Future Reflections Convention 1990, Vol. 9 No. 4

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THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

by Dr. Charles Hallenbeck
Professor of Psychology, University of Kansas

Editor's Note: I first heard this presentation at an NFB Seminar for Parents in Kansas in the Spring of 1990. It seemed to fit right in with the theme of our national parents seminar, so I asked Dr. Hallenbeck to appear on our June 30 agenda in Dallas, Texas.

Good afternoon, everybody. At the Kansas Parents Seminar I gave the group an update of a paper that I presented to a scientific journal some ten years before. The paper was entitled "The Impact of Technology on Lifestyles and Life Satisfactions of Persons with Disabilities". You can tell it was a scientific journal because of how many words there were in the title. What I did in that paper was two things. One was to discuss some concepts and ideas that I think are relatively timeless as a preparation to presenting a review of the current status (at that time) of technology that applies to the lives of persons with disabilities (including the blind). The later part of that paper, which discusses the state of the art in 1980 is of course obsolete. In fact, it was virtually obsolete by the time that the paper was published. Technology advances so rapidly these days. But, the first part is worth sharing with this group. I began my discussion in that paper by discussing some terms. (I think it's always helpful to define your terms. It helps to bring out some assumptions that may otherwise be hidden in the material that will follow.)

The first thing I want to define is the distinction between a disability and a handicap. The definition I will present is of course not widely accepted by the whole field. There isn't any definition that is widely accepted, but this is the one I will use in the discussions that follow. A disability can be defined in physical, objective terms. It has to do with the loss of some important capacity or function. A limitation in visual acuity, for instance, is obviously a disability. A limitation in auditory acuity, the absence of a limb or the absence of the use of a limb--quadriplegia, paraplegia--the various medical conditions that we all are familiar with~are simple examples of disabilities. They are all definable in objective physical terms. A handicap, on the other hand, is a disadvantage that arises only in the presence of the pursuit of some goal so that if you have some difficulty in reading or in driving an automobile or in traveling about independently; in gaining access to public buildings; in finding employment--those things are handicaps. A disability is a medical problem, and a handicap is a social problem. The two are not the same. In many people's minds, a disability and a handicap go hand in hand. They are automatically connected with each other. To have a disability is to have important handicaps. I guess that I would argue that that is not necessarily the case. I think we ought to be sensitive to the difference between these two concepts in talking about the role of technology in the lives of people with disabilities.

The next thing I wanted to call your attention to is the presence of two important and different philosophies that one can use in the application of technology to disability-related problems. One philosophy says that technology is valuable as in much as it can be addressed directly to the problems of the disabilty. Technology can be used to reduce the disability or eliminate it or correct it or prevent it. Anything that lends itself to technological solutions is obviously important to do and is worth people's efforts. The difficulty of that is that it's often adopted as important to do because of the automatic connection between a disability and a handicap. People who advocate the use of technology to directly combat the disability often do so by exaggerating the negative consequences the disability might have. That's unfortunate.

The other philosophy is aimed at the effort to attack the handicapping aspects of the disability.

...

modification of my hearing aid. He thought that a little radio transmitter that constantly emitted the time could be made to be received by my earpiece, then I would always know what time it was in class. Well, what I preferred to do in that situation was to find a social solution to the problem. I went to class and instead of having to be rigged up with a high tech solution to my problem, I said to the class, "Look I don't have my watch today. I won't be able to know what time it is. (This class met at one o'clock and was over at two-twenty.) I said to the class, "If someone will please tell me when it's about two-fifteen it will be very helpful." And to a student, the class at the proper time said "It's two-fifteen, Dr. Hallenbeck". (laughter) That's an interesting story, and I think that it points out that we have to be very careful not to jump immediately to the high-tech solutions to simple problems of dependence and independence.

One of the problems with using technology to find solutions to disability-related problems (and this is especially true for blindness-related problems) has more to do with marketing and economics than it does with technology itself. The problem is that there aren't very many blind people. I think the lives of the blind would be much improved if there were a lot more of us. The fact is that blindness is a very low-incidence disability. As such it presents very little market power. There is very little incentive, from a economic standpoint, for developers to develop products which solve blindness-related problems. People who developed television sets, washing machines, and computers did so because of the promise of enormous return-- largely on the strength of the economic market. But there just isn't a market for products for the blind. So, one of the things that we also need to be alert to is trying to find solutions that have been introduced for the whole population, not especially for the blind.

Technology is sometimes beneficial to the blind as an accident or by-product. The prime example of that kind of advance is of course the tape recorder. The tape recorder was not invented to make life easier for the blind, but it certainly does so. Its popularity, its refinement and improvements, its inexpensive availability nowadays is a boon to blind persons. It was not, of course, introduced for that purpose. The computer is probably a similar product nowadays. It was not designed or introduced especially for the blind. It turns out to be a product which is useful to everyone but especially useful for blind persons.

Therefore, I think it behooves us to search the ordinary market for products that have been introduced for everyone's benefit, but which may have some special advantage for blind persons.

Ten years ago when I reviewed the current state of the art, there were three things that I saw as important at the time, and I would like to comment briefly on where those things stand now and what I think about the current situation. The first of those three was the newly introduced systems for direct access to the printed page. The product, of course that I am talking about was the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Ten years ago it was relatively new. It was priced at that time between twenty-five and thirty thousand dollars. It was certainly not appropriate for individual ownership. The concept was a very important one. To be able to pick up a book off the shelf or a piece of mail from the mail box and to turn it immediately into some readable form was a very important step forward that technology produced for us. It was incredibly costly technology, but the benefit is obviously very attractive.

The second important breakthrough was an area which has gone by several names-paperless Braille or refreshable Braille display. The product that embodied that ten years ago was the VersaBraille machine from Telesensory Systems, Inc. The ability to display Braille in a form that didn't use paper was a very important technological advance,

as it seemed. It was again a very expensive one, but the potential seemed to be quite great.

The third development that I saw ten years ago was the inexpensive implementation of electronic speech that would make access to computer displays convenient. There were at the time a couple of products available. One of them was called a talking terminal. It sold for about seven thousand dollars and allowed a user to interact with a large computer with speech output What was not well realized at the time was that one could go to one's corner Radio Shack store and buy a talking Radio Shack computer for about fifteen hundred dollars that would do the same thing. (This emphasizes my point about what I called on that paper "everybody' s technology"~technology that was introduced for everybody's benefit.) But talking computers seemed to have very great potential at that time. Now where we stand today with those three products is that the Kurzweil machine has increased in popularity and become even more important than it was. Its price has dropped dramatically with the introduction of the Kurzweil Personal Reader. And other products have been introduced to give Kurzweil some competition--namely the Arkenstone Reader which performs at least as well as the Kurzweil in most respects and brings the price availabilty even lower. So there is still some excitement in that area. The possibility that practical, usable scanners will be affordable by most people is something that we can look forward to quite soon.

In terms of the refreshable Braille versus speech issue, paperless Braille displays are not as cheap now as one would hope. They are still quite expensive devices. Speech, however, has swept the field, and the problem of talking computers is virtually a solved (and boring) problem in many respects. At least, for technical people it's no longer a problem. It is a simple solution now to make a computer a convenient talking device. What has happened is that technology in Europe has concentrated on Braille devices, and technology in this country seems to have concentrated on speech devices. I think that a part of the reason for that is the variation and difficulty of the multilingual environment of the European community as compared to the British American environment. It's a difficult matter to devise speech algorithyms that translate different languages into speech and do a good job, whereas the display of Braille is a very simple matter when it comes to overcoming the differences among languages. Speech products are well-developed in this country. Braille products are relatively better developed in European environments.

What I see for the forseeable future is a potential problem on the horizon which is going to be worth all of our efforts in solving. There are of course, many positive things that we can be proud of and that bode well for us all, but one of the things that is not so bright is this: Computer displays are rapidly moving toward visually dramatic and attractive outputs with pictures and icons and images rather than simple text displayed on the screen. The impact of the Macintosh computer on the computer world is one that will not go away. It is in some ways a sign of the development that is coming along. IBM and IBM-type computers are scrambling like the dickens to catch up with the Macintosh when it comes to attractive graphics displays. In many ways those graphics displays defy easy access in speech for the blind. I state that dramatically. There are solutions being worked on. There are one or two partial solutions already available and there are some important resources that are being invested in that area. But, it's not going rapidly. There are not going to be early and big breakthroughs in it. There is going to be a lot of hard work to be done. [There will be] technical work for those of us who are computer advocates and computer enthusiasts to maintain the access to computer information that we now enjoy with the standard text output. That's where the effort needs to be spent in the next three to five years--in trying to assure everyone that we can have the same access to those graphics screens as we now enjoy to the simple text screens.

That's essentially what I had to say in Kansas a few weeks ago. Again, what I think is important to emphasize is the distinctions between disability and handicap.

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