Giving a Techno-Toy for the Holidays?

Whether for Yourself or Someone Else, Make Sure the Gadget is Accessible

Walk into Best Buy or CompUSA and you are immediately bombarded with the latest and greatest in technological products whether hardware or software. Cell phones, computers, personal digital assistants and digital cameras line every aisle, advertising extraordinary memory and features making the average customer glowing with anticipation of what benefits and fun the product will hold for them. Some are dreaming of becoming more organized while others are dreaming of playing the latest games. Whatever your goal… the salespersons are there to sell it to you whether you need it or not. It is easy to be swayed by a sweet-talking salesperson, so make sure you know what you’re looking for before you head to your local store or online Web site.

The first step in defining what you should buy is determining how you plan to use the device. Are you looking for a simple solution, the ability to add adaptations, or a multipurpose device? By answering these questions, you are on your way to making a knowledgeable decision rather than purchasing an item that may not meet your needs.

Standalone versus Multipurpose

Over the past five years, the trend in technology has been to provide more and more options. For individuals with disabilities, this change can be beneficial or problematic. For instance, a person with a cognitive disability needs a device to be simple to use. Multipurpose devices increase the difficulty to operate the device by adding multiple steps to access each feature and decreasing intuitive nature of the product. A person with a physical or visual disability, however, may benefit from having one device rather than many devices to operate, thus streamlining the process. A smart phone is an example of a multipurpose device; it works as a cell phone, organizer, PDA and MP3 player.

Access versus Functionality

Whatever device you choose, the first step in finding the best option is testing it out and talking to other users about their experiences. Nothing is more disappointing than to wait excitedly for a new “toy,” only to find that it is not accessible to use. For instance, many people have purchased the Razor cell phone on recommendations of friends, but have not been able to benefit from the technology because of the small size of buttons which must be pressed to place calls and access the features.

Cell Phones

The everpresent cell phone is practically a necessity in today’s world; the ring of their music can be heard from the doctor’s office to the playground. Yes, even elementary school children are commonly found with their ear snugly pressed against the speaker on a cell phone. The first concept to understand when purchasing a cell phone is that different cellular companies have different protocols of transmission. You must match the protocol to both the phone and your provider. The two types of protocols are GSA and CDMA. If you are planning on purchasing a certain model of cell phone, you must ensure it will work with your cell phone company.

Adaptations available for cell phones are few. HearMore. com started selling a few products for amplification and hearing aid compatibility. Pressing buttons is another accessibility issue. ITalk and Vocalization by Broadband Communications provide the only truly hands-free system for people with physical disabilities. Firefly is a good solution for people with cognitive disabilities as it allows for only preprogrammed numbers and has five large buttons to operate it. Several phones have come out with voice output to assist blind individuals in finding numbers when using a directory system. Another option is Talking Cell Phone Accessibility 2, which can be added on to most new-generation products.

Personal Digital Assistants

A Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is an electronic organizer and scheduler. It is basically a small handheld computer on which many software programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Pocket Word can be installed. Some PDA products are multipurpose, providing a camera, scheduler, cell phone, organizer, MP3 player and more into one single product.

The normal method of PDA operation—using a small stylus to press tiny keys on an onscreen keyboard—is problematic for many users with disabilities. Fortunately, more and more adaptations are becoming available on a monthly basis. PDASay is a voice-activated applet providing SOME functionality but is not entirely hands-free. External and larger keyboards are one option to overcome the problem with access. A thicker stylus can be purchased at OfficeMax for individuals with dexterity and grasp limitations. Both Dolphin and Freedom Scientific manufacture voice output personal digital assistants and organizers.

MP3 Players

Downloading music is all the rage with teenagers. An MP3 player, such as the IPod, provides a medium where music can be loaded onto a computer, organized, edited, and added to a playlist of music preferences. One such device may hold over 500 songs. The access problems arise from the small dial used to scroll through the playlist and the tiny writing on the display.

One adaptation for the blind user is Milestone. However, the reviews on this product vary — the biggest question is regarding the features you get for the $370 device. Rockbox is an open source replacement firmware for MP3 players. It runs on a number of different models and allows those MP3 players to have their own screen reader.

Digital Cameras

Say Cheese. The benefits of digital cameras over SLR film models include instant viewing, no cost in developing the pictures onto the computer, sharing pictures with friends through e-mail, high-resolution at an affordable price, and using software to fix up flaws in pictures taken.

There are a few adaptations on the market today. For the individual with limited muscle control, a switch operated digital camera is available from Orcca, along with various mounting arms to attach a digital camera to a wheelchair. Similarly, the user with low vision may prefer using a 2.7 inch LCD screen over the standard 2.0-2.5 inch display. Some cameras come with the capability of creating a voice note to help the individual remember what the picture is or where it was taken.

Game Controllers

Fun and games are crucial for learning and developing, even though we would sometimes like to negate this fact. (Yes, some games are more appropriate than others—but the fact still remains.) Most kids are familiar with the latest games for the PlayStation, Xbox, Game Boy, and Sega. Not surprisingly, children with disabilities want to play these games with their peers—and many need adaptations to do so.

Enabling Devices and RJ Cooper sell several varieties of large-button and switch-operated game controllers. Additionally, there are game controllers that work with sipping and puffing on a straw to operate the entire game. Visual impairments can be accommodated by using larger monitors. Many games on the computer are purposely designed around specific learning needs. There are some good programs now available for people with cognitive and learning disabilities to work on coordination, attention, academics, and problem solving.

We all have become accustomed to the latest and greatest advancements in technology. Although assistive technology still lags behind the initial release date of these new products, the good news is that there seems to be a trend to make the products more universally designed for all to use. In the meantime, when you purchase those techno-toys, you need to be considered the adaptations available—whether voice input, switch access, voice output or other.

Jen Mundl is an assistive technology specialist at Courage Center.