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By Bob Allen
Manager of Assistive Technology School of Computer Applications Central Remedial Clinic Dublin City University Dublin, Ireland Dublin, Ireland
Assistive Technologies (A.T.) for disabled people have now come of age. Once, the only application of such systems was in research establishments and in Clinics, this is no longer the case. Close co-operative links have been established between research units and service delivery organisations that allow leading edge technical developments to be applied quickly and efficiently to the needs of end-users. It also allows user reactions and design guidance to be included in initial functional specifications, and for user involvement in prototype testing.
Despite all the technical development work that has taken place, A.T. devices are not deployed as fully as they should be. This deprives a substantial number of potential beneficiaries, of systems that could be of great use to them. The root of the problem lies in the poor service delivery structures in place - not only in Ireland, but also in many other Countries.
This poor service delivery, is caused by three fundamental factors:
Physically disabled people may suffer from problems in mobility, communication or in a lack of social skills and cognitive ability. There is no such thing as a "standard" disabled person, they can be affected to a greater or lesser extent, and may suffer from multiple problems. One thing that is clear is that above all they are people, with all the hopes, aspirations and desires experienced by the so-called "normal" population. In attempting to devise assistive technical systems, attention must be paid to assessing their needs in a global or holistic way, using a multidisciplinary team, in which the disabled person, is the most important member and contributor.
Systems exist that permit users with communication problems to mitigate their difficulties, using specially designed equipment, often incorporating artificial speech output.
Earlier papers [Ref. 1, 2 & 3] have identified the environmental control needs of a disabled person and have discussed methods of implementing this in an overall way. Typically, the user is given control over such functions as door entry/exit, curtains, electrical appliances, domestic entertainment systems, telephone operation and their mobility. The control is structured at three levels; (I) Equipment mounted directly onto their wheelchair, or in their immediate vicinity, (II) Equipment within their home or working environment, or (III) systems in the public area. To allow for the best mix and match capability, standardised bus systems are employed wherever possible [Ref. 1, 4, 8 & 9] to permit efficient trouble free interfacing of equipment with the required input and output devices.
Disabled people often need to use computers as part of their working or educational activities. They require access to conventional software, albeit through non-standard inputs or outputs. Although many newer programs and operating systems have facilities included for people with special needs, this is both exceptional and limited in scope.
Since much of the equipment referred to above is essentially a computer, albeit with specially designed inputs, outputs or user interfaces, it would appear to be logical to combine equipment onto a single platform if at all possible. This approach represents better value for money, a more uniform interface and less overall bulky equipment. The problem is that the assessment process needs to be wide ranging, and the individual equipment subsections or software, need to be implemented in a coherent way that will allow for a modular design approach. The use of commercial bus systems [Ref. 4, 8 & 9] using agreed and standardised protocols is of great benefit in putting the above approach into practice.
One of the factors limiting the extent, to which technology can be deployed to users, is the ability of those same people to avail of support services. Supporters must provide the on-going training, monitoring, fine tuning and other adjustment that is required as the user's skills improves, as they meet changing needs or as they encounter an equipment problem.
Part of the solution, lies in providing efficient communication links between the user and their expert centre. Emerging technical communication systems can often be employed. Users require local supporters or trainers that they can call upon for face to face, day to day matters. At present, the necessary skills to train these trainers are very limited. This fact was highlighted by the European Commission, in their HEART study [Ref. 5] In particular, action line E of that report addressed this problem and presented recommendations. The report recognised that the required skills were currently scarce especially among in-service professional staff, and set out to identify the skills needed.
The lack of knowledge and skill directly affects end-users of assistive technology (A.T.). In general, education and awareness of assistive technology can be subdivided into three major areas of knowledge, which are overlapping.
Professional service providers have a particular expert knowledge, which is located within a specific dominant area of the model, but little fundamental education and awareness of the other areas. Most professionals are lacking education in one or more area of assistive technology; in methods of service provision; user characteristics; or the content of other disciplines. End-users have only basic knowledge of each area, but are interested in increasing their awareness of A.T. issues. Usually, this leads to two problems that have to be solved as soon as possible. These are:
All the modular courseware required can be located within the three areas of knowledge.
Examination should first be made of the support structure required.
It can be immediately seen, that this structure envisages multi level contact. Different methods of delivery are be required, depending on the nature of the contact, its importance, and the level of technical or other infrastructure that may be available for the purpose. Suitable modules of assistive technology training should be included in the professional courses, currently being studied by undergraduate professionals. This allows for a good solid foundation in A.T. principles and practice to be taught in context with other subjects. Appropriate linkages can be established at the earliest possible stage.
Due to the fact that many of the receivers of the training will be living and working in the community, many some considerable distance from the nearest expert centre, distance teaching methods are particularly suitable. The normal mechanisms of post and telephone are available, but can be complemented with newer techniques such as electronic mail, video or satellite conferencing.
One program has just finished in Ireland that was addressing the need to produce module-training material. This included the need to develop material than can be validated at a Pan-European level. This program, called TEST (Training and Employment Support using Technology), was managed and led by the Central Remedial Clinic, Dublin. The project linked with eight other European Countries. It was part funded by the European Commission, and ran for two years, ending in December 1997. The work of this project has been described in earlier publications [Ref. 6]. Five modules were produced, and are available for others interested in including them in training programs. These were:
A second two-year program has started, called APHRODITE (A Partnership to Harness Resource Opportunities and Distribute Information Technology Expertise), which will focus far more on training of trainer delivery methods and the establishment of a National network of trainers/supporters. This project involves other partners, including the Center for Disabilities, at California State University, and University College Dublin.
It is quite reasonable to consider linking the tool to the supporting organisation via a technical communication link. The computer forming the heart of the A.T. mechanism could therefore be linked to the Internet and the National support Centre. This approach would allow for remote diagnostics, updating/modification of systems and access to constantly updated help files.
Internet access is now a cheap, easily accessible option. By including a modem into the A.T. system, access to help and support can be an easy and transparent process. The user is also given access to the Internet in its own right, allowing them use it as a work, research or leisure system. This medium allows for direct access to expert Centres and local supporters Increasingly, programs have their help files linked to a web location allowing for access to the most up to date information, and the two-way flow of questions and responses.
Access through conventional software has been difficult to-date for disabled people. However, of late, an International body called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [Ref. 7] have been addressing this matter directly. The group works with representatives from Government (The White House), industry leaders, web developers, non-profit organisations and content providers.
1. Allen, B, 1996, "Smart House Technology Application to Assist People with Disabilities", CTC96 Conference, Dublin City University,
2, Allen, B, 1998, "Delivering the Benefits of Technology to People with Disabilities" Computing and Control Magazine, Institute of Electrical Engineers, London,
3. Allen, B, Ekberg, J, Willems, C, 1995, "Smart Houses - How Can They Help People with Disabilities? COST219 Publication "Telecommunications for All",
4, Allen, B, 1994, "Home Bus Technologies, An aid to Independent Living?", COST219 Conference "Telecommunications, an Aid to Independent Living", Lillehammer, Norway,
5. Commission of the European Communities, 1994, The HEART Report DGXIII TIDE Program,
6. Allen, B, 1997 "An Evaluation of Independent Living and Support Systems Available to Disabled People using Computers and Assistive Technology" Research Paper, Computer Applications Department, Dublin City University,
8. Allen, B & Dillon, B, 1997, "Environmental Control and Fieldbus Systems - A Study of Fieldbus Systems and their potential environmental control application for people with disabilities", COST 219 Publication.
9. Commission of the European Communities, 1993, TIDE M3S, DGXIII TIDE Program,
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