Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The WHILL - A New Mobility Device

Have you seen this new wheelchair design yet?

The AT Network recently had WHILL, Inc. come give a demo and presentation about the development of this new wheelchair design – actually not even called a wheelchair, but rather, a mobility device.  Everyone at the meeting agreed that the WHILL was very cool!

The WHILL was developed by engineers in Japan on a personal mission to not only improve the functionality of the wheelchair, but to improve the style as well. 

Wheelchairs have been around for centuries, yet look at these pictures comparing the advancements in phone technology versus the advancements in wheelchairs during the last century.

Shocking, no?

The main features distinguishing the WHILL from other mobility devices - other than the unique and modern design - are its unique wheel structure (the front wheels are actually made up of many smaller wheels), side arm rests that lower to allow for easier transfers and for sitting at a desk/table, its “mouse-like” steering system, its smaller and narrower size, and a smaller, sharper turning radius for users. 

The WHILL only weighs about 200 lbs, while typical power wheelchairs designed for the same sized person are closer to 400 lbs. Its unique wheels allow the WHILL to traverse easily through rough terrains such as snow, gravel, dirt, and woodchips. It can even go over curbs that are up to three inches tall! Furthermore, it is rain-proof and, with a full battery, it can travel up to 15 miles depending on the terrain.  

Shannon, who is a power and manual wheelchair user, had a chance to test drive the WHILL.   

picture of shannon in the whill talking to ceo who is squatting on the ground
Shannon talking to CEO of WHILL Satoshi Sugie
 "First of all," she said, "I like it because it is very stylish. It feels different that driving my own power wheelchair. It doesn't feel quite as stable as the one I currently use, but I like that it drove very well over rough terrains. I also like that it is very simple and sleek in its design.  It is not bulky and you actually don’t even feel like you are riding in a wheelchair. It made me feel like I was riding on some sort of a futuristic Segway and it reminded me of the movie, WALL - E.” 

The WHILL Type A is the third prototype design by the company. For the first two designs they recruited many wheelchair users to test their design out and explain what worked and what didn’t work for them.  Currently, they are taking their first limited orders. The current cost is around $9,500 - depending on the features you order for it- but they plan on the cost lowering once the WHILL is mass-manufactured to make it more affordable to all. I hope Medicare/Medical will cover it!

What do you think of the WHILL?  What do you think of using the term "mobility device" instead of wheelchair?  Write your answers in the comment box below!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Telling AT Stories

By guest blogger Fred Tchang, Director of Assistive Technology Services at Advancing Opportunities

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Nelson Mandela
head shot photo of Fred Tchang smiling
Fred Tchang, Director of AT Services

It seems impossible to many people that a person who is blind can use an iPhone, that a person with a significant physical disability can drive himself to work, or that a person who can’t read can go to college. Impossible, until they see it done.

Throughout the years, I’ve spoken with people who are unsure that their child/student/client could achieve a life goal, even with the support of assistive technology (AT). They might think that AT is just for people with physical disabilities or those who are good with computers or for anybody else but themselves.

Even people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities need to learn what’s possible. Sometimes it helps to see examples of other people, who are just like them, actually using, benefiting from and explaining their AT to convince them that, yes, this could make a difference.

Which of the following AT examples do you find the most compelling?
  1. Reading an explanation of how word prediction works: “Word prediction is a specialized writing software for people with learning disabilities. As you type, it presents a list of words that it thinks you are trying to type.”
  2. Listening to me give an example of how a student can benefit: “Students who have a lot of difficulty with spelling can use this software to help them spell words that they would otherwise not use because they cannot spell them.”
  3. Watching a video of Brody, a 6th grader, tell you himself what a difference AT has made in his life.

While the ideal situation is to learn about AT from someone else, YouTube provides the next best thing with videos of real people using it in various ways.

Below are examples of videos that illustrate how AT can be used to help people with disabilities live more independently.

Yes, it’s true – people who cannot see the iPhone screen can still use it. Nothing seems more inaccessible than a touch-screen device like an iPhone. But fortunately for us, Apple has been committed to accessibility from the start and built in the use of gestures and computer speech to make their product accessible. But it’s much easier to see how this works by watching the video, How Blind People Use Twitter & YouTube on the iPhone 4S, to understand what I mean.

Nothing frightens parents more than seeing their teenage children behind the wheel of a car. So you can imagine parents of children with physical disabilities not even considering the idea of adapted driving. But for adults with disabilities, transportation is a significant issue that can make finding a job that much harder. Videos such as this one, Assistive Technology in Action – Meet Nick, in which a parent’s emotions move from fear and disbelief to amazement and pride, can help convince other parents to take that journey with their children.

People with learning disabilities, who have difficulty reading, can be just as successful in college as other students. Having a learning disability doesn’t mean you can’t learn – it just means you learn differently. Certain learning disabilities make it difficult to visually decode words and read with fluency. However, there are computer programs which can read the text aloud as an alternative. The video, Kurzweil 3000: Helps Tracy Brookshire Achieve in College, does a good job of not only demonstrating how AT can work, but also telling the story of how effective it can be in changing lives.

If you would like to help share what’s possible with AT:
Fred Tchang is the director of assistive technology services at Advancing Opportunities based in Ewing, N.J.  In addition to running the department, Fred is also a hands-on assistive technology specialist. He and his staff help consumers, with all types of disabilities, understand, experience and implement assistive technology in their everyday lives. They also work with employers and school districts to help make classrooms, curricula and work sites accessible.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Using Dragon Dictate for Independence

by guest blogger Laurie Hoirup, author of I Can Dance: My Life with a Disability

Assistive Technology comes in many shapes and sizes. And,
picture of luarie with her book "i can dance" Laurie is smiling and wearing a purple jumpsuit and uses a power wheelchair
Author Laurie Hoirup
having had a significant disability since the age of two - for more than 50 years now - I have certainly used my fair share of different AT. However, none has provided me with a more complete life than Dragon Dictate, my voice-activated computer program, which I use in so many ways.

I first purchased this program back in the mid-90s when the cost was $6000 and it came on about 20 floppy disks, for those of you old enough to know what those are. Of course, now you can pick up the software from any local electronics store for the price of $79, and it comes on one CD/DVD. Regardless of its evolution, the program has always provided me with a link to independence.

Initially I used the program to write my papers for my college career and, for the first time, I didn't have to rely on someone to type for me. Though I had to use robot sounding speech, I was still able to write my own assignments
independently and I was thrilled.

As time progressed, so did the program and soon I was able to use Dragon to communicate online, search the web and a number of other things. In addition, I was soon able to speak more naturally and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

I eventually became employed and Dragon assisted me with many of my work projects. In the beginning, I was unable to use the telephone independently. But, before too long, Dragon enabled me to succeed with this as well. I was able to work for hours without the assistance of others. I never felt more self-reliant in my life. Dragon did wonders for my self-esteem.

Next, fast forward into the future and my retirement; my next goal was to write my memoir and become a resource for others with disabilities. Dragon provided me with the means to accomplish this enormous dream along with all the other previous achievements I had obtained.

Dragon is not limited to short papers or communications. In fact, my memoir was well over 95,000 words and Dragon hung in there like a trooper. We really were writing partners. I learned to put my ideas on paper at the end of whatever page I was on, and then as I found a place for those thoughts, I would just delete them from the bottom of my page. In other words, I learned to combine my outline and draft into one document.

I cannot give enough praise for this program in terms of independence. For anyone lacking mobility of their upper extremities, this is definitely the way to go to use a computer. Whether or not you are writing a long document for your job, communicating through email, surfing the web and playing games just for fun, or writing your own story, this program can make it all happen for you just by sharing your thoughts verbally. 

laurie wearign a headset and using Dragon Dictate at her desk with her computer and knick knacks around including a barbie doll in a wheelchair
Laurie using Dragon Dictate at her desk

There is a Dragon version for all types of computers. It’s affordable and easy to find. There is also a tutorial to get you started, so try it today.

Have you ever used Dragon or other voice recognition programs? What was your experience?

Lauire Hoirup is the author of the award-winning book I Can Dance: My Life With a Disability. Click here to visit her website laurieslegacy.com and sign up for her blog.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Paralympics Winter 2014

Are you ready for the Winter PARALYMPICS 2014?!

For the first time ever, the Paralympics (Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016) will receive an unprecedented 116 hours of coverage in the U.S.

picture of logo for sochi paraylmpics three swirls red blue and green
Starting on March 7th, 2014 with the Opening Ceremony, NBC and NBCSN will provide coverage on all of the Paralympic sports in the Sochi, Russia program.  

Also unprecedented, NBC and NBCSN will stream all events live from March 7th - 16th.  Just click on this link to bookmark and watch them:  http://www.teamusa.org/US-Paralympics.

There will be 692 athletes competing in six different sports:  Alpine Skiing, Snowboarding, Cross-country skiing, Sled hockey, Wheelchair curling, and Biathlon. The U.S. Team is comprised of 58 men, 22 women, and six visual guides.  

picture of michelle in snow with her snowboard. She is a right leg amputee and is wearing a prostetic leg.
Michelle Salt - Canadian Paralympic Athlete
“We are absolutely delighted to announce this two-Games agreement with NBC... as it provides more airtime of the Paralympics than ever before in the U.S.,” said Sir Phillip Craven, president of the IPC (International Paralympic Committee). “Following the success of London 2012, we said it was absolutely essential for the growth of the Paralympic Movement and the Paralympic Games that in future years U.S audiences had a greater opportunity to watch some of the world’s best elite athletes in action. This is tremendous news for sports fans, too, many of which will be able to watch a Paralympic Games live for the first time. I am sure they will be as captivated...as the billions around the world who tuned into London 2012 last summer.”

picture of josh sweeney on  the ice playing sled hockey with the puck and two shorter hockey sticks
Josh Sweeney - USA Sled Hockey Team
Be sure to show your support for televising these exciting events by watching the Paralympic Games this year!

Also,  you can follow the path of the Paralympics torch by clicking here.   

Which Paralympic sport are you most excited to see? 

Share your answer in the comment section below and be sure to show your Paralympics spirit by tuning in and cheering on your favorite teams and sports.