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Computers, Disabilities… and Miracles

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 2008 Issue
March 7, 2008

Computers, Disabilities… and Miracles

“Doctors Amazed by Autistic Girl’s Computer Use.”

ABC News featured the story of Carly, a 13-year-old girl with autism during a February newscast, with additional information appearing on the network’s Web site. Not long after Carly’s story aired, another network featured a16-year-old boy with spina bifida using a special pad to control a computer. Both young people were miraculously performing well academically thanks to technology.

A series of stories soon circulated on the Internet, most featuring disabled individuals using computers with “adaptive technologies” to communicate. From autistic children to adult stroke victims, miracles were being proclaimed.

Because these stories generally appear in clusters, I knew it wouldn’t be long before a parent asked me the tough question: “Should I get my child a computer with some of that special equipment?”
This is a very difficult question, since every situation is different.

As a specialist in technology and “special needs” students, my impulse is to always envision ways technology can help individuals.

In the case of the autistic individuals appearing in various news reports, the only adaptations needed were already built-in to operating systems. For these women, as with people suffering from a palsy or other fine-motor impairment, keyboard control is actually easier than using a mouse.

Windows applications are fairly easy to control via keyboard, as is the operating system itself.

Apple’s OS X takes a bit more effort in some cases, but can be quickly customized for easy keyboard control.

When I work with visually impaired individuals, the adaptations range from features included with the operating systems to additional hardware. When someone has a minor vision impairment, it takes only a few minutes to demonstrate how to enlarge text or magnify screen images. I often use the “zoom” feature of OS X and can’t imagine life without it.

One of my colleagues has severe vision loss and has used a Braille “screen” to supplement his computer screen. The Braille device looks like a thousand little rods that move up and down to translate text to Braille. Because this is a supplemental device, it does not include a Braille keyboard for input, but you can buy combination devices for users more comfortable with Braille transcribers.
Unfortunately, Braille screens are $2000 or more. Braille transcriber-screen combinations are more than $6000. Some schools provide these devices to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but I have found some schools won’t allow students to take these important tools home.

Text readers, such as the Kurzweil 3000 (, “read” printed materials for the vision impaired. The Kurzweil tools are wonderful because scanned books can be saved to an MP3 audio file and listened to using an iPod or other MP3 player. I have watched blind students scanning books that were not available in Braille. Though the results are definitely “computerized” when compared to a professionally produced audiobook, the technology is amazing.

Once again, the price of the technology can be prohibitive outside the school setting. ClaroRead is $400 for a basic scan-to-speech application. To use the software you still need a computer and scanner. The Kurzweil software and hardware, which is more accurate, starts at $1000. I wish every blind student could obtain the Kurzweil software, but the reality is that “good enough” is sometimes the best option for a family.

For those who need to control a computer without the keyboard, voice recognition used to be a fantasy. The earliest dictation software for personal computers garbled text no matter how slowly and clearly you spoke. Controlling a computer using voice commands was frustratingly slow. In tests, I would have to repeat commands several times to copy or move a file.

Microsoft and Apple now include basic text-to-speech and speech recognition capabilities. Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows ( and Dictate for the Mac ( are definitely superior for voice dictation. These applications use the same speech technology and cost under $200.

I use Dictate and actually enjoy dictating directly into Microsoft Word. You need to speak a bit slower than normal, but nothing like the “old days” when you had to speak a word at a time. I can dictate smoothly at 50 to 60 words per minute, which is comparable to typing.

One of the most amazing adaptive devices is the “puff switch” that allows an individual to control a computer via “puffs” of air. I have seen a young woman control her Mac entirely with her breath. The puff switch costs $500 and I was told it requires about a week to learn the basic breath patterns. The student I observed compared the switch to Morse code.

The patience required to “type” a page was astounding. Then I realized that there must also be a sense of freedom thanks to the computer and puff switch.

The novel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was composed using an “eye switch” that monitors blinks instead of puffs of air. Jean-Dominique Bauby was the Paris-based editor of Elle before suffering a stroke at the age of 43. As a quadriplegic, Bauby continued to write, thanks to this adaptive technology.

Again, the cost of an eye-switch creates a dilemma for disabled individuals and their families. A basic switch, which counts blinks, costs approximately $500. More advanced “eye tracking” systems allow eye movements to control the on-screen cursor. Looking at an icon is the same as manipulating a mouse. These systems cost $5000 to $8000, depending on accuracy and complexity. While eye tracking is “better” than a blink counter, the cost often dictates which a person will use.

 As an educator, I want the best for every student I meet. I know that any adaptive technology is better than none, but it is frustrating when I have to tell a parent there are great technologies and then there are the devices families can afford.

What is possibly the worst feeling for a special education teacher is the realization that sometimes technology does not provide the desired “miracle.” I have received e-mails from parents who expected their autistic children to suddenly be “freed” thanks to a computer. In one case, a teenage boy merely pounded his head against the keyboard and threw the mouse. The technology was simply not appropriate for this young man. The parents were devastated.

Technology can and should give us hope. We merely need to have realistic expectations.


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