Technology helps shatter limits of disability

A web site with information on learning disabilities, a national research center for studying advanced technologies, and a web site for those who are dealing with traumatic brain injuries: These were some of the new initiatives highlighted at the National Center for Technology Innovation’s 2008 Technology Innovators Conference, which explored ways that assistive technology (AT) can help persons with disabilities not only learn and function, but also achieve their dreams.

“This conference has really inspired me,” said Tracy Gray, director of NCTI, “because all I’ve heard from AT industry veterans is the word ‘vision.’ I feel like we’re all looking to the horizon, to the vanishing point, and we just keep moving forward until we see another vanishing point, and then move even farther. The dedication and the vision I’ve seen are incredible.”

During a series of sessions in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, AT experts sought to inspire educators and technology developers to look for new tools and solutions that would allow all citizens with disabilities to reach their goals.

Keynote speaker Alan Brightman, senior policy director of special communities for Yahoo Inc. and author of many children’s books, said his work is about providing more than just a tool so persons with disabilities can live a somewhat “average” life; his work is about providing the tools necessary to let those persons achieve their lifelong goals.

“I have a friend, and we discuss all the terms people call him, like disabled, handicapped, and whether or not they’re politically correct,” Brightman said. “I once asked him what he prefers to be called, and he said ‘gimp.’ Not only does this force people to acknowledge his condition, but he said that if you look up ‘gimp’ in the dictionary, it means ‘fighting spirit.’ That’s what we’re trying to accomplish at Yahoo, is to help these people continue to have their fighting spirit.” [Editor’s note: A search of two leading dictionaries failed to turn up this definition.]

Brightman said one of the main problems with creating successful AT solutions is the mindset of most adults to “just pretend not to notice.”

“If you ever talk to kids, they’ll ask questions; for example, they’ll ask, ‘Why is this kid blind if his eyes are open,’ or ‘Why does this kid move differently,’ or ‘Why does this kid have a wheelchair?’ Adults don’t ask questions, because they think it’s not socially polite. That’s true to some extent, but in order to make a difference, you have to be willing to ask questions if you really want to know what someone is going through,” he explained.