If anyone in this world has proved how useful assistive technology can be, it's the renowned English theoretical physicist, Stephan Hawking. His use of this technology to compensate for impaired mobility and speech, has been nothing short of exceptional.Until a few years ago, being physically challenged was a curse that made life miserable for the individual by making him depend on others. However, things have changed over the course of time, and a large part of the credit for this, goes to the gigantic strides we have taken in various sciences. A whole lot of innovative products, which are readily available in the market today, have helped physically challenged individuals to carve a niche for themselves and become independent against all odds.
If anything has become indispensable today, it is technology. Our world is largely dependent on computers, such that not being well-versed with this technological marvel is bound to make the person feel left out. That was the case for people with disabilities until some specially designed computer devices were introduced one after another over the last decade.
Physically challenged individuals require alternative input devices in order to use the computer. These devices, which range from voice recognition programs to alternative keyboards, provide them adaptive options in the form of computer hardware and software, thus helping them to eliminate the barriers of disability and use the computer. With these devices at their disposal, people with disabilities can use various machines and not just the computer.
Assistive Technology Alternatives to Standard Mouse: The Tongue Drive System (TDS) is an input device, wherein a small magnet is implanted in the users tongue and he has to move his tongue in order to move the cursor. Unlike other parts of the body, which are controlled by the brain through the spinal cord, tongue is directly connected to the brain by a cranial nerve. Other than the Tongue Drive System, the cursor can also be guided by off-the-shelf trackballs and foot pedals instead of a computer mouse.
More recently, pointing devices that can be controlled by the movement of the eyes have also become popular among people with disabilities. In this case, the system tracks the user's eyes on the screen and presses a particular key when he looks at it for a specific period. So the user can surf the net and even send emails simply by looking at the screen.
Then there is the impulse system, which replaces clicks with winks. In this system, electromyography technology is used to sense, amplify, and transmit electrical impulses from the brain to the muscle, and the resultant muscle contractions are eventually used to control external devices and systems. Even in the GT3D system, which was developed at the Imperial College of London, mouse clicking is replaced by winking.
More recently, we have seen the advent of the SNP (Sip-and-Puff) technology, which enables users to control on-screen action by breathing. In this case, the cursor can be controlled by inhaling or exhaling in a specifically designed tube, which can be worn either on the head or chin.
Yet another highly useful program has been the voice recognition program, wherein the human voice is used to generate equivalent key strokes. This program can be specifically designed in such a manner that it will only work for the person whose voice is keyed to it.
Specially Designed Keyboard: Specially designed ergonomic keyboards also help the person to keep his wrists in comfortable positions. Similarly, keyboards with larger keys are developed to assist people with poor motor control. Also quite useful are virtual keyboards, which can be activated with various ability switches. These switches use two techniques to operate the keyboard: (i) scanning and (ii) direct selection. Some of these keyboards anticipate the words that are being typed, while some even anticipate the entire phrase, thus making it convenient for people to use the computer.
Computer Devices for the Blind: Talking of these revolutionary devices, there is something for visually impaired people as well. While tactile keyboards with oversize characters help people who are visually impaired to type without difficulty, the text-to-speech technology helps them minimize errors by knowing what is being typed. Screen reader, powered with a sound card to provide synthesized speech output of what is displayed on the screen, is one of the best examples of effective electronic devices for the blind.
Today, we can ensure that the people with disabilities have a bright future; courtesy, advanced technology. It's pleasing to hear all those stories of how computer devices have helped the physically challenged to learn new skills and thus, made them independent. Access to the vast information stored on millions of web pages, including information related to various disabilities, is a boon in itself. These devices have not just helped people with disabilities to enter the mainstream, but have also helped them prove that with a little help, even they can be as competitive as any of us.