Previewing a Year of Promise for the Disabled


By John Williams 2001 may not be a space odyssey for the dot-com world. But for makers of assistive-technology products, it's shaping up as another innovative year as manufacturers introduce hundreds of gadgets for people with disabilities. Some are complex, like the gadgets that refine garbled speech as if by magic. Some are simple, such as metal chutes that help an unsteady hand load a videotape into a VCR. The new products for 2001 come in all sizes and shapes.

While prices range from $30 to $3,000, for the most part, the cost of assistive technology remains appallingly steep for the average buyer. That's particularly true for the computer-based technologies that do the most to enhance users' lives. Companies say the lofty prices are a matter of economics because of relatively low sales volumes on high-end assistive tech products.

All the same, these new offerings can be a godsend for millions of people with disabilities. They mean more opportunities for inclusion in mainstream society, as well as expanded possibilities for travel, education, and employment. They are also more compact and easier to use. Perhaps affordability will come in the next few years, as more and more people with disabilities enter the workforce and require assistive technology to do their jobs. Let's look at some of the hot newcomers:

A better boom box. Inaudible speech resulting from neuromuscular dysfunction is a particularly thorny problem for thousands of people whose minds work better than their mouths. For many, it's a simple lack of volume: They speak clearly -- but without enough oomph. Now comes Luminaud's ChatterVox. Although this pint-size amplifier fits in a fanny pack and weighs just over a pound, it can boost a user's voice by 15 decibels.

Several types of microphones work with the ChatterVox: headband mikes, handheld mikes, collar mikes, and a unique transdermal throat mike for those who have lost their larynx because of cancer or another illness. The device can help a wide variety of speech-impaired conditions, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and vocal-chord nodules. The product sells for $195, plus an additional $45 to $85 for a microphone. Considering the benefits, that's not a bad price. You can learn more about it by visiting www.luminaud.com.

Loud and clear. Another nifty new speech-enhancement device can help people who lack not only volume but the neuromuscular control required for clear enunciation. St. Louis-based Electronic Speech Enhancement (ESE), a leader in the field, has done it again with a new battery-powered cordless headset that lets people with inaudible and incomprehensible voices use wireless telephones for the first time.

Here's how it works: The user wears a Spectrum VP voice processor and speaks into a microphone that can be part of a headset or attached to a collar. The device cleans up the speech, amplifies it, and then beams the signal to a wireless base unit plugged into a computer. With specialized software, the computer takes the audible speech from the base station and sends it out over standard phone lines. The combination translates low volume and extremely garbled words into speech that is easily understandable.

This product could help anyone with a severe speech impediment, such as stuttering, as well as those with Parkinson's disease or cerebral palsy. And it could dramatically improve the quality of life of someone who is both mobility- and speech-impaired. To be sure, ESE has built similar battery-powered speech enhancers in the past, one of which is the Spectrum VP. But the company claims it has dramatically increased the effectiveness of its speech recognition by eliminating a lot of background noises.

The phone-transmission software works with any type of computer. That's a big plus. The device supports both group and private communications. The price is steep, at $1,695. But for many, it's probably worth the cost. Find out more at www.speechenhancer.com.

See hear. The deaf and hearing-impaired have long used TTY -- the blanket acronym for text-display phones and other telecommunications devices. On these networks, specially trained operators quickly translate conversations into text and relay them to hearing-impaired users. But TTY phones rule out spoken and audible communication -- something that never sat well with the many hearing-impaired people, who use a combination of spoken and text cues in conversations. For these folks, the Ultratec CapTel could prove a significant improvement. Unlike existing relay services that provide only text captions, the CapTel allows users to combine both audible and visual signals to provide even more enhanced conversation.

To activate the CapTel, a user presses the phone's "Captions" button, which automatically connects the call to a captioning service. At the service center, an operator trained to use voice-recognition software revoices whatever is said by the party being called. The voice-recognition system transcribes the operator's voice into a text stream (captions), which is spliced together with the called party's actual voice and sent down the line to the CapTel.

When the CapTel phone receives this combined information, the voice and text are split -- the voice going to the phone's earpiece while the captions are routed to the display screen. Perfect for someone who is hard of hearing but not deaf, this combination of sound and text allows people with partial hearing to use the telephone in a far more functional and comfortable way.

Though the price has yet to be determined, the final figure once the company has figured in its profit margin is unlikely to exceed $500. For more information visit www.ultratec.com.

Loading the VCR. Some of my friends have limited hand strength or lack fine finger control because of muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or Parkinson's disease tremors. For them, the simple act of sliding a videotape into a VCR is big problem. This year, however, many will be microwaving popcorn and settling down to double features with the help of an elegantly simple gadget from the State University of New York at Buffalo's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer, which has developed a VCR videotape guide to make loading tapes easier.

Designed to fit any standard front-loading VHS-format player or recorder, the guide consists of a metal cover that partially encloses the machine. Users push tapes into a pivoting chute that can be easily positioned to feed directly into the VCR's tape slot. The cost is a mere $29.95 and can be ordered by visiting www.dynamic-living.com/VCR tape.guide.htm.

Taking the digital revolution on the road. For the blind, "digital portable" has long been an oxymoron. Not anymore, thanks to HumanWare's VoiceNote. The purse-size note-taking computer has a built-in speech synthesizer that can vocalize text files. The device's underlying operating system is Windows CE, version 2.12, so it's compatible with most Windows-friendly software. Tipping the scales at a scant 1.6 pounds, the VoiceNote translates files across a broad range of formats, including text, braille, ASCII, Microsoft Word, and WordPerfect formats.

That makes for awesome versatility. Using braille keys, VoiceNote users can create word processing documents, send and receive e-mail with an internal (albeit slow) 33.6 kilobits-per-second modem, schedule appointments, check phone numbers, or perform scientific calculations.

By inserting an IBM MicroDrive into the PC card slot of the VoiceNote, users can create a virtual hard drive with up to 1 gigabyte of storage space. The device also has a small visual display screen so classmates, teachers, or other sighted colleagues can read VoiceNote's contents as well. Serial and infrared ports make it easy to beam the contents of any VoiceNote document to another personal or handheld computer. While the $1,799 price may hurt a bit, this product is very versatile. Find out information about the VoiceNote at

www.humanware.com.

The final chapter. For the last word on this year's new goodies, we turn to page-turners. These mechanical devices are vital to people lacking the strength or motor control to turn pages because of cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease, or other neuromuscular disorders. Until recently, page-turners might just as easily have been called page-trashers since they often destroyed books or magazines by pulling too hard on the pages and stretching or tearing bindings.

Now there is a book-friendly page-turner from the Swedish company GEWA. The Page Turner BLV-6 uses a more gentle approach. Rubber rollers flip the pages gently forward or backward -- and they do so one at a time or a number of pages in a continuous movement. The 15-pound device readily clamps onto special reading tables to permit its use while sitting, standing, or reclining.

The unit works with books, magazines, catalogs, brochures, mail, and can be operated with a variety of multiple-switch assemblies or, as an option, with a visual scanner. Having used a number of page-turners, I can tell you that this one is a winner. The price is a huge $3,095. No doubt, that's too much. But it sure beats hiring an assistant to come and turn your pages at all hours. GEWA is distributed in this country by assistive technology

retailer Zygo. For information visit www.zygo-usa.com.

All told, this year's crop of devices represents some encouraging progress. And as the computer revolution rushes onward, I am hopeful that the new generation of tablet computers and other wireless devices will provide more opportunities for assistive-technology manufacturers to make their products truly affordable. The gee-whiz factor is there, already. Now all it will take is a pricing structure that brings the miracle of technology to millions of folks with disabilities. A wonderfully functional page-turner that changes lives for the better shouldn't have to cost more than a high-end desktop computer. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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