Twenty years ago, I read an announcement of an essay contest that struck my funny bone. What would the world be like for people with visual impairments in the year 2020 was the question. I thought it was silly, so I dashed off a story on a whim - and won. My story was a science fiction yarn loaded with what were then fantastic devices equalizing the barriers wrought by the inability to read print or recognize the faces in a crowded room.
I thought about that story last week - and about all the similar stories regarding hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments that might well have been written at the time. Just about anything that we might have thought of as fantastic and futuristic just two decades ago was probably present in some form at the conference "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" sponsored by California State University at Northridge held recently in Los Angeles.
For people with paraplegia or quadriplegia, a wheelchair that could be operated by pushing buttons or using a mouth stick seemed like a pretty big deal a few decades ago. Exhibits at the Northridge conference included systems where entire environments - chair, phone, TV, VCR, lights and more - could be operated by the user's finger, head, eyes, or voice. Cubed ramps and widened doors in public buildings were welcome advancements in the '70s and early '80s. Today, wheelchairs designed for use on the beach, mountain trail or other terrain are popular products.
For people unable to use their voices, a plethora of devices make communication possible and affordable. Kids and adults with learning disabilities can choose computer products that will speak and highlight text while reading to facilitate comprehension, or hand-held devices to scan and pronounce printed words aloud.
Not only are hearing aids miles ahead of the clunky whistling thing your grandfather wore, digital hearing aids today are relatively unobtrusive and programmable. Going beyond hearing aids themselves, a variety of helpful listening devices make it possible for people with severe hearing impairments to hear a lecture, a movie, television or conversation with someone several feet away.
Telephones are equipped with volume controls for better hearing, larger buttons and displays for those with failing eyesight, and even picture capabilities to for people with cognitive disabilities. A variety of devices are available to attach to any phone for announcing incoming calls for those with the caller ID feature, and Panasonic even has a phone that contains the talking ID feature as well as speaking a variety of other functions.
Back in that whimsical story of mine, the main character laid a hard-copy print book on a machine, which immediately converted it to Braille. While it takes a bit more than just one machine, that task is now possible in a variety of configurations. Going a bit beyond mere text conversion, a number of companies at the conference were demonstrating means of converting clip art images, mathematical representations, street maps and other graphical images in intelligible, tactile formats.
While most technological products involve a learning curve, the message throughout the sessions and exhibits is a consistent one: For teachers whose students have mobility, visual, hearing or learning difficulties, for the baby boomer whose parent is having difficulty accomplishing once simple tasks, there is probably a product out there that provides a solution.
To see the list of presentations and exhibits included at the Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, go to 222.csun.edu/cod/conf2004.
Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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