Monday, July 29, 2002
Aids for disabled good for everyone
By Deborah Kendrick email@example.com
A few years ago, I was excited to learn that Zenith had introduced a new VCR.
Called the Speak-EZ, its new twist was a pleasant female voice that talked the user through menus to record programming and set options on the VCR. I called Zenith to add my voice to a roster of congratulations they had received from people with disabilities. We've already heard from about 50 blind people by phone or e-mail, Zenith's media relations director told me.
The irony, he said, was Zenith engineers weren't thinking of people who couldn't see on-screen prompts when they developed a talking VCR. They were hoping the prompts would appeal to the millions of electronically challenged consumers people intimidated by the technology who couldn't program their VCRs.
While the new technology was embraced by blind and visually impaired television users, what may be more surprising is that inventions often have worked in the opposite way. Work initiated to help people with disabilities has driven a lot of technology that has helped everyone.d.
So what's new and on the drawing boards? Plenty.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Trace Research & Development Center and Viking Electronics are introducing a universally accessible door entry system for multi-family residential and commercial buildings.
Introduced in February, the AES-2000 can be accessed by a wheelchair user, provides large characters and voice output for those with visual or cognitive disabilities, offers TTY (text telephone) access for the deaf, has easy look-up and/or automatic dialing of up to 500 residents and has other cross-disability friendly features.
A GADGET HISTORY
Historically, many inventions designed to help people with disabilities led to mainstream consumer products. For example:|
1808: The earliest typewriter was designed by Pellegrino Turri to help his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono to write legibly.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone as one of his many efforts to enable deaf people to communicate.
1948: John Bardeen and his colleagues invented the transistor, in an attempt to produce a smaller, cheaper, more efficient hearing aid. The brainstorm earned them
the Nobel Prize in 1956, and Sony purchased the license for manufacture of the first transistor radio.
1960: The first open captioning of films was produced for the deaf by Pilgrim Imaging, with the first national broadcast carrying captioning produced by WGBH in 1972, (The French Chef with Julia Child). Today, closed captioning is used not only by deaf people, but by anyone in noisy environments, those wishing to watch a program in silence or people who need language translation.
1964: Deaf orthodontist, James C. Marsters of California, shipped a teletype device to his deaf scientist friend. The idea was to provide a means for a deaf person to communicate visually over telephone lines. Today, millions around the world use essentially the same technology to communicate via e-mail over the Internet.
Long before the 2000 presidential election voting debacle, casting a vote was a problem for many people with disabilities.
Reaching the machine to cast a ballot, reading the list of candidates or marking the desired choice have made the election process a challenge for them. The national focus on voting accelerated work already under way with regard to accessibility.
Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, is one of a handful of companies promoting new touch-screen voting machines, which also promise accessibility features for blind, deaf and wheelchair-using voters.
Replacing paper ballots, punch cards and lever machines, the new systems invite the voters to touch the name of the chosen candidate on the screen or enter it by typing on a standard keyboard. Already, Diebold has sold thousands of machines to Virginia, Maryland and Georgia.
Pulse Data HumanWare, a New Zealand-based company with a California component, has introduced the BrailleNote family of products essentially, personal digital assistants (PDAs) with Braille and/or speech readout.
The latest addition to the product, is GPS-Talk, global positioning software that enables blind travelers to determine such factors as what direction they're headed and at what speed, where the nearest restaurant or bank is, and then how to reach it.
GPS-Talk began shipping this spring, and by year's end will offer complete street maps of all U.S. cities all accessible via the BrailleNote's
Braille display or speech synthesizer.
Thirty years ago, we didn't have remote controls for our televisions. Today, the portable Eyegaze System enables a quadriplegic to operate a computer simply by moving his or her eyes.
Mounted on a wheelchair and drawing power from a 12-volt battery, the unit provides eye-operated control of Windows PC programs as well as environmental controls such as operating a TV, VCR or telephone.
Users have written entire books with the system, says Nancy Cleveland, the company's spokeswoman.
While talking ATM's have only recently arrived in Ohio, NCR has just launched a new mainstream system for accessing cash that could lend itself well to the needs of people with disabilities in time.
A pilot project in Denmark enables users to key in security codes on a mobile phone while approaching the specially configured ATM, and receive cash upon arrival.
Eventually, this might signal a new era in which mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) are used to dispense cash, theater tickets, subway tokens and information from grocery store or airport kiosks.
While the Danish pilot doesn't yet include access for people with disabilities, the potential is tremendous.
Will we drive cars by voice commands or scan a room with a handheld camera with face recognition to announce who's present and who's not?
While these projects aren't currently on the drawing board, experts say that possibilities exist. One thing that becomes clearer with experience is this: If a product is designed with the needs of people with and without disabilities in mind, the end result is a better product.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/kendrick
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