Blind World Magazine

Technologies being used to help people with disabilities.

September 12, 2005
Birmingham News, Alabama.

Electronic innovations bring measures of independence to the physically dependent.

A deaf person walks into a doctor's office, but the staff doesn't know sign language.

To tackle such communication gaps, a growing number of hospitals and doctors' offices around the country are using a new Internet video service staffed by interpreters at call centers.

"The interpreter will watch what the deaf person is signing and then voice back what the message is," said Nancy Mascia, audiologist with the state's Vocational Rehabilitation Service office in Homewood. "Getting interpreters is not easy - especially in Alabama."

The new video relay service launched in March by Communication Service for the Deaf Inc. is just one of the technologies being used to help people with disabilities. Gadgets include talking pill bottles, scanners that read colors and prices, and electronic knees that execute 50 commands a second.

Part of the job of those at Alabama's Vocational Rehabilitation Service is to look at new technologies and how they might help clients.

"Every program that we have is geared toward getting them independent - getting them so they can live on their own so they can go out and get a job and earn a living and be a part of mainstream society," said Bill Driggers, rehabilitation teacher at the agency.

Aiding everyday tasks.

Advances in computers, cell phones and lightweight materials have helped free the disabled from needing others to help with the simplest chores.

Talking Rx is one such device, Driggers said. A digital recorder fits onto the bottom of a pill bottle, and a pharmacist or relative can tape a message about the medicine.

BrailleNote, a portable computer without a monitor, has been out for several years, but it recently has been improved, Driggers said. It can be used to record information, type notes or connect to other computers. A computer-generated voice can read out what's on the other computer screen, or the person can follow along as Braille is raised on a special pad.

A portable closed-circuit television system also is new to the market and available for those with low vision. It can display enlarged documents or book pages on a 15-inch plasma screen.

Handheld scanners also are available, some to tell a blind person the color of an object and some to read bar codes on items at stores.

Other items are on the way, said Jay Leventhal, editor in chief of AccessWorld, the magazine for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Global positioning satellite devices are available to help the blind navigate around towns, but at least one company is developing the technology to help blind people navigate inside buildings, Leventhal said.

Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first print-to-voice reader in the 1970s, is working with the National Federation of the Blind to develop a pocket-sized digital device to take a picture of documents or signs and read them to the blind person, Leventhal said. The device one day could be used to recognize people's faces, he said.

"That's like science fiction to me. That's really something," said Leventhal, who is blind.

Plenty of new products also are appearing on the market every year to serve an estimated 28 million people who have hearing loss.

Mascia said the Vocational Rehabilitation Service soon would get the Internet video service, and she doesn't know if any hospitals or doctors offices in Alabama have it yet. Similar services are available for people in their homes.

Other innovations.

Other new products include strobe light door chimes and the Conversor. With the Conversor, an FM receiver plugs into the ear of a person with hearing loss, and they can point a transmitter at a person they're trying to listen to. Or the speaker can wear the transmitter. The device eliminates background noise, making it easier for a person who wears a hearing aid to hone in on one voice.

Technological advances also are helping others with disabilities. Some people who have lost legs, for example, have prosthetic devices they plug into a charger before going to sleep. Companies have developed replacement knees with microprocessors that control leg movements. At least one brand can be programmed to move the leg with a natural gait, executing 50 commands a second.

"I coach Little League. ... I do everything I want to do with my knee," said Kim Duckett, lead prosthetist at Fourroux Orthotics and Prosthetics in Huntsville.

The user can flip a switch to change modes when they want to perform more strenuous activities. A newer version will have four modes, Duckett said.

Recent advances in prosthetics also can give a natural spring to a person's step, better ankle movement, even more natural skin.

Artificial arms have become more lifelike with advances in using electric impulses from remaining muscles to manipulate the prosthetic devices.

"I've got a 22-year-old patient who lost his arm above the elbow. Within four months, he's picking the guitar and bow hunting," Duckett said.

Fifteen years ago, people who lost a leg were considered disabled, Duckett said. But now people can quickly return to their routines, he said: "It's not considered a handicap all the time anymore."

Cost woes remain.

While independent-living gadgets are great, they don't help people who can't afford them, those who work with the disabled say.

Some items, such as the Braille computer, can cost thousands of dollars. Many insurance companies won't pay for many of the technologies, and government grants aren't available in many cases, either.

"We need to come up with a way for these devices to be subsidized because the average individual cannot afford them, even with a good income," Driggers said.

For information on vocational training or available adaptive technologies for the blind, call Bill Driggers, rehabilitation teacher with the Vocational Rehabilitation Service, at 290-4443. For vocational training or technologies to help people with other disabilities, visit


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