The Power of Personal Digital Assitants (PDAs)

PDAs and Accessibility

PDA stands for “Personal Digital Assistant.” These are the little electronic devices you see people jotting stuff down on in public. Today’s PDAs allow you to organize your schedule, take notes, do math calculations, play games, write memos, and even surf the Internet and send e-mail. They are nifty devices to have to organize your life!

Personal Digital Assistants provide benefits to individuals with disabilities. For example, people with learning or cognitive disabilities could benefit from the organizational and task management functions. Similarly, some people with limited mobility can benefit from the small size, light weight, and portability of a PDA.

The standard method is to operate the PDA with a stylus. A stylus is a small pointer tool used to press small letters on an on-screen keyboard. This is difficult for many people to perform. Secondly, the screen of a PDA is extremely small compared to a computer monitor. Don’t despair… there are many alternative options of control and viewing.

Physical Adaptations

People who are unable to use the stylus can attach their PDA to small portable keyboards. There are many varieties of keyboards available, including those that support one-handed typing, such as the half-keyboard. Another option is a wireless collapsible keyboard which expands to the size of a laptop keyboard. The keys are extremely easy to press requiring less accuracy in typing. The keyboard can be mounted on a wheelchair for ease of operation. Some PDAs have a thumbpad which is a small keyboard requiring range of motion of several inches. It is important to match the keyboards to your particular model of PDA.

Speech input and output may be a solution for people who have physical limitations, as well as other individuals who are unable to use either the stylus or an attached keyboard. Currently IBM and Scansoft both offer speech input/output products for PDAs, IBM Embedded Via-Voice and Dragon PDSay. Both products are command-based and do not support dictations or application-specific functionality beyond a basic core set of popular applications at this time. However, many such applications may likely improve, driven not by accessibility concerns but by demands of an increasingly mobile and global workforce. Microsoft Voice Command is the third option, but most limiting.

Visual Adaptations

For people with low vision, many color PDAs are now available that feature bright displays. However, little, if any, operating system support is available for changing the color of these displays for high contrast color schemes or for large font sizes, although the newer generation of PDA browsers may change this. Some applications do allow users to enlarge fonts exclusively within that application. As for magnification software, some users have worked successfully with TealMagnify, though the magnified image it produces is highly pixelated.

EasyLink is a new product from Optelec combining an HP Ipaq Pocket PC and a Bluetooth Braille keyboard. Both EasyLink’s components can fit comfortably in a purse or large pocket, yet its small size in no way detracts from the ease of use its name suggests.

Maestro is a product by VisuAide which provides text-to-speech in its PDA. Information is entered by using its tactile keys rather than a stylus. Another specialized PDA from Freedom Scientific called the PAC Mate is quickly becoming a standard by individuals with blindness.

Communication Adaptations

The potential use of PDA devices for portable communication is becoming a reality. Many vendors have developed software for PDAs to allow persons with communication limitations to use these devices in creation of speech. The Chat PC and IMPACT Palmtop Portable are two such products.

Learning Tools

There are many educational usages for PDAs. One option is e-books that can be downloaded onto a PDA to be read or have a speech output system read the book. These books range from the classics to the latest releases.

Microsoft Office is available for PDAs. It includes the pocket series of Microsoft Word, Excel, and MSN. This allows a student to start a homework project on their PDA to later transfer the file onto a standard computer.

Math calculations are easily computed through basic and scientific applications available on a PDA. Many web sites provide free download-able applets.

Language translators may help a student learning a foreign language. French and Spanish are just two applets which are available.

Cognitive Adaptations

For cognitive disabilities, PDAs offer extensive scheduling, reminders and note-taking features. The calendar allows the individual or caretaker to quickly look up appointments and to have the device indicate a warning prior to the time. There are different views to enable the user to decide what works best for them. Many individuals with cognitive disabilities are more apt to use a digital reminder over the paper and pencil method.

The use of a PDA allows all information to be in one place. Attainment, along with other vendors, have specific software for PDA needs. The individual does not need to have several different items for tracking and organizing. The training is most important in implementing a PDA for someone with a cognitive disability.

A Testimonial

Personally, I “Love” my Zire 31. It keeps me on track of my daily hectic schedule with an extensive list of contacts and notes. It reminds me where I should be by sounding a subtle alarm—I need all the help I can get. I am able to sync it to my computer for easy viewing, backup, and typing. It still amazes me with all it can do. Future developments will extend its capabilities and potential usages. Every day, there is something new on the market for a PDA.