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.

Brightman said that when he worked at Apple Computer as the founder and director of Apple’s Worldwide Disability Solutions Group, the Apple II worked well as an AT solution because of the removable lid and the different switches that could power different types of programs. But when the Apple II went off the market, to be replaced by the Mac, although the average consumer raved about the transition, the population with disabilities felt left out.

“Every day when we went into that Apple building, we’d walk past a BMW motorcycle in the lobby, because Steve Jobs wanted to remind everyone that the goal was to be chic and glamorous,” Brightman said. “Of the 63 features designed to be helpful on Apple’s Mac, all 63 features were major inconveniences for the disabled.”

Brightman said he spearheaded a team to try and show the designers of the Mac why it wouldn’t be accessible for everybody. He even suggested that the developers try to operate a Mac using just a pencil in their mouths. The designers couldn’t even turn the Mac on, let alone operate it.

“The bad thing is,” he said, “even though the problems were easy to fix for the architects, they never realized there was a flaw to begin with. … Just like some architects, they didn’t want to admit that their design was flawed.”

As Brightman sees it, technology has moved beyond this basic problem for persons with disabilities–and now it needs to become a tool to help everyone, not just some people, reach their potential as thinkers, artists, and whatever they want to be in life.

“I had a friend named Johnny, a great jazz musician,” he related. “He got into a terrible car accident at a young age and became paralyzed from the neck down. One day his occupational therapist asked him what he wanted to be now that he was different, and he said, ‘I can’t be anything else–I’m a musician.’ The therapist looked at him and gave him a paintbrush to hold in his mouth. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘now you can still be creative.’ Johnny spat the toothbrush out and said, ‘No, you don’t understand, I’m a jazz musician.'”

A few years later, Brightman said, he was at an AT conference and Johnny came into the room, moving his wheelchair with a stick placed in his mouth. He came up to the stage, went to the computer they had for him, and started to play the jazz music he had composed with the help of software.

“It wasn’t just the audience saying, ‘Wow, for a disabled person, that’s great jazz’–it was, ‘Wow, that’s great jazz.’ You can’t take away hope from someone; instead, you need to help them apply that hope,” he said.

He added: “Frida Kahlo, a great painter, was in an accident that left her with continuing surgeries on her spine and her neck for the rest of her life. Her friends always called her sick. She once said, ‘I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint.’ That’s what we’re doing at Yahoo–giving people an opportunity to paint.”

The rest of the morning’s panel included speakers who, like Brightman, are testing new ways to help further the advancement of AT.

For example, Lawrence Grossman, co-chair of the Digital Promise project, managed to get Congress to authorize a new research center called the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies and is now awaiting appropriations.

“Every decade, government makes a great step in the advancement of education,” he said. “I believe the authorization of this center, a center that promotes information and communications technology for the public interest, is the great step of this century. I believe it will help us to further advance in the global economy and have the ability to help students nationwide.”

Mary Furlong, president and CEO of Mary Furlong and Associates, brings new technologies to baby boomers and those over 50 years old.

“You know, older adults don’t want to be disenfranchised,” she said. “Not only are they interested in technology in general, but technology can have a major impact on their [lives]. With Web 2.0 applications, online health reports, WebMD, travel sites, social networking, and much more, baby boomers and the elderly can really be helped. There are so many resources for them, and they shouldn’t be excluded just because it’s new technology.”

Noel Gunther, vice president of Learning and Interactive Media at WETA-TV, said his station has been working on a project for the past 10 years that finally went live a few days ago:

“This site is a support site, information site, resource site, and educational resource site for those with traumatic brain injury,” he said. “We also launched LD Online, a site for students, parents, and educators on learning disabilities and ADHD.”

Gunther says he lives by a quote from Peter Ducker that says, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Marshall Raskind, former director of research and special projects for Schwab Learning and vice president of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities, said his research–part of which studied the same people over a 20-year period–led him to conclude that one size does not fit all, but if one resource could really help persons with disabilities, it is the internet.

“There’s so much more research that needs to be done, but what we’ve concluded is that kids with disabilities are much more willing to seek help, talk about their conditions, [and] find resources when they’re online, because they have less fear,” he said. “Web 2.0 tools should be considered for their applications and their ability and future potential to foster special talents.”

Jeff Zimman, co-founder, president, and CEO of Posit Science, said his company develops cognitive processing technologies, but also deals with how to get inventions from the lab into the world at large.

“There are really four stages [of technology adoption]: innovators, early adopters, late adopters, and then the laggards,” he said. “In order for a technology to succeed, it has to have logic and proof provided to the public, it has to have reference sites, it has to be in adjacent markets, and it has to have one heck of a user experience.”

He concluded: “We want to give people that fighting spirit, and we do that by having the fighting spirit in the office every day.”


National Center for Technology Innovation

Digital Promise project

International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities

Posit Science

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Turning Student Data Into Intelligence resource center. No matter how many students a school or district has, one thing remains the same–the vital importance of tracking student attendance, grades, standardized test scores, school or district transfers, and more. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents all depend on a reliable Student Information System (SIS) to give accurate reports and updates. Go to: Turning Student Data Into Intelligence