Mares Wright displays one of the radios Sun Sounds of Arizona gives out, in addition to its online live stream of radio programming. (Lily Altavena)
by Lily Altavena
In 2015, non-profit Sun Sounds of Arizona is still giving out functional, 80s- looking radios to listeners after more than 30 years on the airwaves. Geared to help people with disabilities, volunteers from the organization read everything from the Wall Street Journal to Playboy aloud.
But the tide is changing at Sun Sounds, where an online stream is gaining in popularity.
“I’m signing up more and more people who want to do it digitally,” spokesman Mares Wright said.
Assistive technology is going digital and making new strides. Those with disabilities don’t have to look further than their smart phones to find a range of apps and accessories to improve quality of life. Some of this new technology was on display recently at “White Cane Day: A Resource Fair” in Tempe, Ariz., hosted by the city’s diversity office. The event was aimed at connecting those in the community who are blind or have visual impairments to a variety of resources, according to Michele Stokes, the city of Tempe’s Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Specialist.
The Prodigi, an electronic magnifier displayed by Mike Perry of Low Vision Plus in Arizona. (Lily Altavena)
Mike Perry owns Low Vision Plus, which offers assistive devices for those with visual impairments. One of the vendors at the fair, he said he’s seen a lot of improvements in the past few years.
“The technology has just become so much better,” Perry said. “Now people can afford to get it, even if they don’t have a lot of money.”
He displayed an electronic magnifier called the Prodigi at his table, which connects to a tablet to magnify and read words aloud. Perry estimates the Prodigi costs around $2,700 – thousands of dollars less than what its lower tech, 1990s counterpart would have cost.
Virginia Thompson, the assistive technology coordinator with the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said she sees more technology useful for people with more than one disability. A home alert system might include flashing lights, vibrations and braille, for example.
Smart phones, too, are ripe for development in assistive technology. In Lyrics Guru, a video game app showcased at the fair, users have to guess the correct lyrics for a song. The company, Al Jones Corporation, is currently developing a voice-controlled version of the game for those who are blind or have low vision.
“From our understanding, there are not many video games out there for those with visual challenges,” Al Jones, the company’s CEO, said.
Events like “White Cane Day” are critical to the communities they reach, Stokes said. Especially if someone is in the process of losing their sight, finding a new tool might make a huge impact in their life, he said.
For Thompson, updates in assistive technology signals more inclusion for those with disabilities.
“We still have a long ways to go, but at least now deaf-blind people can be active in the community,” she said.
Earlier this year, Future Tense asked experts: “Will technology put an end to disability?” This video captures a wide-ranging discussion on advances in robotics and neurotechnology which could challenge the world’s definition of “disabled.”
AT&T’s latest app challenge, done in partnership with NYU’s Assistive Technology and Ability Lab, offers $100,000 to developers who create new apps or devices specifically aimed at aiding those with disabilities. Submissions will be due at the beginning of July, and AT&T will announce the winner on July 26, the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Read more.
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Researchers at the University of Queensland are using computer modeling to simulate and predict the most effective ways to improve cerebral palsy patients’ muscle function and help them walk and move more easily. Read more
With more and more people turning to their computers instead of television to watch video, Congress has acted to require closed captions on Internet videos for the millions of Americans with hearing impairments.
Closed captioning has long been required for feature films and broadcast television, but such laws did not account for the digital revolution. That has meant spotty accessibility on the Web for the estimated 38 million Americans – 12 percent of the population – who are hearing impaired.
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 requires any video that is closed captioned for television to also be captioned when made available online. The Federal Communications Commission also has issued a series of deadlines for archived TV footage already edited for the Internet to be captioned. The first deadline is March 30, 2014.
To help those companies and individuals seeking to comply with the new FCC rules, the National Center on Disability and Journalism surveyed the various services available and compiled a list of resources on Web video captioning as well as a summary of the rules and deadlines for compliance.
A team of researchers and scientists in Japan took a different approach to creating a new prosthesis. The “Trans-Radial Prosthesis With Three Opposed Fingers” does not resemble a human hand as many other prosthetics attempt to do. Instead it only has three digits, which the creators say will make it easier for the user to wear and cuts down on cost. Read more.
Columbia Law student Alex Blaszczuk demonstrates how accessible technology allows her to live a more independent life and enjoy many of the things she used to before a car accident left her paralyzed from the shoulders down.
In this NPR profile, Blaszczuk becomes a Google Glass explorer and is able to take pictures, find driving directions and take a camping trip with friends. Google is one of only a few big tech firms working to create accessible technologies for the disabled community. Read more.
Prosthetic legs that can read minds? Researches at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago say it’s a possibility.
With funding from the U.S. Army, the group of researches unveiled its latest prototype bionic device this past week. The leg is comprised of aluminum, motors and sensors and relies on powerful software that translates neural signals into specific motions. Essentially, a patient thinks about bending his knee and his prosthesis follows directions.
Researchers say they hope to release the technology to the military and the general public in the next five years. Read more.
Disabled thrill-seekers are finding “liberation through technology,” according to NPR. Eric Whitney with “All Things Considered” profiled companies producing innovative prosthetics that allow amputees and those with other disabilities to rock climb, kayak, mountain bike and more.