Assistive technology for all, thanks to us

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on January 04, 2017 # Technology

Much has happened during the 29 years since I became paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury, and most of it's good. Research findings are making it clear that the ability to regain function and walk again are realistic expectations. The Americans with Disabilities Act and similar disability rights laws were passed, and have spread worldwide with ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities by over 150 countries.

Specialized mobility devices, accessible public transit systems and a variety of modified vehicles make it possible for people with all types of paralyzing disabilities to leave their homes and become productive members of society through employment or increased social participation.

Even though these are great advancements, I also enjoy being part of a community that has been the leader in demonstrating the benefits of assistive technology. We have been the early users of AT, often when it was very expensive and sometimes difficult to obtain. Because of that, products originally developed for our use have become available to everyone at a much lower cost than could have been anticipated in the early years of their development.

A great example of these types of products are what were originally known as "environmental control units" or ECUs. Back in the late 1980s, when I was pondering what to do after discharge from the rehabilitation ward where I had been recovering from my injury, it was recommended that I might be wise to purchase a Butler in a Box. The price at the time, almost $1500, prevented me from giving that serious consideration but the concept was interesting.

The idea of being able to speak to a device that could operate light switches and other electronic devices throughout the home made sense for many individuals whose mobility was restricted. Being able to talk on a telephone or control televisions, radios and even electric beds without the use of hands, through voice recognition, made the Butler indispensable to those who needed it.

The Butler in a Box eventually went out of production, but the idea lived; it didn't take long until that concept was seen as useful for any household.

The names have changed; ECUs are now called Virtual Assistants or Home Hubs and can be purchased for less than $50. Amazon manufactures the Echo and Echo Dot, while Google provides similar features in their Google Home unit. These and similar products utilize the same types of computer applications as found on most smartphones to allow functions as varied as playing music, talking on the telephone, browsing the Internet, answering questions, reminding of appointments, controlling the television, maintaining a calendar, adjusting the thermostat and setting alarms. They have become so popular that they recently sold out due to holiday gift giving and are on backorder at many electronic retailers.

Similar technological advances have taken place when it comes to speech recognition. A few years after my injury it became time to figure out a better method for typing on my computer. At first I tried IBM ViaVoice, which was fairly basic and required the user to enunciate one word at a time. Even though I have lost most of my hand function, I could almost type at the same speed as dictating while using that technology. It did have a big advantage, because it was relatively inexpensive, but I eventually gave up on using it.

My next attempt at making more use of voice recognition was with Dragon Dictate. Over the years I have tried different versions of that software, and microphone issues (along with my impatience when it came to correcting errors) made my attempts fairly ineffective. Despite those failures on my part, I continued to invest in hopes that I would eventually succeed in becoming as proficient as many of my friends have become with the software; they can run their businesses and direct their computers to perform any function, hands-free. The latest versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking are still very popular, as Dragon Professional is the only voice recognition software program that has advanced vocabularies available for use in legal and medical offices.

Voice or speech recognition is now included at no extra cost as part of most computer operating system software, like Windows or Macintosh. It is so trouble-free that it is encountered on a regular basis when calling a business; we seldom pause when asked for personal information like birthdates, member numbers or our reason for calling. A sure sign that it is here to stay is the fact that newer television remote controls can be operated using voice prompts.

As science edges ever closer to finding a cure for paralysis caused by injury or disease, there will undoubtedly be more technology developed to assist people taking advantage of those cures. When that happens, we will be ready to demonstrate the need for it even before it becomes available to the rest of the world, just as what we have done for the past few decades.

© 2016 Michael Collins