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A Flow of Words For The Physically Challenged
Taran Rampersad, 4 Apr 04

Every person can speak of events in their life which caused them to look at things differently. One of these events for me happened during Navy Hospital Corpsman training. We had to get the perspectives of our patients as part of our training.

You can ask a blind person what it's like to be blind; you can ask a deaf person what it's like to be deaf, and you can even ask a person in a wheelchair what it's like to be in a wheelchair. But you don't really know. Not unless you 'look' at things their way; part of our training was to do just this. Female Corpsmen shaved male corpsmen in hospital beds; male Corpsmen applied makeup to women as the positions switched - but probably the most interesting thing we did was being blindfolded and fed by our classmates. I learned that we take a lot for granted, and as such I've always been curious about such things.

In the now closed Naval Hospital Orlando, on one of my days off from the Emergency department, I hijacked a wheelchair and wandered around the first floor of the hospital in it. It was an interesting experience; the mechanics are relatively simple and yet navigating obstacles within even a hospital environment can be a challenge. But most importantly, I think, was the fact that people avoided looking me in the eye. This meant that I didn't have too many conversations with people, as eye contact usually precedes conversation.

The reason I bring all of this up is because of the internet. As the cartoon says, 'on the internet nobody knows you're a dog', and so on the internet, nobody knows you're physically challenged in some manner. No eye contact is needed to start a conversation. What matters is what is written, be it via email, on a webpages, via RSS or even via Instant Messenger (IM) or Internet Relay Chat (IRC). But these all depend on one thing, mainly: the complete use of our hands.

There is passable, though not completely plausible, speech recognition software out there - but it's not quite mature enough to handle special needs. So in a way, we're not allowing some people to participate; a part of a Digital Divide. It seems even the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, missed it when he was speaking of content divides; when he was speaking of language divides and the lack of content for languages other than English.

Physically challenged people need access too - and if you think that people who are physically challenged have nothing to offer, I ask you to discuss theoretical physics with Stephen Hawking.

I've had the privilege of coming across 2 projects which do exactly this, and I've been experimenting with them - and I am impressed.

The first one that I played with is the Dasher project, which is very interesting - in fact, the content I wrote here was written with Dasher. What is it? According to the press release from August, 2002:

... A new text entry system developed at Cambridge University could transform computing for people unable to use a normal keyboard. The text entry system, called Dasher, designed by David MacKay and David Ward in the University's Department of Physics, can be controlled by an eyetracker - a camera that tracks where on the screen the user is looking.

'The software works like a video game in which the user steers ever deeper into an enormous library,' explained Dr MacKay. 'A language model is used to shape this library in such a way that it's quick and easy to select probable sequences of characters and hard to make spelling mistakes.'...

The version I used actually uses the mouse. It's worth a look; it's an amazing bit of software which makes all sorts of things possible for physically challenged people. It did take some getting used to, but with the online tutorial I was up and running within 5 minutes. Of course, just like negotiating the real world in a wheelchair, it is more difficult than it looks - but I imagine that people who can't use a keyboard or voice recognition software would definitely find it useful. In fact, if you were to break even a finger, this tool would probably be useful for you.

The other project is equally amazing, and is a work in progress as well. It's the Skipper Project, and I simply haven't had the time to play with it yet. But the original author, Alan Carter, wrote:

There are around 2,000,000 people in the developed world who have perfectly good intelligence but physical disabilities severe enough to stop them being involved with much of what life has to offer, and it doesn't take much of a disability to make a mouse and keyboard useless which deprives them of online life, too. Skipper is a free software package which runs on Linux. It includes a layer which can read the inputs from lots of devices, and interprets and switches them in all sorts of ways. Then there's another layer that provides all sorts of
onscreen keyboards, application launchers, word predictors, file choosers and that kind of thing. It also includes instructions on how to build a switch box on the kitchen table for less than $15, which is just right for people with cerebral palsy who account for around half the potential user base.

A person with a single detectable click can type the equivalent of two pages of a book in 4 hours of comfortable working, which adds up to significant bandwidth over time. It also offers *private* communication, and hence a level of self-determination which many severely disabled people do not currently enjoy. A slightly different configuration allows a person with two clicks that can be made at the same time (or three clicks) to have so much control over mouse and keyboard that an experienced able bodied computer user can work by just curling their big toes over the buttons of a mouse placed the "wrong" way around, without getting bored. Other configurations are helpful for people with high spinal injuries who only have head movements available, there's one for
people with Parkinson's disease which does a very good job of filtering out the shakes, one for people with phocomelia (as in Thalidomide induced birth defects) which puts the whole mouse and keyboard on one small graphics tablet, and so on. There's an interface to the free Festival voice synthesiser, including a program to help develop literacy skills by underlining each sentence and then reading it out, and support for poor vision, since lots of people who have been in
road traffic accidents and things like that have damage to their eyes or visual cortex. It's also got options for people who get confused by too much movement in their visual field for the same reason. There are nearly 50 different configurations ready made in the download and a tutorial for making more. It has to be very, very configurable because as soon as we're out of the "one size fits all" group - everyone's different!

It grew out some work I got roped into while I was at the UK Defence Research Agency, on behalf of one of the most courageous and determined people I've ever encountered:

The download with full documentation is at:

It's missing a few things, like webcam based motion detection, MIDI and fourier based keyboard detection so people can reuse music keyboards as switches, and the Windows port still needs doing, which involves writing an NT filter driver although the port layer for that is well defined.

The links to what we've been discussing are:

1) The lack of anything comparable to date, although it's been possible for at least 20 years.

2) The huge industry which depends on maintaining a pool of pathetic neediness, talking up the problems and not allowing people to get on with what they can do, distorting perceptions all the way. You wouldn't believe the hostility that Skipper gets from the so-called "charities"!

3) The possibility that in the growing climate of shallow frenzy, a group of people coming online who will always think faster than they type, and who are not engaged in the mad distraction, will be able to point out things that will be of benefit to all of us - and who won't be drugged with Ritalin when they do so!

Skipper is intended to be run on second hand PCs built within the last 5 years, which are pretty much free goods if you keep your eyes open. Most communities have a local Lunux User Group who are only too glad to help new users and have lots of sets of Linux CDs, and the hardware is ultra cheap, being very simple home construction or commonly available stuff reused in odd ways. There's the possibility of a revolution here. If you know anyone who could make use of Skipper, please set them up with a system. Unlike most free software, the intended users can't just download it themselves. Someone else *has* to start them off - and the vested interests really don't want to know.

What these projects remind me of - and hopefully remind the rest of us of - is that there is a world that most of us do not explore when we speak of technology which does the one thing that technology should do: Allow people to communicate, to connect - and even allow them dignity in their own homes, but also permit them access to the other technologies which are available through the Internet.

It boils down to people. And it boils down to people helping people. It's heartening to see projects such as these working on just that.

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Welcome, Taran!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 6 Apr 04



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