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.