Thursday, January 29, 2009

Apple, Microsoft Debut Features at ATIA

The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA)2009 conference in Orlando is off to a great start. I attended sessions on VoiceOver for iTunes, and Apple shipped in 50 or so brand-new Macs to demonstrate speech capabilities for the iTunes library, a new accessibility feature that will be rolled out by summer. A visually impaired attendee, Adam Gaffney, who works for Florida's agency for blind services, whizzed through VoiceOver and pointed out potential goofs. I couldn't hear on the available earbuds so I tried to follow along somewhat haphazardly. But it's still a very cool feature. Microsoft presented the new built-in screen magnifier for Windows 7. A nice add-in for the visually impaired, if not basic. I also attended an awe-inspiring talk by Benetech's Jim Fruchterman, who I met several years ago when he launched, an audio book service for the blind that's essentially like Napster for books (only he worked in collaboration with publishers, not against them.) Jim and his research partner, Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Wisconsin's TRACE center for assistive technology research, talked up the invention of a "superbrowser" that will give equal access to content over the Internet to all disabled people, all over the world. More details to come on that initiative, and others, as ATIA continues on Friday.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Patriots' Museum Lets Deaf, Blind Experience Football

The New England Patriots Hall of Fame in Foxborough, Mass., is installing a listening and closed-captioning system that will allow people with disabilities to experience the museum in much the same fashion as visitors who are not disabled. An article in The Boston Globe says the hand-held devices are pocket computers that pick up infrared or FM radio signals beamed from transmitters in the ceiling. The system tracks visitors as they move about, triggering audio descriptions for the blind and closed captioning or enhanced audio for those with hearing problems. One of the more popular exhibits is a re-created huddle that includes life-size statues of players and quarterback Tom Brady calling a play. Visitors can stand in the huddle and hear Brady bark instructions. For a visitor who is deaf, the hand-held device runs closed captioning at the same time Brady is speaking. Visitors who have partial hearing can wear headphones that receive enhanced audio from an FM transmitter. For those who are visually impaired, the device describes the scene in the huddle. The system is one similar to the one used at Disney World, which I recently wrote about for All in all, not many sports establishments think about disability when designing new stadiums and museums, so this is great to read about. The museum admission is $10 and the devices are free to use.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wal-Mart Settles Disability Lawsuit

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has agreed to settlement a lawsuit claiming that it discriminated against its people with disabilities under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and promised to improve access for persons with disabilities at its stores nationwide. The agreement resolves an investigation that was initiated after the U.S. Department of Justice received several complaints alleging that Wal-Mart had refused to make reasonable modifications to its rules, policies, practices, and procedures for customers with disabilities. In particular, several complainants alleged that Wal-Mart denied equal access to its stores for people with disabilities who use service animals; at least five complainants alleged a failure to provide disability-related assistance, two complainants alleged that Wal-Mart denied equal access by failing to make reasonable modifications in order to accept payment by people with disabilities at different stores; and one complainant alleged that a Wal-Mart auto service department denied him equal access to its services because he was deaf and did not have a cellular telephone. The settlement agreement covers all facilities located in the United States where Wal-Mart sells any good or service to members of the public, including all Wal-Mart stores, Supercenters, Sam’s Clubs, and Neighborhood Markets. The agreement, which will be effective for three years, requires Wal-Mart to take several steps to improve access for customers with disabilities, including:

- an undertaking by Wal-Mart not to discriminate in violation of Title III of the ADA and to provide reasonable modifications to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA, such as disability-related assistance such as helping customers in locating, lifting, and carrying items;

- the adoption and implementation of an ADA-compliant policy of welcoming persons with disabilities who use service animals into Wal-Mart stores with little or no questioning and without repeated challenges by Wal-Mart employees;

- training for all employees on Wal-Mart’s obligations under Title III of the ADA to make reasonable modifications for individuals with disabilities and Wal-Mart’s new ADA-compliant service animal policy;

- additional training for store management and People Greeters, since employees in these positions have additional responsibilities under Wal-Mart’s new service animal policy;

- the posting of Wal-Mart’s new service animal policy on its website and in employee areas at its stores;

- the establishment of a grievance procedure in which Wal-Mart will receive complaints alleging violations of Title III of the ADA at a toll-free hotline, investigate such complaints, and take appropriate corrective actions to resolve any noncompliance with Title III of the ADA, including relief to complainants where appropriate.

Under the settlement agreement, Wal-Mart will also pay $150,000 into a fund to compensate certain individuals with disabilities who filed administrative complaints with the Department alleging Wal-Mart’s refusal to make reaonable modifications, including the denial of equal access to persons with disabilities who use service animals. Wal-Mart will also pay an additional $100,000 into a fund that will be used by the Civil Rights Division to finance a public service announcement campaign to increase public awareness of the access rights of persons with disabilities who use service animals.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stevie Wonder on High-Tech for the Blind

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Vision Free presented awards to 19 companies and organizations for making products that blind people can use. Vision Free is led by blind musician Stevie Wonder and several organizations that promote equality for visually impaired people. Among the awards this year were National Public Radio for their accessible digital radio broadcast services initiative; Apple for adding speech capabilities to its its iPod Nano and iTunes music library; and for providing a good web interface and enabling Audible books on several devices for the blind. In an Popular Science magazine interview, Wonder says huge advances in technology have made life easier for people with physical disabilities, but there's still much more work to be done. "I hear manufacturers say, 'Oh, we forgot about that,' or 'Oh, that's interesting.' Well, think! Make your products a convenience for everyone. Be an all-inclusive company," Wonder said. At the top of the Grammy award winner's list of favorites at CES is the new Apple iPod that lets the iTunes music library "talk" to him and also has more accessible controls. On his wish list? A car that he can use to get around, though he realizes this invention could be a long way off.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And So It Goes...on American Idol

The setting: Phoenix. The scene: American Idol, season eight, the momentous singing competition that makes or breaks the dreams of young, hopeful talent. Tonight's two-hour premiere was well worth watching to the very end, when 23-year old Scott McIntyre auditioned for the judges. McIntyre has been blind from birth. Sporting a 'Mind the Gap' t-shirt (a nod to London's famous 'tube' system) that he thought Simon Cowell would appreciate, McIntyre won the judges over with his rendition of Billy Joel's And So It Goes. Because of my hearing impairment, I rely on my boyfriend to tell me whether each contestant has a good voice. "Is he good? Can she sing?," I ask during each performance. I had my fingers crossed for McIntyre. "He's pretty good," my boyfriend replied, somewhat tentatively. When the song finished, I sat up straight in my seat. I had seen contestants with disabilities compete on Idol and other programs before, without success. But I knew the judges saw pure talent in McIntyre, who is also a pianist and songwriter. The final outcome: Four 'Yes'-es from the judges, and Paula Abdul told him she especially liked his "softer tones." I started to tear up, thankful that the judges saw McIntyre's talent (in addition to, or instead of, his disability), his sheer determination, and the guts it took for him to audition without his 'security blanket,' -- his piano. The media has called McIntyre's voice "soulful" and "like Coldplay." I personally can't decipher musical styles nor pitch, but I am delighted for him. Idol's producers may have made Americans wait two hours for this beautiful performance, but it was not in vain. Good luck to you, Scott. May others with disabilities (and talent) aspire to go forth as bravely as you have.

12/14 UPDATE: I want to comment on the blogsphere's ridicule of Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who tried to give McIntyre a high-five after the audition. McIntyre, who has said he has tunnel-like vision that allows him to only see "one [piano] key at a time," missed Seacreast's gesture. Now Idol watchers are making fun of Seacreast, which is wrong. The only way to learn how to communicate appropriately with a blind person is to either ask, or try. I bet most of these Idol fans have never tried -- they should take a field trip to Lighthouse International and learn the etiquette. I applaud Ryan for treating McIntyre like everyone else, and for grabbing his hand and continuing through with the motion after realizing his 'mistake.'

In Pursuit of Accessible Travel

Last week I attended the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality's (SATH) World Congress in Orlando, where I spoke briefly on assistive technology gadgets for travel. I met many interesting people who are helping the disabled pursue their travel passions, including Craig Grimes of Accessible Nicaragua and Accessible Barcelona who puts tours together for people with disabilities (an especially tough feat in developing nations). I also met the infamous Scott Rains of Tour Watch, a social network for travelers with disabilities. He's a personable guy who puts out the excellent Rolling Rains report. I also talked with Sherri Backstrom of Waypoint Charter, who helps wheelchair users enjoy the experience of yachting via fully accessible ships. SATH held a reception at Universal Studios, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Cindy Brown, who has a background in ADA compliance and writes for several publications. Her speciality is cultural tourism; she gave a nice presentation on accessible museums, tours and theaters in the U.S. and tips on how to find them, such as by going to the accessibilty solutions page of the Theater Development Fund and the accessibility page of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Google Phone for the Blind

Google is working on an add-on to its Android mobile phone operating system that would make it much easier for blind people to use. Google researcher T.V Raman, who is blind, is working on a system for a touch screen phone, according to the New York Times. It works by touching any point on the screen, which the phone would then assign to the number five, or the center of the numeric pad. The user could scroll up or down, left or right to finish dialing -- and shake the device to wipe the number and redial. The phone would also work in tandem with existing voice-recognition technology. Mr. Raman is also working on systems that include GPS to allow blind people to navigate using spoken directions from the phone. While GPS is prevalent in cars today, there's little innovation by way of pedestrian travel, which Mr. Raman and his colleagues hope to change.

Monday, January 5, 2009

NYT Features Two Disability Articles

Over the weekend I read two really interesting articles in the New York Times on disability topics. One was in a special report called Education Life, about a group of MIT students who created a video game for the blind. I had read about this game, called AudiOdyssey, when I was doing research a few weeks ago for a recent article. Most video games for the blind are designed just for the blind; AudiOdyssey is unique because it's the first game that allows blind and seeing users to compete against each other equally, without giving the seeing person an advantage. Using music as its central theme, the game follows a disc jockey whose objective is to get people in his nightclub onto the dance floor by pumping out great music that players mimic by matching his beat. AudiOdyssey can be downloaded here and played on a keyboard or with a Wii remote.

The other story I read was in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, about the coming-of-age of service animals for the disabled. Everyone knows about seeing eye dogs for the blind, but foals (small horses), for example, are also being trained to guide blind people and are considered less aggressive. The article takes an interesting turn when the writer introduces several people with disabilities who own exotic pets, such as a man with bipolar disorder who uses a parrot to calm him down when he has an episode. The article suggests that some animal owners with disabilities are going too far in trying to get special privileges for their pets. I don't believe that the ADA should be changed to allow all exotic animals like parrots and monkeys into restaurants and stores -- it's just too risky for the general population. But I do believe that there's room to thoroughly train and certify certain species so that they can continue to provide benefits to the disabled.

1/7/09 update: The author of the NYT magazine story, Rebecca Skloot, has issued an update on the Department of Justice's consideration of allowing animals other than dogs to be deemed 'service animals.' On her blog, Skloot writes that she received a leaked version of the DOJ ruling; it will ban all animals except dogs, though the regulation will include a special provision for miniature horses.