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Everyday Tasks Made Easier with Accessible Technology

By  Patricia Kennedy, RN, CNP

 

What if vision challenges made it impossible for you to read a computer screen? Or limited dexterity left you unable to type? For many people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, these questions are in fact realities. Symptoms such as vision impairments, cognitive challenges, and dexterity limitations can make the use of technology difficult and at times seemingly impossible.

In today’s fast-paced, digital environment, the inability to capitalize on technology can be stifling – people rely on these tools to conduct business, interact with family and friends, and manage their health. While by many accounts those with chronic diseases and disabilities stand to benefit significantly from new technology, many are unaware of how to use it to their advantage.

Accessible Technology
Janet Tipton has been a teacher for 24 years.  Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) six years ago, Janet relies on technology to remain employed. MS-related fatigue makes it impossible for Janet to stand at the front of her classroom and write on the board. Instead, Tipton uses accessible technology that allows her to write on an electronic blackboard, demonstrate three dimensional objects, and highlight important text or Web pages, all from her seat at the front of the room. “I would be exhausted if I had to get up and write on the board, or walk around the classroom to show my students something,” said Tipton. “Without these technologies, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”

The technology used by Janet is just one type of what is known as “accessible technology.” These technologies include any piece of equipment or system that increases, maintains, or improves functional capabilities of individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments or disabilities.

Not all accessible technologies are as complex as what Tipton uses. Some accessible technology features, such as options on your computer that allow you to change font size and color for better visibility, are already built into most operating systems. These simple adjustments to your computer don’t cost anything and will make the computer easier to see and use.

For people with disabilities requiring more advanced assistance, accessible technology products such as screen readers, alternative keyboards, and voice recognition software create opportunities to connect with friends and maintain employment that otherwise may not be possible.

Screen readers, for example, can read everything on your computer screen, including text, graphics, control buttons and menus, and speak it in a computerized voice. This allows people with vision impairments to read e-mails and even surf the Internet. For people with limited dexterity, voice recognition software allows them to speak into a microphone and have their voice commands open programs on their computer, navigate the Internet, and type word documents – all without the use of their hands.
 
The MS Community
Janet Tipton is just one of many people in the MS community who rely on accessible technology to cope with MS-related symptoms. Rachel Dykoski, a 40-year-old woman who was diagnosed with MS in 2004, relies on technology to help her maintain connections with friends and family, as well as to work and function more efficiently. A multi-tasker with MS-related memory and vision challenges, Dykoski uses electronic reminders, programmable keys, and font adjustments to get her through the day. “I would be lost without my computer, but sometimes my MS symptoms make it difficult to type or see the computer screen,” Dykoski said. “The technology adaptations I’ve made, such as increasing the font size or programming specific keys to reduce the amount I need to type, make it possible for me to use my computer no matter what symptoms I’m experiencing.”
 
Dykoski has spent the past two years working to ensure that other members of the MS community can share in the benefits of accessible technology that she herself has experienced. Along with eight other people living with MS, Dykoski serves as steering committee member of the MS Technology Collaborative, a joint effort between the National MS Society, Microsoft, and Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals designed to connect people living with MS to accessible technology that can help move their lives forward.

Linda Wyman is also a member of the Collaborative steering committee. Diagnosed with MS in the early 1990s, Linda went from having 20/20 vision to being legally blind in just one year. With the help of accessible technology, Linda is able to overcome her MS-related vision challenges and maintain her independence.
Using a scanner and reading software, Linda is able to load books and letters onto her computer and read them in a magnified format on her screen. Her screen reader also reads content aloud from accessible Internet pages and documents, allowing her to access online information and use e-mail and word processors.
“Technology gives me a measure of independence,” Wyman says. “Instead of having someone read to me, these technologies usually allow me to do it myself. Nothing can truly replace good vision, but accessible technology and the will to use it makes my life better.”

Wyman and Dykoski both contribute to the Collaborative’s online home, myMSmyWay.com, a free resource for all accessible technology-related information. Here, people can access the “Snapshot” tool, an interactive quiz that provides customized technology solutions based on each individual’s specific needs.
The site also featured user-submitted technology tips, a monthly column on accessible technology authored by leading experts in the field, and information about a number of accessible technology solutions, particularly those that are affordable and even free.

For more expensive accessible technologies, there are resources available in nearly every state that provide financial support for people with disabilities looking to purchase accessible technology. To locate an organization in your state, visit the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America at resna.org.


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