Assistive Technology Allows for New Lease on Life

Associated Press + More


The Journal Record OKLAHOMA CITY—Without assistive technology, Sherri Kelly would be trapped within herself, her mind working, but her body unable to express her needs, hopes and emotions.

But with a "head mouse," a sensor that communicates with the computer hooked to the front of her power wheelchair, she's able to move her head to type messages, then beam a big smile when the person she's talking to hears what she wrote.

Technologies like Kelly's — and advocacy for the people who need it the most — were the focus of the recent Oklahoma Assistive Technology Equipment Exposition at the Moore Norman Technology Center's Oklahoma City campus. Speech therapists, physical therapists and teachers mingled with assistive technology vendors and people with disabilities to talk about how to connect more people with the devices that can make their lives fuller.

"We don't communicate just to say, 'I need something.' We communicate for social closeness and to tell stories," said Nuala South of Norman, a sales consultant for DynaVox communication devices.

The Oklahoma Assistive Technology Center, or OATC, is part of the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Stefanie Olson, OATC speech therapist, said much of OATC's work focuses on spreading the word about technology to special education teachers.

Although assistive technology has been around and evolving for 20 years, its application in schools is still in its infancy, she said. Merging technology with specific disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairment, is an ongoing challenge, she said, especially because of cost.

A state agency devoted to helping disabled people afford assistive technology is Oklahoma ABLE Tech, based at Oklahoma State University. ABLE Tech provides short-term loans of assistive technology devices so people can try them before buying, said Tessa Stinnett, an assistive technology specialist.

The agency also facilitates an equipment exchange and provides demonstrations of various devices. In addition, ABLE Tech teams with BancFirst to provide low-interest loans for people who need assistive technology but can't get it covered by insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.

"Technology is on the side of people with disabilities," Stinnett said. "It allows people to live independently. The possibilities on the horizon are amazing."

Vendors unveiled several new pieces of today's technology, including the Intel Reader, for those who are blind or have low vision. People use the device to take a picture of a textbook page, a business document or a newspaper article, then the processor scans it and, within 30 seconds, begins reading it out loud. For multiple pages, the device can be docked in a scanning station.

South showed off her latest DynaVox products, the latest of which use "eye gaze technology" to allow people to type messages, surf the Internet, make phone calls or anything else that could be accomplished with a remote control. A camera with infrared transmitters tracks the pupil movements of its user, whose blink equates to a click of the mouse. For people who can only move their eyes, the technology is essential to communication, she said.

"For every letter of the alphabet, the device offers the 12 most frequently used words," South said. If the word they need isn't there, the recognition software kicks in with suggestions as letters are selected. "If they were typing out every word with their eyes, it would be slow and tedious," she added.

Olson said the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires public schools to provide educational services to students with disabilities. But she said she hopes assistive technology follows the trend of architectural designs in streets and buildings — that sliding doors and curb cutouts are becoming the norm rather than a rarity.

"Curb cutouts don't just help people in wheelchairs, but also moms with strollers and kids on bikes," Olson said. "It's that way with learning. When we have a more inclusive educational environment, it's not a big deal having a kid who can't read like the others because we've already thought about what to do."