Public Release: 

Technological advances making life easier for people with physical and mental challenges

American Association for the Advancement of Science

DENVER, CO - Screen displays that deliver the written word to people who are sight-impaired, the latest ear implants for those who are deaf, and tools for individuals with mental challenges are on the cusp of a major technological revolution, paralleled by a growing aging population.

Developing and testing new devices for people with disabilities in real-world environments should enhance lab research, but sense-heightening technologies cannot replace the development of reading and writing skills, which are essential for understanding language and math, according to scientists at the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

Missing the ability to see does not have to preclude a person from pursuing a career of one's choice, however, if new technology heedlessly tips people who are blind away from studying Braille reading, it can do more harm than good, said Kent Cullers, the inspiration and real-life man behind the blind physicist character in the 1997 movie, Contact.

"A whole generation of blind people is being imperiled by the use of cheap speech 'displays' in preference to more expensive Braille," said Cullers, who is Director of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Research and Development in Mountain View, California.

Although the evolution of computers and other technological devices helps power the "extension of the senses," Braille is still needed in order to understand language and math, explained Cullers, who has been blind since birth. "Like everyone who produces careful work, blind people must read and write!"

Among the totally blind, about 75 percent are unemployed. However, almost 9 out of 10 of the totally blind who are employed read Braille. Therefore, Cullens said, it is plausible that Braille reading, as with reading in general, imbues workers with the skills needed for competent performance.

Still, much professional material is not easily available to the totally blind in either speech or Braille. To overcome this hurdle, every kind of technology must be used to inform the blind worker: "High tech, computers; low tech, drawing boards with plastic paper; and no tech, sighted help, is necessary to get the job done."

Katherine Seelman of University of Pittsburgh, another AAAS speaker, discussed the challenges that the hearing-impaired have in natural environments, the technological advances that help support them, and the needs of future research.

With an aging work force and an ever-growing group of people who are hard-of-hearing (the elderly), Seelman believes that the time is critical for developing new technologies for the hearing impaired and situating these advancements in terms of real-life situations.

"These concepts are going to make new and exciting demands on researchers," Seelman said.

Seelman presented some of the latest digital hearing aids and cochlear implants and discussed the need to conduct research under conditions other than a controlled laboratory setting. Research conditions should be in a more natural surrounding; where people live, work and learn, according to Seelman. This concept of performing studies within a natural environment is one that the World Health Organization has recognized as well, citing that research on individuals with hearing disabilities needs to occur in their natural environment.

Empowering people a living with a disability is on the mind of AAAS speaker Ted A. Conway of the University of Central Florida, a transition-to-work specialist who is developing new technological applications. For one student with severe spasticity and diminished mental capacity transitioning from high school to the work force, Conway's team helped build a headrest with switches that will operate a photocopier machine. Since the student has the most motor control in his head, he can use this technology that maximizes his mobility in order to operate the machine and do his job.

Conway is working on several other projects for persons with motor disabilities. For example, one paraplegic working in a library pushes a big red button in order to scan bar codes on books and student ID cards so children can check books.

While these technological devices promote useful job skills, there may be also a non-intrinsic value to these devices: "The students in the elementary school are seeing her perform a job function, seeing what she can do. The students are not afraid of her anymore," Conway says.


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MEDIA NOTE: These and other researchers will take part in a session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver titled, "Design for Life: Technologies for Rehabilitation," at 4:30 p.m. Mountain Time Sunday, 16 February, in Room A 102-104 on the Main Level of the Colorado Convention Center. The session was co-organized by Conway and Virginia Stern of AAAS, who directs the highly successful ENTRY POINT! internship program for university students with disabilities. Press registration is located in the AAAS Press Center in Room C-101 of the Colorado Convention Center.

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