Enabling Technology – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 23 March, 2013

Enabling technology
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 23, 2013, Saturday

FOR someone who did not get to go out often, there used to be very few alternatives for me to fill those long hours at home.

I spent a lot of my time in front of the television but there were only so many shows one could watch. It is not called the idiot box for nothing.

Then, I discovered the wonders of the computer. Now, my typical day begins with booting up the laptop just after I get up. This is where most of my activities of the day are focussed on. The day ends when I shut it down 15 or 16 hours later.

That may just seem like moving from watching television to looking at the monitor but the computer has truly opened up possibilities for me in more ways than I can count.

With an Internet connection, I have virtually most of the information I need at my fingertips. It is a voluminous archive on practically anything and everything although I do take things with a pinch of salt. Not all the information available on the Internet is reliable.

Nevertheless, I got a better understanding of my medical conditions from reading the various websites. I gathered a lot more information from there than from consultations with doctors.

I even learnt to measure myself for a fully customised wheelchair from a forum specialising in spinal cord injury. Members of this forum are people living with similar conditions, medical professionals and therapists.

They are more than willing to share their experience and knowledge. The wheelchair fitted me perfectly with no adjustment needed when it was delivered.

I do most of my work on the laptop. They include designing slides for the trainings that I conduct, writing articles and updating my blogs and the websites that I am administering.

The Internet is also a great place to socialise with friends and get acquainted with people having the same interests. I have made more friends from all over the world through the Internet than I ever did my entire life before that. The impact of this medium is simply amazing.

It was also through an online chat room that I met the love of my life. We got married a few years ago. Quite a number of our friends have also discovered love this way. That is a story for another day.

Having spent most of my weekdays in front of the laptop, I make it a point to reduce its usage on weekends. Those days are reserved for going out for a meal or two with my wife Wuan and for our weekly grocery shopping.

The digital age has also made it simpler to conduct disability activism. I was involved in an independent living network consisting of eight countries in the Asia Pacific.

Our monthly meetings were usually attended by about 10 participants from all over the region. All of us are wheelchair users. We managed these meetings through Skype. It would have been impossible without the Internet.

Technology truly provides a welcome relief for people with severe impairments. Our functional limitations are alleviated by assistive software and hardware.

Prominent physicist Stephen Hawking best exemplifies how these adaptive aids are enabling him. He is totally paralysed from motor neurone disease that also impairs his faculty of speech.

He composes words one letter at a time on an on-screen keyboard by twitching his cheek. The completed sentence is then converted into spoken words via a speech synthesiser. Without the device, it would have been impossible for him to communicate.

There are head-mounted pointers and speech recognition software that can be used to launch applications, navigate the screen, open and edit documents in place of a mouse for people with severe physical impairments.

Even if they are totally paralysed, they are still able to operate a motorised wheelchair fitted with a Sip-and-Puff system. Blowing into a tube commands the wheelchair to move forward while sucking on the tube commands the wheelchair to move backwards.

Likewise, screen reading software enables people with visual impairments to use the computer. It comes with tools for navigating and accessing web pages and all their content. Text on the screen is read aloud by a speech synthesiser.

Such software and devices improve productivity and provide a semblance of control and independence for people with impairments who would otherwise have to depend on a carer to tend to those tasks.

The drawback to these assistive aids is the prohibitive costs. The price of a wheelchair with Sip-and-Puff control is US$30,000. A screen reader or speech recognition software costs between US$600 and US$1,500.

They are expensive because they are designed for a very small market where the demand is low. Demand is low also because of the high price tag.

I truly believe that disabled people, more so those with severe impairments, should be given every support possible to achieve their full potential.

The technology is here. It has the potential to enable and empower many more disabled people like it did to me. The barrier is the cost. How do we break that for a win-win solution to both users and developers?

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.

Read more: http://www.theborneopost.com/2013/03/23/enabling-technology/

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Minion to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. Columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. Principal Trainer at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.