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.