently perform a job to par.

That's because more of Corporate America has adopted Six Sigma, performance management systems and merit-based pool bonus structures. The result is that one person's performance is intrinsically tied to his or her team's output. Much like nobody wanted the handicapped kid on their Dodge Ball team, it has become harder for the disabled to be given a chance to prove themselves because the stakes are higher for everyone involved. Simply put, it's a trust issue.

That's why it is so pressing that people with disabilities go above and beyond to educate themselves and their employers about their disability. They must also capitalize on technological advances, such as video relay, text readers and speech applications, that will help them dispel notions that they can't pull their own weight for the team. What might look like incompetence is really just ineffectiveness -- because the person with a disability hasn't asked for or been given the right tools.

All in all, getting to par is possible and doable. But it takes chutzpah on behalf of the disabled employee, and education and understanding from the able-bodied boss that given the right accommodations, his employee can succeed.

The economists’ results were published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2001 -- nine years after the ADA was enacted -- but the data could be older than 2001. Advances in technology today and tomorrow will continue to help build the bridge between the able-bodied and people with disabilities in the workplace.

In summary, everyone should rise to meet the "reasonable accommodations" of the disabled. But the disabled should also take responsibility for ensuring their requests will be effective, are mutually accommodating and don't overstep the boundaries of the law's good intentions.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Great Deaf Pepsi Super Bowl Ad

Welcome to Profoundly Yours. This is my very first post, so exciting! If you haven't read my profile already, here's a little about me. My name is Suzanne and I am a former journalist. I am also profoundly deaf. Hence, this blog is called Profoundly Yours.

I've accomplished much despite my hearing loss. Got an undergraduate degree (in Communications), a Master's (in Journalism), and then worked at BusinessWeek (you may have seen my column, Assistive Technology?) and the Wall Street Journal. I went on to write speeches at American Express and direct business communications for MasterCard.

Along the way (exactly six years ago) I received a cochlear implant. For the first time, I could use the telephone, tune into music, hear the rain tap-dancing on the street, the microwave's beep, the subway's windy whirl, and so much more. And while silence surely is golden, there's something to say for living life in surround sound. Plus, my eyes welcomed the rest. ;)

My implant has changed my life. For starters, it has made me "better, faster, stronger" (Theme from the Bionic Man!) as far as hearing goes. But more importantly, and to the point of why I'm writing today, it is an excellent example of how technology can help to bridge, or even eradicate, the inequity endured by people with disabilities in both the lifespace and workspace.

Today I'm returning to my roots as a writer and advocate for persons with disabilities. In reality, we are all ABLE -- some of us just differently so. There's a lot to be learned in this space, and I'm a big believer that technology (powered by human ingenuity and will) can take us further, faster -- just like it did for Bionic Man (and Woman.) So please tune in to Profoundly Yours for regular news and commentary.


It is the day of the Super Bowl game and I just read that there will be a Super Bowl Pepsi ad called Bob's House featuring deaf fans.

I think it's about time that people with disabilities are represented more thoughtfully in sports or other mainstream activities - whether as players or spectators/fans.
This is a good ad for many reasons: One of the characters in the ad actually works at Pepsico in New York, and they run a support network for people with disabilities called Enable. (I wish we had that at my company, which is just down the street from Pepsico.)
Also, in the ad the deaf characters are buddies who are trying to find their friend Bob's house on a dark street, but they forget which house is his. They banter (er, spat) with each other using sign language. This kind of candidness shows that Deaf people are like everyone else. The ad doesn't really even depend on their deafness for its humor; it would have been a funny ad if the two grown men, fighting over who lost the directions to Bob's House, were deaf or not.
But all is not lost, because the buddies use what I like to call "the pure ingenuity and innovation of the disabled." They honked their horn on Bob's street until everyone came outside to see what all the commotion was about -- except Bob. By process of elimination, they found their friend and were off to the games.
Even if you weren't deaf you could view the ad and understand the sign language because the ad used open captions. I wish all the Super Bowl ads had been captioned. Why is it that not all Super Bowl commercials are captioned? Here we are at the Oscars of advertising, in the final stretches of football history, and advertisers aren't putting out all the stops. Pepsi took a great leap tonight and I commend them for it.
Others couldn't even bother to CAP their commercials. (It costs extra, and the Federal Communications Commission doesn't require captions until Prime Time: 8pm to 11pm). I wonder it its because the game took place in Phoenix, which means the game started at 4pm, so they essentially found a loophole.
Not good business, my friends. Besides, even hearing people who were watching the game at a bar would have benefitted from the CAPS!! I am going to research this. Stay tuned.
PS: Did you know a Deaf football player at Galludet University in Washington invented the huddle? He didn't want the other team to see his "signing" as he delegated plays. The huddle turned out to be a solution that is used throughout the NFL today.