Friday, March 28

Technical Abilities

For people with disabilities using a computer can be difficult, painful, or nearly impossible. However, with just a little technological help, the computer can be adapted for easy, pain-free use, says Kristen Russell, an assistive technologies expert with Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey.

Russell will give a seminar on "Computer Access: From Low Tech to High Tech," on Sunday, March 30, at 3 p.m. at the Abilities Expo in Edison. Cost: free. For more information visit www.nyc.abilitiesexpo.com.

The expo is a three-day event, running from Friday through Sunday, March 28 to 30, at the New Jersey Convention Center. It begins at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday. The expo will offer a wide variety of exhibits, product demonstrations, and seminars for caregivers, parents, healthcare professionals, and people with disabilities. Continuing education credits from RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society) are available for several of the seminars, which will be offered on a variety of topics, including power mobility products for children, health and wellness topics, the accessible home, transportation choices for people with disabilities, boosting children’s vocabulary skills, and voting rights for people with disabilities.

Russell is an occupational therapist with certification in assistive technology. She first became interested in her career through a summer job in high school. "I worked as a counselor at a camp for people with developmental disabilities," she says. She majored in occupational therapy at Elizabethtown College where she graduated in 2000.

One of her first experiences as an occupational therapist involved working with a teenage girl who was unable to use a computer. "She had very little mobility and voice recognition software wasn’t appropriate for her," she says. Russell researched the problem and found that the joystick the girl used to power her wheelchair could be adapted to computer use as well.

"Being able to use a computer opened up a whole new world for her," says Russell. "Before that time I hadn’t known it was possible to do something like that." It got he to thinking: Using a computer is an integral part of life today. But what if for some reason a person, like that young girl, couldn’t use a computer? It would affect his or her ability to communicate, to socialize, to obtain information, and it could very well mean the difference between being employed or unemployed.

Russell became interested in the use of technology to help people with disabilities, first by continuing to learn on the job, and then through certification courses offered by RESNA, the society that specializes in adaptive technology services.

Russell joined the Cerebral Palsy Associates of New Jersey in the summer of 2006. "Many people think that the association just works with people with cerebral palsy, but actually we help people with a wide variety of disabilities," says Russell. These include traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, arthritis, spina bifida, mental retardation, stroke, and other injuries or disabilities. The association serves people with both permanent and temporary disabilities.

People come to the association in a variety of ways, including referrals from doctors, vocational rehabilitation services, and from schools. One of the most common issues Russell helps people to deal with is pain.

Ergonomic correctness. "I see a lot of people who have pain in their backs or neck pain, either from arthritis or just from sitting at the computer for too long every day," she says. There are a number of ergonomic devices that can help to relieve this type of pain, from an ergonomic mouse or a joystick, to ergonomic chairs and even complete ergonomic desk set-ups.

Easy setting changes. Often, the quickest and easiest fix is right at a person’s fingertips: the computer itself. "Many people are unaware that their computers come with built in accessibility options that can make it easier for people with a variety of disabilities to use the computer," says Russell. The settings can be found under "control panel" on a Windows computer.

The changes are quick, easy, and since they are a standard part of every computer, they are even free, she says. Some of the settings include magnifying the screen to make it easier to read, as well as changes to keyboard and mouse settings. One feature, called "sticky keys" allows certain keys, such as the shift, to stay locked in place once they are hit. "If someone has palsy, arthritis – or even just one hand – he or she can’t easily hold down the shift key and reach for another key to make a capital letter," Russell explains.

Keyboard Assistance. A person who has difficulty with motor control may also hit several keys at once. A Plexiglas device is available with cutouts for the keys to isolate each one and make it easier for the user to hit only one key at a time.

Voice recognition software can also be a solution for someone who has trouble using a keyboard because of mobility, or for people with visual impairments or dyslexia. Dragon Naturally Speaking is the most well-known voice recognition software program. As the person speaks into a microphone attached to the computer the machine types the words that are spoken.

"It’s a great program and it seems to get better with each version," says Russell. It is readily available at office supply or computer stores for about $90.

Mouse options. Because a mouse is so integral to computer use, manufacturers have come up with dozens of different mouse replacements, ranging from simple and inexpensive devices that can be found at the local office supply store to specialized equipment that costs thousands of dollars.

The least expensive solution, and one that works for many people, is a trackball. Because it uses the palm of the hand instead of the fingers, it is a good solution for many people with motor control problems. A joystick is another solution for people with limited mobility in their hands, says Russell.

For people who are unable to use their hands, there are a variety of alternatives, from a mouse that can be used with a foot to a Jouse II, a mouse that uses the lips and tongue. There are also head pointing devices, and for the most severely impaired, devices that track eye movements to move the mouse on the screen.

Because some of these devices are very expensive, the Cerebral Palsy Association has the Technology Lending Center where people can try out a device for up to six weeks before deciding whether to purchase it.

"Not every solution works for every person. You often need to try something first to find out if it works for you," Russell says. Users pay a nominal yearly fee to join the program.

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