Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Communication App Breakdown

by Rachel Anderson, Program Coordinator

There are many different reasons and ways for people to use AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices.  There are high-tech and low-tech communication devices utilizing graphics, text or a combination of both. With all of the new and ever-advancing digital communication options, choices and cost can be overwhelming.

Are you looking to try out  a free or low-cost AAC App?  Here is a great list put together by the Accessible Technology Coalition

After trying a few of free communication apps on an iPad, I found each to have their own unique design. I would encourage anyone shopping around for an app to try out the free or lite versions of several communication apps first to see what aspects of them you like or don’t like. 

For me, an AAC and iPad novice, I found the app Verbally to be most user-friendly.  I especially liked the text prediction aspect of it and found it to be a very intuitive communication device.  Having never really used an iPad, I was able to pick it up and start communicating right away. Furthermore, Verbally is free and does not require a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to run, which makes it really handy in case you find yourself with no internet service. 

Verbally has no graphics; this is a device for those that can read and type text but have the inability to speak effectively. There are built-in phrases built into this free app that I found very helpful – such as “I use this iPad for Speech.” and “Could you please help me?".   

You can choose a man’s or woman’s voice, and, although a couple of the words I typed came out a bit mispronounced, overall, everything that I said with the iPad was understood.  You will have to turn the volume all the way up for this one, and in a busy and noisy area you will most likely face problems with people being able to hear what you are saying. There is a louder and upgraded version for $100 if you decide that this is the communication app for you.

Have you used Verbally? What communication apps have you tried or found to be useful? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Will prosthetic legs give Olympic athlete an unfair advantage?

by Kim Cantrell, CFILC’s Program Director

Pistorius running on his two carbon fiber prosthetic blades.
Oscar Pistorius running on his Cheetah blades

The Olympic Games begin this week in London, and the stories of aspiring athletes hoping to win a medal are all over the news. The controversial buzz surrounding one track star representing South Africa stems from the fact that he is a double amputee who will be wearing carbon fiber prosthetic blades when running the 400 meter and 4x400 meter relay.

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius will be the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic games. Both of his legs were amputated below the knee before he was one-year-old, and he has been using prosthetic legs ever since. He just learned that he will be representing South Africa in the Olympic games earlier this month.

Pistorius is no stranger to controversy. His road to the Olympics has been full of obstacles, and he has had to fight to compete against his non-disabled peers. Initially banned from competing in the 2008 Olympics, Pistorius fought the decision and won. The decision was overturned by the Court Arbitration of Sport and he was cleared to compete. He missed qualifying for the 2008 games by a fraction of a second. This year the 25-year-old Pistorius's  groundbreaking participation in the Olympic Games is eliciting speculation by his peers, sports enthusiasts and the scientific community.

Now that he has qualified for the games, whispers of “unfair advantage” are growing louder. One Olympic Gold Medalist recently made a public comment that  his prosthetic legs may give him an unfair edge. Even researchers who have studied Pistorius are speculating that perhaps he may have an advantage over other Olympic athletes. The cause of the debate springs from Pistorius’s flex-foot Cheetah blades.

Prosthetic legs, a type of assistive technology, allow users the ability to compete in sports, walk and run when they would be unable to do so without them. We don’t hear about the unfair advantage of athletes who have legs competing in the Olympics or the apparent advantages of suitable body type, time or money. So why all the controversy over the prosthetic legs?

It’s the design of Pistorius’s prosthetic blades that have people talking. His Cheetah blades are light, flexible and designed to absorb shock for the user. In 2008, a study by researchers at Rice University examined Pistorius’s leg movements, oxygen consumption, endurance, leg repositioning time and the forces absorbed by the ground while running. Their conclusion found that he was, “physiologically similar but mechanically dissimilar" to non-disabled athletes. He uses oxygen like other athletes but moves his body differently. The researchers did not find a distinct advantage in the use of his prosthetic blades. It was this conclusion that ultimately reversed the decision to ban Pistorius from participation in the 2008 Olympic games. Pistorius consented to the study of his body movement to prove that his ability to run was due to his own talent. 

Although researchers theorize that Pistorius might have better overall endurance and an advantage on straightaways, they believe him to be at a disadvantage at the beginning of each race and around turns. His legs are simply lighter and he has to push down harder against the ground to produce the same amount of force as most other athletes.

For all the talk of advantages and disadvantages, it will be exciting to see Pistorius’s Olympic debut on August 4th, the opening day of the 400-meter heats. I know I will be watching.

Pistorius will also participate in the Paralympic games immediately following the Olympics. He is already a Paralympics gold medalist.

What do you think about athletes with prosthetic limbs competing in the Olympic games? Is it an unfair advantage or do the prosthetics simply even the playing field? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Destinations Mobility

by Shannon Coe, Program Coordinator

The AT Network often gets phone calls from individuals looking for funding to purchase modified vehicles. Unfortunately, there are not many funding sources out there. Depending on whether the vehicle is new or used, the make and model, and the modifications needed, the cost of modified vehicles can go up to $90,000. Unless you are wealthy, the price can be a shock to anyone’s system. So when I came across a non-profit organization called Destinations Mobility that sells low-cost modified vehicles, I called the Division Manager, Richard Rosebush, to find out more information about this new business model. 

Destinations Mobility is a division of Paratransit that provides affordable modified vehicles and mobility equipment throughout California. You can also rent modified vehicles from the organization. It’s based in Sacramento, CA and has a wide range of wheelchair lifts, specialized hand controls, and mobility vehicles. Wheelchair lifts are 20% less than the market price. There were at least 30 vehicles under $25,000. There was even a 1994 modified vehicle for $7,000. This vehicle was donated to Destinations Mobility, and they repaired it to sell at a low price. The organization accepts donated vehicles, and the donation is tax deductible. All the revenue from the car sales go back to support their parent company, Paratransit, which provides affordable transportation to people with disabilities and seniors. If you are unable to pay for the modified vehicles, Destinations Mobility works with lending institutions to provide loans to customers. To learn more about Destinations Mobility, you can go to:

Destinations Mobility
2501 Florin Road
Sacramento CA 95823
Phone: 916-868-6797
Fax: 916-429-2595
Email: info@destinationsmobility.com

What are some of your experiences trying to purchase modified vehicles?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Scooters to Go

by Rosemarie Punzalan, CFILC's Training Specialist

On a very hot Sunday afternoon I stopped by a local store to purchase a battery for my garage door opener remote control. As I exited I noticed a couple that appeared to be in their late 50s. The husband opened his trunk and began taking out a scooter one part at a time (seat, basket, handle bar with a horn attached, controls, and dashboard with a battery meter, and battery) while the wife helped him put the pieces together. 

travel scooter in 3 parts: rear wheels, front wheel and seat, and finally, batteries
Travel Scooter Dismantled

I became very interested and stood in the shade observing the couple put this scooter puzzle together. After assembling, the wife sat down on her seat, pressed a button on her handle bar, and began rolling across the parking lot along with her husband to the store. I immediately walked towards them, introduced myself and began asking questions about their scooter. It turns out that the 3-wheel portable folding travel scooter by No Boundaries was 15+ years old and used to be her mother’s. It was still going strong. Although the No Boundaries scooter is no longer sold, there are many other travel scooter options available for people on the go. 
Travel scooters are a great way to get around if you or your travel companion has the ability to lift the components, take the scooter apart and put it back together. Travel scooters mean independence for many people who don't have an accessible vehicle.  

Links to travel scooter models and more information about travel scooters: 
Do you have a travel scooter or know someone who does? What are the advantages/ benefits of having a portable travel electric scooter? What resources would recommend to someone who is looking for a portable travel electric scooter? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Chasing the Digital Divide

by Allan Friedman, CFILC's Technologies Manager

Can the Internet ever be truly accessible for people with disabilities? Will there ever be a time when people who use adaptive software or hardware have equal access to all websites and online applications, when they won't have to deal with workarounds, alternative sites and just plain inaccessible content? Unfortunately, the answer may be no.

To begin with, accessibility is a complex thing. Whether a person can access a website or its applications depends on several variables including the coding of the site or application, the user's software, hardware and humanware; that is, how well the individual user knows how to use the adaptive software, hardware and other applications involved. A site that meets all the guidelines for accessibility and is well constructed to facilitate access may not be experienced as fully accessible by all users.

Barriers to Web Accessibility

Compounding this challenge is the evolutionary nature of the online world. Websites and applications are developed and are then revised time and again. Few are developed that fully meet guidelines or standards for accessibility upon launch. It is only after the product has been released and user feedback highlights the barriers facing people with disabilities that companies apply fixes or add alternative sites to provide access.

The constant website updates and revisions released to improve the user experience often involve changes in navigational elements which hinder the user experience for people with disabilities. Such changes can leave users confused, disoriented and unable to use new or revised features.

The rising tide of user-generated content on social media sites is also adding to the problem. Much of the content is visual: videos, photos, animation. Little of it has alt tags to describe the photos nor are the videos audio described for users who are blind.

Web Accessibility Guidelines

So, despite long established guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and federal regulations (which are also frequently updated and revised) in the form of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, accessibility for people with disabilities is still an afterthought, an accommodation made for those who complain. Many people who are blind still have to go around to the back door, still must find an alternative while sighted users simply type in a URL, point, click and go.

While Section 508 regulations have helped, little incentive exists for business to include accessibility as a pre-launch requirement for new products. Section 508 only applies to government information services that are provided electronically. Only products designed with government clients in mind must comply with Section 508.

The W3C Web Access Initiative (WAI) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG2.0) are just that—guidelines. There is no enforcement nor can there be. The vast majority of Internet users reject the idea of regulatory control of the Internet in any form. Besides, many websites and services are based in other countries where regulation by the U.S. government would not apply.

So the digital divide may never be completely bridged for people with disabilities. The goal posts are continuously moving. Although increasing in number, people with disabilities are a small fraction of Internet users.

Accessible Apps and Devices

There are some bright spots. Newer devices for the mass market are beginning to incorporate simple versions of adaptive and assistive applications. Apple's iPads have a built-in text-to-speech application. There are also many adaptive and assistive applications that can be downloaded at little or no cost. The latest iPhones respond to voice commands.

The inclusion of adaptive and assistive applications in consumer electronic products is a promising development. Perhaps, as assistive technology evolves, it will continue to be mainstreamed into new devices and the trend will spread to websites and online applications. For now, we can only hope.