Brenda, Jonathan and Lizzie Willis came to the Assistive Technology conference to look for tools to make life a little easier for Lizzie.
Brenda, Jonathan and Lizzie Willis came to the Assistive Technology conference to look for tools to make life a little easier for Lizzie. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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Last week’s assistive technology conference in Raleigh showcased tech solutions to help people with disabilities function better at home and work.

By Rose Hoban

Seventh-grader Lizzie Willis will talk to pretty much anyone. She’s got an enormous smile, a ready giggle and loves the language arts classes at P.S. Jones Middle School in Beaufort County.

Brenda, Jonathan and Lizzie Willis came to the Assistive Technology conference to look for tools to make life a little easier for Lizzie. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

She’s also got cerebral palsy, which, for her, means she uses a wheelchair and has trouble seeing and writing. It takes a minute to catch onto her way of speaking.

But typing is a different story.

“Hand pecking!” Lizzie exclaimed gleefully when asked if she can use a computer.

Lizzie was in Raleigh late last week with her mom, Brenda Willis, looking at some of the new equipment – such as large-format keyboards – on offer at the annual GREAT (Global Rehabilitation Enhanced with Assistive Technology) conference held at the North Raleigh Hilton.

“We are looking for her to gain some computer skills so that she can go out and hold down a job someday, hopefully,” Brenda said. “But there are a lot of doors that have to stay open for those things to occur.”

Many doors have already opened for a kid like Lizzie, and for her twin, Jonathan, who has autism. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which opened doors for people with all kinds of disabilities.

When he signed the law, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

But only now is the digital revolution that was just blossoming in 1991 finally starting to fulfill its promise for people with disabilities.

’A piece of the puzzle’

For years, assistive technology meant prosthetic limbs or jerry-rigged equipment to help people with a physical disability perform activities of daily living, like dressing, bathing and eating.

Reporter Rose Hoban tries out the Beam. The telepresence robot is in the background. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

But now devices such as “telepresence” robots allow someone to log onto a robot located at, say, a museum, a school or an office. Using a laptop at your home, you can roll the robot around and interact with people you meet virtually, as the camera on your laptop projects your face onto the robot’s screen.

The software is free and users can control any device they’ve been allowed access to, said Christa Cliver, spokeswoman for Suitable Technologies, which manufactures telepresence robots called Beams.

One conference attendee said he uses a robot made by VGo to attend school every day, moving from class to class, all while sitting at home on his computer. He directed the video camera and keyboard on the other end using a dot in the middle of his forehead and head motions read by a screen.

But at $16,000 a pop for a Beam and about $5,000 for a VGo, these devices are beyond the reach of most people, much less someone with a disability who lives on Social Security income. Even the stripped-down version of the Beam is out of reach for most people, at $1,995.

An iPad or Android tablet, on the other hand, costs a couple of hundred bucks and vocational rehabilitation specialists are now discovering a wide range of uses for tablets.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said Julie Dutchess, who works for the state Department of Health and Human Services’ North Carolina Assistive Technology Program.

But it’s a pretty powerful piece of the puzzle. Dutchess demonstrated how apps created for people with disabilities track productivity at work, help cue people with intellectual disabilities to remain on task and time how long it’s taking them to finish their work.

“When I talk about using assistive technology in the workplace, it can help open up opportunities for people,” Dutchess said.

Communication lines

Dutchess and vocational rehab counselors are teaching clients to use iPads to communicate with supervisors and potential employers.

The Work Autonomy iPad app helps people with disabilities keep track of tasks and their productivity at work.

Beth Fraher from Easter Seals UCP demonstrated a video résumé a young man with autism named David created using the iPad. It included David speaking to the camera about his accomplishments and employment goals, provided testimonials and references and wrapped up with contact information.

“It’s a way for David to express who he is, what he wants,” Fraher said. “Sometimes when he’s going out to meet new people, he can have some anxiety or is really nervous and doesn’t know the right thing to say.”

“They can go to an employer, take the iPad with them and say this is my résumé,” she said. “It’s a chance for the individual … and the employer to really bond, without the job coach stepping in.”

Using the video résumé also increases efficiency for job coaches, who can “go” with a person to an interview without leaving their office.

Another app, called Work Autonomy, talks clients through their work tasks, displaying photos of what the finished product looks like. The app even keeps track of how much the client earned.

“We also used it for a young lady who was not verbal working as a dining room attendant at Hardee’s,” Fraher said. “She was able to use it to communicate with her supervisor.

‘Who knew?’

The Assistive Technology Program now has 10 iPads received via a grant from the federal Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Programs.

The DOL also provides experts to teach vocational rehab specialists best practices for using the iPads.

“I’m not a Gen X-er, I’m not a Gen Y-er, and technology does not fit into my paws quite like it does for the younger folks, but it certainly is fascinating,” said Gina Price from the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. “And if it’s fascinating for this old Baby Boomer, it certainly is fascinating for the people we are serving.”

Assistive technology encompasses a range of tools, from adapted garden trowels to computers. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Fraher told of a client who worked on the food-production line at Wendy’s. The iPad was getting in the way, so Fraher had him take photos of each ingredient and print them out.

He then put the photos in front of his workstation to use as a quick reference.

Fraher said finding such solutions provides clients with a sense of accomplishment.

“We have the individual make the app themselves, so it’s through their eyes. They’re going around with the iPad taking pictures of things, reminding themselves of what they need to do,” she said.

Fraher said workers can strap the iPad on and use it throughout the day as a reference for instructions, prompts or reminders. At the end of the day, they can email the information on their productivity to their supervisors.

Price said clients can also use the iPad Mini, but that it requires manual dexterity and good vision.

“Amazing,” Price said of the devices. “I had an iPad for three years and I didn’t know I could do all that. I thought the only thing this thing did was games, Facebook and email.

“Who knew?”

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