Disability is largely becoming an irrelevant factor in how those of us with special needs can perform in school, at home, and in future work -- all because of remarkable advances in assistive technology.
Why do I make that observation?
Take a look at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). It’s a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. It offers a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) system to let users explore various assistive technology devices for people with disabilities in educational and work settings. SOAR divides potential accommodations into four broad disability categories: cognitive/neurological impairments, deaf/hard of hearing impairments, motor impairments and visual impairments.
Are you as impressed as I am by the range of assistive technology now available for each of those disability categories?
The Big Picture
With such a range of advances in technology, I maintain disability in the workforce is becoming, at the same time, irrelevant and more commonplace. It no longer matters that I can’t walk without crutches or a walker. But it’s not uncommon for someone to be considered disabled for a time without access to their needed plug-in or app. I lose touch with the world and my network of contacts (and therefore, become “disabled,” since “keeping in touch” today is a life activity), if I simply lose my smart phone or if I can’t access the Internet with my iPad.
We’re also at the dawn of an age where people and machines are becoming one -- not just externally but internally (thanks to nanotechnology). With advances in medical technology, individuals previously thought to be “disabled” are becoming perfectly able and becoming part of today’s integrated workforce. Here are two visionaries who see the dawn of this new age: Raymond Kurzweil and Dr. Miguel Nicolelis.
Raymond Kurzweil, author, inventor and futurist, has been instrumental in helping people use technology to work around their disabilities. He has helped develop optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments.
Kurzweil expects to see the combination and consolidation of three important technologies in the 21st century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including artificial intelligence).
In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology Kurzweil asserts that medical advancements will make it possible for a significant number of his generation (baby boomers) to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain. Just think what that means for those of us with disabilities.
If transcending our biological limitations becomes reality, then everyone will be unable to compete effectively without the intervention (an accommodation) of technology. Today’s most common definition of “disability” (a condition which limits one or more of a person’s life activities) will be meaningless and obsolete. And the outdated label, “employable population,” will be discarded or take on a new meaning.
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is a Brazilian physician and scientist best known for his pioneering work "reading monkey thought" and using brain-computer interface (BCI). In 2008, Nicolelis's lab saw a monkey implanted with a new BCI successfully control a robot walking on a treadmill in Kyoto, Japan. And that propelled him into a project he calls as significant as putting a man on the moon.
By capturing brain function, Nicolelis is paving the way for a cure for Parkinson's disease, new ways of treating paralysis, and using brain waves to control “whole body” robots for helping people with no mobility to walk. Named by "Scientific American" as one of the 20 most influential scientists in the world, he is the professor of Neurobiology Biomedical Engineering and Psychological and Brain Sciences and co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University.
See Nicolelis’s book, “Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines -- and How It Will Change our Lives.”
Four Examples of New Assistive Technology
Let’s drill down to some specifics about how dynamic the field of assistive technology has become. Here are just four of the new developments I’ve discovered while surfing the Net during the last few months.
1. MOTOR IMPAIRMENTS
AntzFree is a free iOS and Android app that can give people who have limited use of their upper limbs the control of their devices, connecting them with the digital world. Developed by two Italian development engineers, AntzFree is meant to be used just through head movement. AntzFree includes a keyboard that allows the user to write text messages and speak them. The app's computer vision software engine processes the images captured by the front-facing camera, and with no calibration, the user instantly learns how to move a circular pointer on the touch screen through natural head movements. You can try AntzFree right now! Just follow the app's tutorial. Also see an AntzFree video presentation.
2. VISUAL IMPAIRMENTS
The National Science Foundation's Research in Disabilities Education program is funding projects that develop new assistive technologies for people with disabilities. One example, developed by a team at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, is a hand-held submersible audible light sensor that fits in a test tube and converts the light intensity to an audible signal to help blind scientists conduct chemistry experiments.
3. SPEECH IMPAIRMENTS
Talkitt enables those with motor, speech, and language challenges to easily communicate using their own voice. It translates unintelligible pronunciations into understandable speech. The software-based solution can run on any smartphone, tablet, or computer, allowing the user to communicate freely with anyone, anywhere.
4. READING IMPAIRMENTS
Read&Write is a family of literacy software packages that makes the web, documents and files more accessible -- on any platform or device. It's great for people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. From reading on-screen text aloud, to researching and checking written work, Read&Write makes lots of everyday tasks easier. It’s a big confidence booster for anyone who needs a little extra help with reading and writing at school or in the workplace.
New developments in assistive technology are coming onboard at ever increasing rate.
For instance the iPad, with its many built-in accessibility features, has become an alternative to high-priced specialized tech options that were in common use for low-vision users only five years ago. Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies. To find answers to your questions about a specific disability and a particular need (and get a feel for what new assistive technology products are in development), I recommend contacting JAN directly. Its staff of experienced consultants are ready to discuss specific assistive technology solutions with you in a confidential manner.
Copyright © 2016. Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC. All rights reserved.
Jim Hasse (www.jimhasse.com), Global Career Development Facilitator, has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both jobseekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com/), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. He’s the founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, a comprehensive career coaching guide for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy, and owner of Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC, which develops win-win direct mail fundraisers for champions of disability employment.