A Seismic Shift
By: Nathan, Consumer Centered Technology Specialist
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How tech has made itself more accessible to those with unique and special needs.
Many people these days are turning to more mainstream avenues in the technology world to meet the needs of their children. In years past there were only a few options for a parent to try and help their child with unique needs. These options were VERY costly and perpetuated a stigma about people with unique and special needs. In addition to the unfortunate way assistive technology stigmatized individuals and much of the technology was not user friendly. Family members often wanted to utilize technology but would get frustrated by the time involved in setting up just one part of a device for their loved one. Because of these two factors in the past there have been many attempts to give assistive tools to those who want and need them yet with VERY mixed results.
Fortunately we have entered the "new age" of Technology. In the past 8+ years we have seen seismic shifts in the world of technology. The biggest shift seems to be in the purpose for which technology is developed and how that purpose affects the design both graphically as well as functionally. In years past Technology was developed for jobs, tasks etc. however, the design was mainly thought out with the narrow scope of completing those jobs, tasks etc. and with little to no thought on the end user. The end user (you and me) were supposed to adapt to the technology that was developed and become proficient in the use of that developed technology. This made tech seem more out of reach for some and while accessible to others most would have agreed it took a deep understanding to use the technology previously developed.
Over these last 8+ years there has been a real shift in the purpose for which technology is made and the way technology is developed. Technology is now developed in reverse. It starts with a question "What does the end user want?" this question is twofold – What do they want to do with it? and "How will they want to interact with it?" These two questions have shifted technology in important and incredible ways. But the most important for us today is how this change has affected the accessibility and usability of technology for people who have unique and special needs. The development of the smartphone and tablet has changed the idea of what assistive technology is and what it can be. These two small devices have removed so many barriers to the use of technology in the field of special needs. They have not only removed barriers they have obliterated them. How? Well let's examine just a few of those barriers in greater detail.
It used to cost upwards of $7,000 for someone just to purchase an assistive device. This cost did not include training, set up, or ongoing support. Now someone can get a device for between $200-$500 and with an additional $50-200 in application (app) purchases an individual can be set up. An important feature of apps are that many of them are complete at purchase and the end user can begin utilizing them right away. Others that require additional set up are simple and straight forward and many have been developed by parents of children with special needs. In short, the cost savings of at least $6,000 has caught the attention of many who previously could not have afforded the technology.
The previously developed devices were most familiar to specialists working in the field and were not readily available or user friendly to individuals and their caregivers. In order for family, friends, and others to be able to properly assist the person in the use of their device they needed some specific and specialized training. This made it difficult when a person purchased one of these assistive devices because of the time and financial commitment it took to get everyone familiarized and comfortable with the device. Compounding the issue further, any staff or providers who worked with the person were trained to be able to work with the person and their device, however, if that staff changed positions or the provider was no longer available to serve with that person a new staff or provider would then need to be trained on the device requiring further expenditures of money and time.
One of the benefits, as these smart smartphones and tablets have been released, is that now many people either know someone who has one or they themselves have one. This makes the devices used in serving someone with special and unique needs FAR more familiar to those who are working with them. Also, this lessens much of the time organizations need to spend training people, as well as creating a significant cost savings by making these new devices more accessible to people since there can be less time spent in set up and maintenance.
As stated above, the previously developed devices in some cases added to a stigma that, while unfair and wrong, was very real. As individuals received these devices and began trying to use them out in the community, they sometimes found that this magnified the perception of them as "different". In some cases this perception caused those individuals to cease use of these expensive devices to try and curtail the stigma and perception they were experiencing.
The development of these new devices has the potential to remove almost ALL of this issue of "difference". Why? Because of the fact that MANY people are using these smartphones and tablets already to assist them in their daily lives. When a person with special and unique needs now pulls a smartphone or tablet out to communicate with someone or to remind themselves of a task or job they need to complete, they simply are using technology that the community around them is using in their everyday lives. This gives a feeling of INCLUSION to the individual and helps to break through the incorrect stigmas and barriers that have existed in the past.
In short, the smartphone and tablets have given an option that is both cost saving and can help to remove old stereo types and outdated perceptions surrounding the special needs community, with the ultimate outcome being to enable people with special needs to thrive in new and amazing ways.
Here are a few app ideas for you to consider:
- iCommunicate for iPad – If your child has autism or visual challenges then this app is for you. It allows you to create pictures, flashcards, storyboards, routines, visual schedules and record custom audio in any language. iCommunicate for iPad comes packed with 100+ pictures (first 5 have audio) to get you started. You can even add pictures with your camera or use Google image search. iCommunicate for iPad and iPhone is available at $49.99 only.
- MyTalk Mobile – Yet another useful app for your iPhone, iPod touch and iPad that enables people with communication difficulties to express their needs and desires to those around them through a variety of images, pictures, symbols and audio files including human voice. It turns your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch into an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. Its unique feature MyTalk Workspace backups up all the information and you can easily recover, in case your device is broken. Available only for $39.99.
- Everyday Life Skills - Everyday Skills provides self-directed learning sessions for 40 important skills necessary for living independently and accessing the community based on proven content developed by the Attainment Company. Everyday Skills provides an accessible learning tool that is specifically designed to be used directly by individuals with autism, learning or other developmental disabilities at their own pace on the coolest technology platform there is – the iPad! Everyday Skills is powered by Visual Impact, AbleLink's highly effective cognitively accessible learning tool. Available for only $49.99 company: Ablelink Technologies.
- Living Safely - Living Safely provides self-directed learning sessions for 27 important safety skills topics. Living Safely provides an accessible learning tool that is specifically designed to be used directly by individuals with autism, learning or other developmental disabilities at their own pace on the coolest technology platform there is – the iPad! Available for only $34.99 Company: Ablelink Technologies.
- Model Me Going Places - Model Me Going Places™ is a great visual teaching tool for helping your child learn to navigate challenging locations in the community. Each location contains a photo slideshow of children modeling appropriate behavior. Touch the forward and back buttons to move through the photos one by one. Or simply press the slide show button to advance photos automatically. A home button brings you back to the navigation menu where you may choose your next destination. Available for only $FREE
- Verbally - Verbally is an easy-to-use, comprehensive Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app for the iPad. Verbally brings speech to those without and enables real conversation with its simple, intuitive design. Just tap in what you want to say and Verbally speaks for you. Premium Features available with an in-app purchase. In-App purchase is $99.99
There are many more available in the iTunes store and on GooglePlay. Just search for such things as: AAC, Autism, Social Skills, and Developmental Disabilities. You can also search on whatever search engine you use for each of the above as well as: iPad as assistive device, using the smartphone as assistive device, etc. Thank you for your time and I hope that this article has in some way helped you as the parent, provider, staff, or individual to better understand the options that are now available in the area of assistive technology.