Innovative Technology Transforms Lives

Tom Sheridan demonstrates text-enlarging technology

Tom Sheridan demonstrates text-enlarging technology

Joining the mythical battle between humans and orcs is not a call Trevis Brown could have answered months ago.

In fact, without some of the latest innovations in computer technology, the 27-year-old from Edmonton, Alta., who has quadriplegia, would not be playing the online computer game World of Warcraft at all. He plays with a sip ‘n’ puff mouse-he uses his mouth to get "left" and "right" clicks, while a device attached to his forehead operates the cursor- and enters commands through a voice recognition program. Thanks to the technology, Brown can move through the digital world and destroy enemies as easily as his online guild-mates.

Brown was injured in a dirt bike crash. The date of the accident comes quickly to his lips. "October 4th, 2003. I was at a motocross track-I’d ridden that track since I was eight years old. It’s not like I didn"t know what I was doing. But at the start of the second lap, I lost control of the bike. It turned sideways, and I went headfirst into a tree."

Brown was in the ICU for eight months, then spent a year at Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, a facility devoted primarily to high-level rehabilitation therapy. He also spent time at Glenrose’s I CAN Centre for Assistive Technology, which provides assessment services to people who have complex needs for assistive technology.

"I knew what kind of computer I wanted when I got out of there, because of the I CAN Centre," says Brown, who now lives with his family in a modified townhouse in west Edmonton. The centre’s staff provided him with a couple of different head-operated mice, which enabled him to direct simple computer programs. "I started playing solitaire." Since then, he has moved on to far more complicated games, meeting players from all over the world in the virtual realm. In World of Warcraft, he usually plays as an undead mage or a warrior orc. "Gotta be evil," he jokes. "You get into guilds, you play with a bunch of grandmas. Well, there’s one grandma, but also people from everywhere."

Online communities, e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms are breaking down barriers and helping people with disabilities stay active in the community. For Brown, it’s not just fun and games-he also uses his head mouse and software for school, to stay in touch with friends who live outside the city, to take care of his personal banking and to look up movie times. Though Brown has other interests and activities-he paints and uses electrodes to ride a bike three times a week at an accessible gym-he says he truly enjoys his Internet connectivity. "It’d be boring without the computer-I’d just sit and watch all the time."

TOP OF THE CLASS

Tom Sheridan, a fixture on the University of Alberta campus for more than a decade, also knows a thing or two about bringing people together with technology. He’s easy to recognize-he’s the tall, thin man bounding around the Specialized Support and Disability Services (SSDS) office, his frenetic energy literally beaming from inside. Sheridan manages the adaptive technology services component of the many academic supports offered through SSDS. These supports allow approximately 600 students as well as faculty members to continue their education and employment with fewer barriers.

Sheridan overflows with examples of how he’s trying to open people’s eyes to the advantages of getting technological aids into the hands of students. He says that while technology’s potential is exciting, students need the proper assessment and training to ensure they can use the tools to reach their goals. "We don’t want to give misconceptions-there’s a lot of this stuff sitting out there and it’s wasting away because one of those elements was missed. I know what’s there, I know which disabilities could take advantage of it. It’s just not moving fast enough. Not for me, anyway," he laughs.

Sheridan spends much of his time assessing students and teaching them to use everything from text magnifiers to voice recognition software to help them become more independent. One of his success stories is Lorne Webber, an affable 24-year-old completing his degree in psychology and computer science. Born sighted, Webber’s retinas detached when he was 11. Despite numerous eye surgeries, he became blind at 16.

Lorne Webber uses his PAC Mate, a computer for people with vision disabilities

Lorne Webber uses his PAC Mate, a computer for people with vision disabilities
Webber holds a black PAC Mate, a sophisticated portable computer, on his lap during the interview in the SSDS office. "Seven years ago, I might have been doing an exam by dictating," he says. "Now I might use a computer."

The PAC Mate is a device for people with vision disabilities. It can access Windows software and record lectures. It has a Braille keyboard and, thanks to the work of SSDS and some dedicated students, the PAC Mate could even link Webber up to a GPS map of the university campus before he’s finished school. So far, there are general maps of Canada in the PAC Mates, telling students when they get to campus.

PAC Mates range in price from $3,000 to $9,000, depending on the needs of the user (a Braille display raises the price tag considerably). (For more info, visit www.freedomscientific.com.)

Many students apply for federal or provincial grants to purchase assistive technology. Trevis Brown received funding for his laptop, head mouse and voice recognition software when he started classes in insurance risk management at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton. "When I was at the rehabilitation centre, this one guy came and talked to us, and he’s got like three or four different computers, all upgrades that he received funding for," says Brown.

Knowing that this student was getting upgraded equipment encouraged Brown to pursue his own post-secondary education. Without the technology, he says, "It would be very difficult."

Brown applied for a government grant to pay for his computer and mouse, and his school acted as a liaison to help with support services and assessment. He takes the tech to class, and is able to keep up with his peers. "The technology is really easy to use, and I was provided with people to help me learn to use my new programs," he says. Technology has opened up a new world for Brown (two, if you count the battlefield in World of Warcraft). "After my accident, I had no idea that I would ever be able to go to school."

GO, GO GADGETS

Back in the SSDS Computer Lab at the University of Alberta, Tom Sheridan shows us other devices, including an older model PAC Mate, which has less memory than the current model. Lorne Webber used such a device when he arrived at the university seven years ago. "The stuff we’ve got now," Webber says, "I’d have drooled over back then."

Sheridan shows off a closed-circuit television (CCTV) called My Reader that scans pages, enlarges them, changes column size, and alters background and text colours for people with reduced vision. Scanning technology works for students with mobility disabilities too, allowing them to convert entire textbooks into an easier format or copy key chapters rather than lugging around piles of books. Texts with more complex formats are scanned and edited by office staff to produce an electronic copy that is as close to the original as possible.

SDSS also offers a headset that looks like a hands-free phone device, but along with the microphone, it has a camera aimed at the wearer"s mouth-in this case, professors. The signal is transmitted to handheld monitors that allow students with hearing disabilities to read the professors’ lips if they are not facing the class.

There are also many software programs, such as Text Aloud, that convert text to speech, which students can then download and listen to on any portable MP3 player. "You’re on the bus," says Sheridan, attaching the device to his belt. "You pop these headphones into your ears and you’re listening to your textbook on the way to school."

There are also a variety of voice recognition programs, similar to the one Brown has on his computer, which is called Dragon Naturally Speaking. "You could run your whole computer by voice and you wouldn’t even need a mouse," explains Brown. And he does. He mischievously adds, "Sometimes when I’m talking it doesn’t quite sense what I’m saying. It doesn’t make spelling mistakes-it just says funny words. So, I say the Dragon’s on crack."

MEETING THE NEED

Sheridan’s goal is to spread the message that people who need adaptive technology should be able to access it at the earliest stage possible. In the summer, he runs a week-long camp for kids and teens with vision disabilities. "I bring a lot of technology onto campus-the latest text-to-speech software, the latest Braille software. During that week, they’re getting their hands on these products and learning how to use them."

More post-secondary schools are agreeing that students need technology sooner, offering new products to staff and students. Provincial governments are starting to increase funding for adaptive tech in grade schools and high schools, too. There is also growing recognition that adaptive tech helps many students, not just the ones with disabilities. For example, this past fall, the Upper Canada District School Board in Eastern Ontario installed WordQ software in its 122 schools to make writing easier for its 35,000 students. WordQ helps users by predicting words after a few letters have been entered.

Sheridan emphasizes that the key is not just the technology, but the proper training for students on how to use these tools. "Technology itself is a contributor to empowering society. We know it’s there and can empower persons with disabilities. I’m saying let’s do something about it," says Sheridan. "Here’s A, here’s B – let’s put them together to help people."

Jeff Samsonow and Sally Poulsen are writers in Edmonton.