“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but this is the first time I’m seeing mainstream technology have real applications for people with disabilities,” Karen of SFCD explains. She proceeds to show me how she is able to control just about everything in the room, from the fan to the lights, with her voice or the iPad she holds in her hand. The iPad is running several communication applications that allow her to type out simple sentences telling the room what to do. Karen illustrates this by tapping a few buttons on her iPad, causing it to say, “Amazon, turn on the fan.” Sure enough, the fan across the room turns on with a pleasing whir. This is what assistive technology is all about, and it’s pretty incredible.
What is assistive technology?
Assistive technology, according to Karen Baca, is, “something that allows a person with a disability to do something they otherwise could not. It could be anything as simple as a pencil grip, to something a little more high tech, like a communication app or eye gaze technology that allows users to control a computer with their eyes… It can also be everything in between.” Karen works for SFCD, or Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, a nonprofit organization that we support with their IT consulting needs. SFCD helps people with disabilities and their families get access to the right healthcare and educational resources they need to flourish. Originally started by three moms in a garage in the early eighties, it has since grown to over 50 employees that serve the Bay Area, focusing in San Francisco.
Karen was brought onto the team for a series of communication related projects. Most recently, she has been working on an assistive technology lab in order to bring better access to educational resources and communication tools for the families SFCD serves. Karen works with a wide range of children. She teaches children with Down’s syndrome, Angelman’s syndrome, autism, and many other cases in which there just isn’t an exact diagnosis. Many of the families she works with have been told that their child will never speak. “No, they can’t, they’re not going to be able to do that, that’s too much for them… We hear that a lot. A lot of these kiddos have the potential for speech, it’s just going to take longer to develop,” she tells me. There was a need for an assistive technology lab for years, but SFCD just didn’t have anyone specialized in the subject until recently. Karen has been working with assistive technology for a large portion of her life, so she was just the woman for the job.
She started with a storage closet. It was a part of the office that was rarely used and in just a few months, she turned it into a space for families to explore tools and methods for teaching their children. The lab has a wide variety of equipment ranging from low tech, like drawing supplies, to high tech, like $15,000 communication devices that most families would have a hard time getting access to.
There's an App for That.
“We get a lot of families in here because they heard they can borrow an iPad. That’s how we get them in the door,” Karen says as she grabs an iPad off the shelf and opens up Proloquo, an augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, app. The interface is simple and straightforward: each button illustrates a word with a small drawing. For example, when she taps the brightly colored button labeled with a stick figure grabbing a red square, the iPad says, “want,” in a child’s voice. AAC apps like Proloquo are very helpful for teaching children how to communicate. Not only does the application give children a way to communicate, even if they can’t yet speak, it often teaches them to articulate words and speak over time. It works a lot like learning a foreign language through immersion.
Each iPad in the lab is stocked with several AAC apps that can cost from around $200-300 each. SFCD helps reduce the cost barrier by letting families borrow an iPad and test out a few different apps to see which works best for their child before investing in an iPad and AAC app - a cost that could easily drift to over $1000.
Adaptive technology is, for the most part, really expensive. Assistive keyboards and mice exist, as does the ability to control a computer with one’s eyes, but it’s not cheap. Karen expressed that the cost is most likely due to the fact that the user base is so small. The companies that produce technology specifically designed for people with disabilities have to make it expensive, otherwise they would go out of business. Families often have to subsidize the cost through means that are complex to navigate.
SFCD spends a lot of time finding ways to make devices more accessible, both literally and financially. Powerful devices like the Accent 1400 that allow users to do everything from carry on conversations, to use a computer, to dim the lights in the room can cost anywhere from $8,000-15,000. However, because it qualifies as a durable medical device, there are ways that families can pay for it through insurance plans or a child’s school. SFCD helps families navigate this process and get access to other tools that will help their child learn and communicate. Most phones and computers on the market just aren’t designed for users with disabilities, so families are left having to find costly workarounds. Luckily, the advent of voice controlled devices and the internet of things is inadvertently creating some of the most accessible mainstream technology on the market. While it was possible a few years ago to create a home that could be controlled by voice, it certainly wasn’t cheap. Now, thanks to internet connected devices like Amazon Echo, Phillips Hue, and Nest it is possible to create a smart, and disability friendly, home at a considerably lower price point.
High Tech to Low Tech.
Sometimes the best solution isn’t always high tech, however. Mid Tech tools that kind of resemble a Speak & Spell can be a lot more affordable than an iPad or other more robust device. Karen even finds low tech tools such as blocks and art supplies to be a crucial part of the teaching process for some kids. Karen’s latest project is implementing a system for getting communication books to families in the most cost effective way and teaching them how to implement it. Her ultimate goal is for other agencies across the country to adopt her ideas so that more families can get access to educational materials for their children. The books are part of the PODD, or Pragmatic Organized Dynamic Display, system designed by Gayle Porter in Australia and work in a similar way to an AAC app on an iPad. Sometimes the iPad can be overwhelming or distracting for students. PODD, however, has one purpose: teaching communication through immersing the child in language. This makes it easier for a child to get into the mindset of learning and avoid getting distracted. If a family wanted to create a PODD book on their own it would be a $700-800 investment in software and printing costs. This isn’t factoring in the time spent learning to use the software and creating a book from scratch. Karen spent hours learning the PODD software to create the books and testing out different printing materials until she found a durable, cost effective solution. The book is made of a special type of paper that resists water and tears without the need for lamination, so it won’t fall apart if a child takes it to the beach or spills something on it. At the time I came in she was in the process of setting up a station for families to come in anytime and create PODD books, as well as working on a lending library of books that families could borrow for free.
SFCD’s assistive technology lab has only been around for a few months, but the technology used in the lab has been a proven success. Karen frequently works with families that haven’t had success elsewhere, and what they are doing is working. The same kids that would supposedly never be able to speak are picking up language with a few months of dedicated learning. The assistive technology lab just scratches the surface of all the great work that SFCD does, and we’re glad to be their IT consultants. To learn more about SFCD and all of the projects they are rolling out in the Bay Area, check out their website. They are always looking for volunteers.