Thursday, August 30, 2007

Great resource for free Assistive Technology

During my daily readings for news and information to write about here, I often come across different pieces of assistive technology that are available for free. However, the individual items are usually offered by as many different vendors as there are varying flavors of disabilities. So, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a web site that could serve as a one-stop location for free assistive technology?

Well, I’m here today to tell you that this is no longer just a wish. Steve Jacobs has created a web site that is just that, a
1 Stop for Free Assistive Technology.

The site has a lengthy alphabetical listing of more than 200 products with links to the providers of the assistive technology. It is a good gathering of many applications, but the site’s owner realizes that it can always be enhanced with additions that he is not aware of. To address this, there is an invitation to email him with information about other products that are not listed.

I do have one bone to pick with the site, but it is a minor one. Mr. Jacobs seems aware of the web site’s target audience and the technology some might use, so there is a link for a screen reader friendly version of the list. I was going to open that page in another window so I could compare it with the normal site to see if there were any differences worth noting. However, each time I tried to access the screen reader friendly version, I got the dreaded “404” error, informing me that this web page could not be found.

Oh well…at least it sounded like a good idea to offer that page. Perhaps that link will soon be repaired and that screen reader friendly site will actually work.

For what its worth, I am using JAWS 8.0 and had no problem reading the list on the site’s regular page. If there are some issues with screen readers other than JAWS, which may cause the list to not be readable using them,then I’m unaware of these.

Still, I won’t let my thoughts on a great idea be dampened by one little glitch such as that one link that didn’t work as it was supposed to. It is a great idea to gather all these resources in one place.

I encourage you to take some time to browse the site and see if there is some AT here that you could benefit from. It is definitely a resource worth bookmarking and sharing with your students and colleagues.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Service dogs perform variety of roles

I recently came across a very thorough and comprhehensive discussion about
Balance Dogs and MS
On a blog named Sophie’s Thoughts.

I must admit that, while I have been familiar with the general term of Service dogs and the more specialized guide dogs, I have never heard the equally specialized term “balance dog.” It makes sense, though. A few years back, I met a professor at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor who used a wheelchair and had an assistance dog. She didn’t call her dog a balance dog, but after reading Sophie’s blog, I would think that was a pretty good description of what he did. Sure, the dog did other tasks for the woman, but I’ll never forget one role the canine performed that sticks out in my mind still today. During a presentation, I heard the professor discuss how her dog assisted in transfers from her chair. To perform this task, when commanded, the dog would lock his leg joints to allow her to support herself on his back and execute the transfer. I’m still fascinated today with this specialized role that a dog can provide.

Sophie’s blog post linked above has some general information about service dogs, including legal issues. She also provides a list of other muscular disabilities, aside from MS, where an assistance dog may be able to benefit somebody with one of these disabilities.

Monday, August 27, 2007

ADA Restoration Act of 2007 reference sites

To help interested parties stay abreast on what is going on with the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, I offer the following two links.

First, there is a blog specifically dedicated to
The ADA Restoration Act of 2007.
In addition to the latest updates and co-sponsors of the legislation, this informative blog has links to press releases tracking the progress of the bills in both houses of Congress.

Secondly, there is the ReunifyGally blog that is gathering
links to all blogs that write about the ADA Restoration Act of 2007.

FYI, ReunifyGally is referring to reunifying
Gallaudet University.
From the “About” page on the ReunifyGally web site:
“I established this blog in the hope of helping to support the healing and reunification of the Gallaudet community by enabling dialogue on sensitive topics raised by the protests. By “Gallaudet community,” I mean both people on campus and also those of us across the country and around the world who feel some link to Gallaudet, whether or not we have ever been there. “

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Assistive Technology exchanges, an idea whose time has come

While I was a graduate assistant, I would often engage in an exchange of ideas with Sean, my mentor and the coordinator of the DSO. One of the frequent ideas he proposed was, “Why can’t there be an exchange for assistive technology?” To put this in context, his thought was that a group of the numerous colleges and universities in the Houston area could create a pool to share their vast collection of assistive technology resources amongst themselves.

Sean’s idea was sound and logical, in that, a DSO’s budget can be significantly impacted when considering some new AT purchases. If College A had not previously had a Braille user on campus, but with the new semester there is a Braille user and the school suddenly finds that there is a need to provide scanned documents in Braille, or that there is a need for a Braille display on just one computer, the financial impact is quickly felt, adding thousands of dollars to an almost certainly strained budget.

However, if this AT exchange existed, even with only a small group of participating schools, the DSO of that one school could check the co-op’s available inventory and perhaps find what they need. While College A didn’t have the Braille equipment, maybe College B had a Braille embosser sitting idle from a previous need where a student had graduated. Then, College C might also have a Braille computer display, but no current Braille users enrolled. By pooling their resources, this could maximize the use of expensive equipment and also help lessen the overall impact of cooperating schools.

Granted, an endeavor such as this would not be without problems. What would happen when College A is using the embosser and suddenly College B has a new Braille-reading student enroll the next semester? That is when College B would need to lay claim to its property and leave College A back where it was at originally, but at least there was that one semester reprieve. Additionally, what happens when a borrowing school loses software or the hardware is damaged? These potential scenarios would need to be discussed and addressed at the outset of such an exchange.

The idea of an equipment exchange is not new, but I’m not aware of any cooperative that exists among colleges or universities. The exchange could begin small, just within the different branches or campuses of one particular school.

I still believe this is an idea worth considering.

What sparked these memories of this concept of pooled assistive technology resources was a few recent news alerts I have received regarding about a web site launched for Michigan residents,
The At Xchange.
According to the organization's home page, this is A place “where people can buy, sell, or give away assistive technology.”

The concept of this site is good. Provide a place where people who have assistive technology, but no longer need it, or somebody needing some new device, can come together and exchange their devices. The term “assistive technology” isn’t just computer software or hardware, though. This is a broad application of the term here. This includes hospital beds, chair lifts, modified vehicles, as well as other items such as raised commode seats and shower chairs. Yes, these are assistive devices for people with disabilities. So, be forewarned—assistive technology is not always computer technology. Sometimes, the technology can be low tech.

I spent a little time yesterday evening looking over the AT Xchange site and there were 42 items currently listed. These items were mostly for scooters, wheel chairs, lifts, and modified vehicles, but included a few other items. There was no computer technology available, though, at least not right now.

There is a location on the site where users of the web site can put up a notice of items that they need. There is also a helpful informational FAQ page, detailing what the site is all about.

According to an on-line article published in the
Jackson City Patriot,
The AT Xchange site was set up in February and has had only a small amount of traffic, far less postings of items, and even fewer completed transactions.

I believe that, given time, this project will continue to grow. Proof is already present, as the Aug. 21 article cited only 30 items posted to the site and when I checked the site only five days later, I found 42 listed. So, there is growth occurring just in what is being listed. The site’s presence has relied on word of mouth and is just now pushing further promotion. It is a good idea and one that I think should, and will, be emulated.

While writing this post about that site, I googled “assistive technology exchange,”" and got many returns. I was honestly surprised at the extensive listing of the various states/regions that have also begun such endeavors. Instead of posting links to the numerous individual state sites here, I will instead direct you to the
Pass It On Center.
This is basically a central hub which lists and links to these assistive technology exchanges. Most of the individual sites I found were also listed here on this site.

If you know of an AT exchange that is not listed, leave a comment here. Better yet, let the webmaster at the Pass It On Center know about it so it can be included on their site.

Monday, August 20, 2007

White Cane Day, from the heart of Texas and beyond

Annually, various organizations have a special day or month they use to promote awareness about their particular disability. I try to include these here when I am aware of them.

October 15 of each year has been officially designated as White Cane Day. I have known this for some time now, but that’s because I’m in the loop on this one. There is a long history behind the white cane and the national designation of White Cane Day has been in place for more than 40 years.

I know it might be a little early to promote a day that is almost two months away, but there is a reason for doing this. See below for an important information that will be upon us in only eleven days.

Austin, Texas has the largest White Cane Day celebration in the nation. There is now also a web site to share information about this year’s Austin event.
is the web site for information about White Cane Day in general, and about the planned celebration in Austin, in particular. There are a couple of good informational links about the history of the white cane.

There are also very reasonably priced T-shirts for sale on the site for marking this year’s Austin celebration. If you’re in the Austin area and interested in ordering shirts there, hurry up as orders must be placed by noon on Aug. 31.

I found the following Information on the web site about the T-shirts interesting:

“Students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired were invited to produce artwork depicting what White Cane Day meant to them. We selected nine pieces of artwork for the front of this year's shirt. The design is a collage of what kids created for this empowering day! The back of the shirt will have a raised-dot contracted Braille statement: "I'm not just blind � I'm out of sight!"
"Being blind is something to be proud of!! I know, because I am!!" This statement also will be in print for non-Braille readers. There will be a tiny Braille quote on the back at the bottom of the T-shirts stating, "Ready to work � ready to contribute." This notation was on last year�s shirt, and the plan is to continue to put this on T-shirts each year. “

I just love that line…”will be in print for non-braille readers!”

Inspiration comes in many forms

I was interested in the below linked news article just because it pointed out the sharp downturn in the number of female computer science undergraduates at major research universities. (FYI, that figure cited in the article was down from 37% in 1985 to only 17% in 2006.) However, I grew much more interested in one young woman the article highlighted, as well as her mother and the project they have launched.

article is originally about
A camp, held at sponsor Microsoft Corporation’s Redmond, Washington campus, whose aim is to help interest girls in careers in the field of technology.

According to the article,” The goal of each of the camps is to educate and inspire girls by introducing them to the many opportunities and career choices available in the high-tech industry, and break down the stereotypes associated with these typically male-dominated careers.”

The goal of the camp is inspiring, given the dwindling numbers of females in the computer science programs. If the numbers are accurate, an implication involving young women with disabilities would mean that they are being further marginalized. Programs such as this camp need to be spurred along to encourage opportunities and also to allow the young women realize what opportunities truly exist for them.

The particular woman I refer to at the opening of this post is Logan Olson. She inspires me for many reasons.

Logan attended the camp managing her life after she sustained a brain injury after a 2001 heart attack when she was only 16 years old. She received CPR for roughly 20 minutes and was in a coma for three weeks. After coming out of the coma, she realized how much her life had changed when she had to relearn how to do many of the daily things most of us take for granted, such as walk, talk, eat, and drink.

In her search for resources to help her daughter’s progress, Logan’s mother Laurie Olson, found that there were no magazines specifically targeting the needs of girls with disabilities. Logan saw the need and went to work filling the void. Together, the Olsons have created
Logan Magazine,
Specifically to serve the niche population of young people with disabilities.

A one-year subscription to the magazine costs $14, netting the subscriber four issues. Payment options allow for both PayPal or by check. If you’re interested in subscribing, you can get information about this on the magazine web site.

While at the DigiGirlz camp, Logan toured the Microsoft Accessibility Lab and got to test drive the Windows Vista speech recognition program which was still being developed. This was one of the breakthroughs for both Microsoft and Logan. She provided them a qualified person who had a need for the technology and they had the technology to fill her need. Logan’s discovery of this technology is the subject of the next issue of the magazine.

Logan’s story illustrates how a program such as DigiGirlz, while not specifically targeting individuals with disabilities, can strongly benefit by inclusion of all. While I have borrowed some of the essential information about Logan in writing this post, please read the entire article to fully appreciate the growth that has occurred from her experience, not to mention a lot more information about DigiGirlz.

Finally, here is the
Wikipedia entry for Logan Magazine.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bionic hand provides abilities not previously availble in a prosthetic

Like so many other things, technology continues to evolve. This evolution will eventually make more and more fictional artifacts into realities.

Take for instance, the fictional television show from three decades ago, that pitched the idea of a bionic man. That is getting to be more of a reality with each technological advance. The latest one being the
i-Limb Hand,
manufactured by Touch Bionics of Scotland.

The manufacturer claims that the I-Limb Hand is the first commercially available prosthetic hand in which individual motors controls each of the jointed fingers. This innovation allows the fingers to move independently and lets the user exercise a more natural grip. The control the user has will let the user do tasks which have been impossible with previous prosthetic hands, such as holding and turning a key or pointing a finger.

The new-found freedom the device provides is not cheap, though. The I-Limb Hand costs approximately $18,000, two times the cost of normal prosthetics.

Still, I believe that if I were in need of a prosthetic, I would want the model that would give me the most usability and would diligently work to find the funding to make a reality out of what had been previously only available in fiction.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Database publisher strives to exceed Section 508 with its web offerings

It is inspiring to see a corporation take on the role of ensuring not only meeting the accessibility demands of Section 508, but strive to exceed them across the board in their services.

The company I am speaking of is
EBSCO Publishing
Which “according to their web site, has been serving libraries and organizations worldwide for more than 60 years,” providing periodical acquisition. Translated, that means they are a research database supplier.

The above linked press release announces how the company partnered with the
Illinois Center for Instructional Technology Accessibility
at the University of Illinois at Urbana/ Champaign to move EBSCO beyond just meeting the web standards.

Changes that were noted in the upgrade were:
• Elimination of most tables to improve searching with screen readers or keyboard controls
• Descriptive page titles, section header tags and selected link labels
• Redesigned form controls for easier tab navigation
• Streamlined code for simpler page structures
• Access keys which support international keyboard functionality across multiple browsers
• Detailed alternative text image descriptions
• Visually and physically impaired users can perform searches independently most of the time
• Decreased page size mean shorter download times for all users

What I really liked was that they found the re-design of the web content that was originally done to assist disabled users was useful to everybody, regardless of disability. Because the pages are now shorter, they consequently download quicker, thus helping all users who may be using a slower internet connection, such as dial-up.

Ah! Universal design truly is a beautiful thing.

From the
EBSCO web site,
here is what the company is all about:
“EBSCO Publishing is the world's premier database aggregator, offering a suite of more than 200 full-text and secondary research databases. Through a library of tens of thousands of full-text journals, magazines, books, monographs, reports and various other publication types from renowned publishers, EBSCO serves the content needs of all researchers (Academic, Medical, K-12, Public Library, Corporate, Government, etc.). The company's product lines include proprietary databases such as Academic Search™, Business Source®, CINAHL®, DynaMed™, Literary Reference Center™, MasterFILE™, NoveList®, SocINDEX™ and SPORTDiscus™ as well as dozens of leading licensed databases such as ATLA Religion Database™, EconLit, MEDLINE®, MLA International Bibliography, PsycARTICLES® and PsycINFO®.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

Useful web site for job seekers with disabilities

There is a good posting on the American Printing House for the Blind’s
Fred’s Head Companion
Web site that deals with job hunting and interview preparation.

Some of the tips are specifically directed towards blind job seekers, but many of these would apply to anybody with a disability. It is one that is worth sharing with any of your students who may be looking to break into the job market soon. What makes this web site valuable is that there is an extensive list of resources including links to several job search engines, all gathered on this one site.

From the sounds of the post, it is one that may also be updated later, so bookmark that page and check back later.

Finally, if you have any resources to offer, hit the email link near the bottom of that page and send in your suggestions.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Irish web sites employing built-in assistive technology

There is an interesting bit of assistive technology news discussed in a news article on the Irish Developers Network web site. What I think makes it interesting is that the assistive technology is being promoted to be employed by the developers of the web content, instead of on the users’ computers.

According to the article, an Irish retail banking institution is employing
Browsealoud technology
on its web site.

The Browsealoud technology reads the web content aloud while also highlighting the word that is being read. This technology is being targeted towards users who have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, as well as people who have mild vision impairments. The article also mentioned how those who spoke other languages could benefit from the software.

Additionally, the article also mentions other entities aside from the bank who have begun employing this particular software, which means it is not a unique quirk of implementation.

Some of the latest features this software allows the webmaster to consider:
• Dual Colour Highlighting making it easier for web users to read and interact online, thereby, improving comprehension.
• High Quality Voices, customisable by the webmaster and adjustable reading speeds to suit individual requirements.
• Online dictionary allowing Users to look up the definitions of words.
• Ability to save online content and listen to it offline through the MP3 facility
• Ability to have selected text magnified and read aloud to them.
• continuous reading option allows Whole pages read aloud at a time.
• Hyperlinks, HTML, Java and PDF documents can also be read with the technology.

There was also a strong statement about web accessibility which was made in the article, but was not attributed to any individual, so I’ll assume it was the opinion of the article’s author. It is a quote worth repeating.
“Website accessibility should be a concern for everyone, from public establishments to big and small corporations. Making sure that website visitors can access all information which has been carefully written and selected for an organisation’s website is of key importance in order to ensure that customers and clients are fully informed and receive the correct messages.”

I am an advocate for web accessibility and will speak up in whatever forums I need to do so to bring awareness to others. While the assistive technology this software employs is not new, and is not the first time I’ve heard of it being employed by the producer of a web site, it is the first time I have seen its employment on a large scale project. Maybe they have the right idea here. Make the content accessible in the first place. Granted, this software makes only the one web site accessible, but if all sites employed such insight, the entire web could be accessible.

Finally, while this software would bring access to the web, it would not make other assistive technology obsolete. There would still be a need to use magnifiers and screen readers to access other programs aside from the web browser. Still, it is a good innovation to see.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Research paper about accessibility of instructional web sites

There is a recent research paper dealing with web accessibility I want to inform you about today.

The paper is titled, simply enough,
Accessibility of Instructional Web Sites in Higher Education.
This is the academic paper written about a project undertaken at the University of Texas at Austin, a university which has been noted for their accessible and Section 508 compliant web sites.

I think the title says a lot, but perhaps it should have read “Inaccessibility” instead of “Accessibility.” According to the report:

“The student team evaluated 99 Web sites, of which 12 (12.1 percent) met all of the Section 508 standards and thus were considered accessible. The remaining 87 sites (87.88 percent) had documented areas of noncompliance with between one and 11 of the 16 standards and thus failed to comply with Section 508.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not knocking the report, but quite the contrary. While the results show a poor reflection of accessible instructional sites, it does identify the deficiencies. Like the old saying goes, “How can you fix something, if you don’t know what’s broke?”

The report is an honest effort to evaluate accessibility at a flagship university. The information gained is useful as it gives valid and reliable feedback to the UT departments who participated in the study. From these results, they can redesign as indicated.

Actually, I believe the project UT took on is a good one for other universities to emulate. Perhaps this would make a good student or team research project on your campus. Maybe all it takes is somebody planting the seed for this project with the right professor or student group. It would be win-win. The results will give good feedback to the school about the accessibility of their web offerings and also give legitimate research experience to the students.

By the way, that paper is posted on-line by


which, according to their home page, is “a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology,” and whose “Membership is open to institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education information technology market, and other related associations.”