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Computers and the Disabled
As with any new technology, computers have had a great effect on all our lives, an effect has been most profound on those suffering from physical disabilities. Computer technology, when applied to the problems of the disabled, has meant that people who previously could not communicate or work can now perform more effectively than ever before.
Just as there are many types of disability there are many different technologies. This document sets out to describe the role of computers in improving the quality of life of the blind and visually disabled, the deaf and dumb, those with muscular, motor and movement disabilities, and those with learning disabilities.
The area in which computers most help the blind is that of information acquisition. Most publications exist in printed form only, although some books have been printed in Braille. The problem is that the selection of books translated into Braille is limited and rather arbitrary. A consequence of this is that a blind person has to rely either on a sighted person to read to them or on audio books (which are growing in popularity).
The problem with relying on these is that it is very difficult to concentrate on something being heard if there is no other stimulation. Also there is no way of altering the speed with which information is reviewed. When a sighted person reads something that is difficult to understand he or she may re-read it a number of times to make sure they understand it properly. This is difficult with an audio book and a sighted reader will grow quickly impatient of repeating the same parts over.
Speech synthesis is a way of simulating human speech using a computer. Since most sound-cards have this function now the visually impaired have an inexpensive way of "reading" any electronic document. Together with a scanner and modern Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology they can read any printed document.
Deaf people can communicate through lip-reading, sign language, and writing. Computers, being visual in nature, are ideal for those with hearing disabilities as they can use the same programs as everyone else although certain applications are more important for deaf users.
There are specialised programs written to aid training in lip-reading, sign language, and finger spelling. These programs are not just limited to the deaf but can be very useful for their families and friends.
Computers are also important in communication for deaf people. The methods of communication available to them all require unobstructed views of the participants, meaning that communication has to occur at close quarters. Devices exist that act as "text telephones" called TDD’s (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) but these are generally limited to the world of the deaf. Applications such as e-mail and char programs enable the user to communicate regardless of his or her disability.
Until recently, those who could not speak communicated using written messages or a point board (a flat surface with the alphabet and a series of frequently used phrases, symbols and words at which the user points to convey the message). As with other visual techniques written notes and point boards cannot be used on the telephone and it is very difficult to summon help in an emergency without the ability to speak. This is where speech synthesisers are useful. Small computers featuring specialised applications can be used to construct sentences that can be read using the synthesiser allowing a more conversational style to be adopted than using a point board.
Movement disabilities include severe arthritis, amputees, spinal cord injuries, degenerative muscle and nerve diseases, cerebral palsy, strokes, accidents as their causes. Whatever the cause, however, the result is the same; the ability to move some part of the body is impaired. There are several technologies available to people who have limited control of some part of their body.
Switch access is the main technology used for people with very limited mobility such as quadriplegics or those suffering from ALS. These people usually have control of some part of their body, be it an eyelid or a finger. A switch is designed that can be activated by the movement of this body part. Specialised applications are then used to input information into a computer. These work by moving a cursor steadily over menu options that can be selected. The user presses the switch when the desired menu is highlighted. Data are input in the same way using a combination or word and phrase lists and an alphabet (like an electronic point board). People without even this limited form of control can use tube switches, which are activated by blowing or sipping small quantities of air.
An alternative to this is voice recognition software. Research into neural networks means that modern packages such as Dragon Dictate™ can cope with speeds of up to 70 words a minute, a speed faster than most able-bodied people can type.
Computers have a number of qualities that make them ideal when aiding those with learning disabilities; qualities that even the best teacher cannot possess. They cannot be impatient, they never grow tired, and they are always available.
A computer will keep presenting a problem until the student gains some understanding of it. Whether it takes ten or ten thousand attempts the computer will never become angry, upset, or frustrated. This takes pressure off the student, pressure which usually causes difficulties for a learning impaired student.
A computer will never complain of tiredness. Except for power failures and malfunction a computer will go on as long as the student is willing. A lesson will always be presented with the same level of enthusiasm no matter the time or how long it has been working.
Special education in schools is always on a limited budget and there are not always the facilities available to give every student the attention he or she may need. Teachers have other commitments and responsibilities. Computers, however, have no commitments; they are always available to be used at the student desires. Students with learning disabilities usually have difficulties with timetables, so the ability to develop a "personal timetable" is a boon. Students only progress when they are ready, which stops them being bored and frustrated as they fall behind the class.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, "prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labour unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment". This means that providing proper computer technology is a legal obligation for any company that employs more than fifteen people.
Computer technology has to the potential to change the lives of disabled people, allowing them more independence and the ability to interact with a world that might otherwise be off limits. They allow greater communication and flexibility of communication. The Internet provides the disabled person with a wealth of information. He or she can communicate with other disabled people and share resources. Most importantly, there is no reason why the disabled cannot enter mainstream society and have the same employment opportunities as anyone else.