Monday, September 28, 2015

Wheelchair Friendly Cities Of The World

Ever wondered which cities around the world are wheelchair friendly and why? Look at the interactive story map below and start exploring!

Is your city in the story map below?

This story map was created by our regular contributor Michael Leavy from Home Healthcare Adaptations.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Monkey Helpers Provide Assistance To People With Spinal Cord Injuries And Other Disabilities

a monkey getting a bubble bath

Just like seeing eye dogs help blind people navigate and dodge obstacles, monkey helpers are highly trained capuchin monkeys that provide in home assistance to people with spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments. In home assistance can range from fetching objects (think TV remote), flipping pages of a book, inserting straws in a bottle, turning room lights on or off, putting CD in a CD player, turning on tv and flipping channels to scratching itches and repositioning limbs on wheelchair. Essentially, the monkeys are trained in performing routing every day tasks.

With their small size, fine motor skills, long lifespan (30 - 40 years) and their ability to be trained in performing various  chores, service monkeys can bring a lot of independence and engagement to people who are in wheelchairs and/or with limited mobility. The service is provided by Helping Hands Monkey Helpers without any cost to qualified applicants. Applicants have to be eligible to qualify for this service and go through a seven step application process though, which involves written application, references, home video, and a home visit. 

Applicants are carefully reviewed and selected, and a monkey helper who matches their personality and requirements is then selected and placed. A sense of humor is encouraged and the expectation is that the adult applicant will be willing to consider building a relationship with the monkey helper as a project that may take anywhere from 6 to 8 months. The "placement week" is considered pretty intense, where a lot of information is provided to the recipient and their caretakers. 

Capuchin monkeys structure their lives around a hierarchy, and it is important to understand and respect that. There are some monkeys that like loud, dominant people whereas others may get more friendly with quiet, easy going people. For example, monkeys may place the recipient at the top of the hierarchy, their caretaker (who bathes them and files their nails; provides care) next, then themselves, other members of the family, care attendants etc., and finally other pets in the family, if there are any. Being at the top of the hierarchy, recipients get a lot of love and affection from the monkey helper that in turn provides a great level of empowerment. Helping Hands already know their monkeys very well and depending on the personality of the recipient, a matching monkey is placed.

Of all the people assisted by monkey helpers, 55% have spinal cord injuries, 10% have multiple sclerosis, another 10% have muscular dystrophy, and the rest have other type of disabilities (for example amputation due to trauma or disease). 10 - 12 monkey helpers are placed with qualified adults every year.

Monkey helpers are not expected and trained to every type of chores though. For example, they are not trained to retrieve medical pills, brush someone's teeth or dress them, feed or cook, dial the phone, or alert someone in case of an emergency. They are definitely not trained to fetch food from the fridge because that's way too tempting!

Helping Hands has a great set of short videos that show what all monkey helpers can do, how and where they are trained, and how they are making more and more people independent. Watch the shorter videos here, and the longer ones here.

There is a lot of valuable information on their website to make sure to check it out!

Website and Image source:

Monday, September 14, 2015

Virtual And Augmented Reality: A World of Potential for People with Disabilities

a person wearing and interacting with a Oculus Rift VR headset

Gamers are already mostly familiar with the possibilities of virtual reality and are eagerly awaiting the shipment of multiple VR titles and headsets. This gives them a leg up on medical professionals, who might dismiss it as merely a frivolous gaming tool. The truth is that this new gaming development could have wide-ranging applications in healthcare particularly in the treatment of those suffering from autism or disability.

The latest incarnations of virtual reality are a far cry from the clunky, headache-inducing units that achieved notoriety in the '90s. The models that are expected to hit the marketplace very soon use advanced graphics capabilities and motion sensing equipment to deliver experiences that are realistic, attractive and appealing. The user usually has to put on a special headset that projects high-res images in front of the eyes. In order to control the action and change the view, he or she uses a combination of eye and head movements and hand-held devices.

microsoft hololensThree large firms intend to release VR gear in 2016: Facebook, Sony and Microsoft. Facebook
purchased the Oculus Rift, which is perhaps the frontrunner in the VR landscape, in 2014. It will work with regular computers as a plug-in peripheral. Sony's Project Morpheus, on the other hand, is designed to act as a controller for the PlayStation 4 console. Microsoft is serious about making its mark in this newly emerging industry and has even created a special version of Windows to support its HoloLens. The HoloLens differs from most competing products by mixing holographic elements with the real world instead of just featuring a made-up world.

A VR system by MindMaze in Switzerland shows promise in treating those with motor ability impairments. The patient's head is wired up with electrodes, and then he or she tries to manipulate a virtual arm or leg. This causes the brain to more effectively use new neurons or repair damaged ones to compensate for the injury. The CEO of MindMaze has stated that motor function can improve by up to 35 percent after three weeks of using the system.

Autistic people, who often have difficulty interacting in the real world, may find respite in an imaginary setting. A study in North Carolina found that children with autism were willing and able to enter a virtual world, observe their surroundings and move around. Another program at the University of Texas, Dallas explored the use of VR to enable autistic people to work on their social skills by partaking in virtual social interactions. The results showed that those who participated in the study had heightened brain activity in the parts of the brain responsible for social perception.

Virtual reality can extend the capabilities of people who are disabled or suffer from debilitating illnesses. Through the use of a VR system developed by FOVE, even people who have lost the use of their hands can play the piano by using eye movements and blinks to select the notes to play. Another simulation, all the way back in 1994, allowed a boy with cerebral palsy to take a virtual stroll through a grassy field.

image of avatars in a virtual worldMany of the medical applications of VR also translate well into other spheres of society. The ability to enter make-believe environments could be useful in education by allowing students to study distant or bygone places and in sports by enabling people to virtually attend contests and cheer for their teams. In architecture and home security, people could see how proposed changes to a building’s design and various security systems would actually function before doing the remodeling work. The potential uses in marketing are enormous and include advertising, product demos and virtual property tours.

Access to nearly infinite fictional, virtual worlds opens up space for treatments that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. As the technology continues to improve and prices get lower, we'll see a growing use of VR systems to help people with a broad range of conditions, including many disabilities. This will be only a part of a broader move by society as a whole to embrace these exciting advancements.

This blog post was written by Emma Bailey. Emma is  a blogger in the greater Chicago area with a keen interest in technology, astronomy, and anthropology. Emma's regular contributions to the Assistive Technology Blog are appreciated to a wonderful degree!

Image Sources: The Guardian, Techradar, Center for Brain Health

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fridays: Web Show About Being Deaf And Gay

Scene from Fridays' pilot

There are lots of TV shows that revolve around friendships between two people. These shows typically show the great camaraderie between two friends - intimacy, confessions,  cheap humor, love talks, crass talks - you name it, these shows successfully show it. However, have we ever seen a show in which both/all friends are deaf? To take things a little further, how about one of those two deaf friends is also gay?

What we have seen for decades in mainstream film and television always involves able bodied people going through the course of their lives. People with disabilities do make appearances, but their disabilities are always an integral part of their role - they are in the film because of their disability, and not because of their personality or some sort of quirk they may have that can contribute to the storyline.

Shoshannah Stern
Shoshannah Stern
Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, who are deaf actors,  plan to change just that. They want to encourage people involved in film and television to cast deaf people as fully realized characters, and to create storylines that focus on their daily lives, rather than on their disability. To get things started, Stern and Feldman shot a pilot of a show called "Fridays" - a story about two deaf friends. Stern plays Kate who is newly married, and Feldman plays Michael, who is gay and newly single. Both characters communicate in sign language.

Josh Feldman
Josh Feldman
The pilot depicts their intimate friendship, and glorifies the emotional connection they both share. The dialog they exchange is humorous, crass, and serious, all at the same time, and as a viewer, you cannot fail to notice how different, yet similar, Kate and Michael are as they both deal with their own personal struggles.  Just like anyone else, they like to use pizza and alcohol as effective mechanisms to drown their sorrows and talk about life. Their casual banter makes them more and more lovable, and as the pilot progresses, you realize that them being deaf is not a part of this show. At all.
Stern and Feldman self funded the pilot of the show, which is 12 minutes long, and now they are raising money to shoot the entire first season which will consist of four episodes. Only five days in, they have already raised almost 90% of the $6,000 they plan to raise, and they have 25 more days to go. They more money they raise in the next 25 days, the more episodes they will add to the first season!

Curious about the show? Watch the pilot here.

Go here to read more about their Kickstarter campaign.

 Source: Big Gay Picture Show, Kickstarter

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

[INFOGRAPHIC] Why Diversity in Staff Can Improve Business Performance

It is estimated that in excess of one billion people, roughly 15% of the global population, have some form of disability. Of the one billion, between 110 and 190 million people have difficulty in functioning. This of course can have implications for employment, but it is clear that more needs to be done by employers with regard to employing people with disabilities. In Asia for example, it is estimated that there are 238 million people of working age with a disability, with unemployment often as high as 80% among these. However, the unemployment rate figure for people with disabilities in Canada is a little lower at over 20%. A telling stat is one from the U.S. that indicates that over 60% of people with disabilities in America said they would like to find work, but could not find jobs.
This infographic from Burning Nights aims to increase awareness on the difficulties that persons with disabilities face in gaining employment, while also focusing on some of the benefits that both employers and employees can attain from choosing to employ persons with disabilities. (click here to open infographic in a bigger window, and then click again)

infographic explaining why diversity in staff can improve business performance. Text version is below the infographic.

Text version:

Why Diversity in Staff Can Improve Business Performance

Disability affects a significant portion of  the global population. Here, we look at some of the benefits to both businesses, and people with disabilities, of obtaining employment.

Stats on Disability:

Over 1 billion people, roughly 15% of the global population, have some form of disability. Of the one billion, it is estimated that between 110 and 190 million have difficulty in functioning.

Rates of disability continue to increase due to aging population and an increase in chronic health conditions.

In developing countries, the rate of disability in children is expected to increase due to malnutrition, child labour and diseases.

Children with disabilities  are less likely to start or stay in school in comparison with persons without disability.

Employment and Disability Around the World:

In Asia, it is estimated that there are 238 million people of working age with a disability , with unemployment as high as 80% among these.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Canada is over 20%.

In China, approximately 80% of people with disabilities are employed.

In India, 74% of people with physical disabilities are unemployed.

Over 60% of people with disabilities in America said they would like to find work, but could not find jobs.

What Are Reasonable Adjustments?

Modifying or acquiring equipment.
Facilitating training or mentoring.
Can include making changes to a disabled person's working pattern.
May involve little or no cost.
Ensuring that information is provided in accessible formats.
Reasonable adjustments must be made to support applications from people with disabilities and employees with disabilities.
Making alterations to premises.

Benefits of Hiring Persons With Disabilities:

Enables a business to reach a bigger market, and develop greater flexibility.
Provides social opportunities and an income for people with disabilities.
Diversity in any work environment helps to develop better solutions to business challenges.
Enables companies to better serve their customers who also have disabilities.
Studies in the US found that people with disabilities had better retention rates and less absenteeism rates.
In the UK, B&Q found that employing workers with disabilities had resulted in increased employee satisfaction and better retention and productivity rates.


"Each person is talented in his or her own way, and we should look at what they have and what they don't have." - Tan Tong Hai, Chief Executive Officer  of Starhub Ltd.

"Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you're needed by someone." - Martina Navratilova, Former world number 1 tennis player

"Persons with a disability bring with them something that a lot of other people  don't have. They are able to manage a very difficult life. They couldn't manage ordinary life without developing excellent problem-solving skills, which makes them an asset." - Mark Bagshaw, Managing Director Innov8

This post was written by Victoria Abbott-Fleming, Managing Director of a chronic pain management company called Burning Nights, a non-profit organization.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

FLYEASE: Sneakers Designed With Disabiliy In Mind

Tobie Hatfield presenting Nike FLYEASE to Matthew Walzer.

The one lesson we can learn from this story is to never be afraid to express what we need or desire because most likely, there is someone out there that will make it happen.

Nike's new shoe, FLYEASE, is designed with accessibility in mind, thanks to Matthew Walzer, who asked Nike to design shoes that would help him be self-sufficient.

Matthew was born two months premature with underdeveloped lungs that resulted in Cerebral Palsy. Growing up, he overcame lots of physical limitations, however, because he has flexibility in just one hand, he needed his parents' help to tie his shoelaces. Cerebral Palsy also causes stiffness in muscles, which makes certain every day activities like slipping one's foot in a shoe tricky and not so easy. Thus, an easy way for the foot to enter the shoe was extremely important as well.

Nike FLYEASEFearing that he would not be self-sufficient in college, Matthew wrote to Nike requesting if they
could design a shoe that would eliminate his dependence on others. His message went to Tobie Hatfield, a prominent shoe designer at Nike, and he worked directly with Matthew on designing and creating various prototypes and finally reaching a version that Matthew thought worked wonders. 

The FLYEASE hightop sneakers have a zipper in the back that can let the wearer peel the shoe open or close with just one hand. The zipper not only closes the shoe but also provides sufficient lockdown that eliminates the need for shoe laces. With the shoe opening and closing easily, it is easy for someone to take them off and on in even busier areas, like airports.

This shoe can be worn by stroke patients, amputees, people who have Cerebral Palsy or just about anyone who needs improvement in daily quality of life without depending on others.

Watch the following video to see Matthew Walzer's story and how FLYEASE came to life.

FLYEASE retails at $130.

Source: Nike, Fast Company via Engadget

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Blindshell: A Simple Phone Interface For Blind Users

a blind person using the blindshell interface on his phone

VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android have definitely made it possible for blind users to use smartphones on a daily basis. As the user navigates around on the interface, the phone talks back to the user, letting them know the apps they have access to, and also helps them with menu options and actions that can be performed on the apps. However, for some users, utilities like VoiceOver or TalkBack may be a little overwhelming - their needs may be as simple as calling, texting or just reading a book. They may desire to have just the most basic actions at their fingertips, and having to train themselves to use native phone accessibility utilities like VoiceOver may be a little too much to handle.

photo of blindshell interfaceThat’s where Blindshell can be of help. Essentially an app, Blindshell replaces the regular interface on an Android phone with a minimal interface that brings basic and most essential functions like calling, texting, contacts, alarm, notes, calendar, color recognition, and money recognition to the user. There is also a voice recorder available, and any text uploaded to the phone is read back to the user. Thousands of books can also be downloaded and read back to the user by the Blindshell via Bookshare.

The interface of the phone is very minimal and simple. The phone works with six gestures which can be performed anywhere on the screen. The six gestures are used to navigate through menu options, confirm a choice, start/stop the screen reader, go back to the previous screen etc.

This video shows what using Blindshell is like.

Many blind users in the Czech Republic, where Blindshell is based, have found success with the app. Blind users, who damaged or lost their phones with physical buttons, had to get smartphones because of older phones' apparent scarcity, and with minimal training, got used to the Blindshell interface. Some users also use the voice recorder in the phone for recreational purposes, like singing and recording their music on the phone!

Blindshell's long term goal is to ultimately expand into India, China , and Brazil. Currently, the company focusses on finding professional partners all over the globe but would like to help thousands of blind users through their app.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Autcraft: Minecraft For Autistic Children

In the last few years, Minecraft has taken the world by storm.  We all perhaps know that it is a video game, but we don't know much beyond that. Almost all kids, on the other hand, not only know what it is (a video game!), but also know how to maneuver that game very well, and pick up all sorts of tips & tricks and shortcuts pretty quickly, which they use to build their world and fight monsters.

But what exactly is Minecraft, and why is it such a popular game?

First of all, unlike other video games, Minecraft does not have set objectives. It relies heavily on exploring surroundings around you, creative building, resource gathering, and survival. As a player, you look at resources around you (trees for wood, for example), and using those resources, you build a world. You can either build your world by yourself or collaborate with others. The creative freedom that this game brings is just amazing.

However, every rose has its thorn, and Minecraft is no exception to this idiom. Usually kids progress from playing solo to online servers, where they can play with thousands of other players from around the world, and that's where the trouble starts. Online gaming is notorious for bullying - rogue members are known to tease and cause embarrassment to others, disrupting  what's otherwise a fun environment for many. This discourages many from returning to the online community of gaming. This is not good for kids with autism, who are especially vulnerable to bullying.  

To combat the bullying, provide a safe haven for kids on the spectrum, and to give them an environment where they can be creative without being judged and harassed by peers, Stuart Duncan has started a new server called "Autcraft" for kids with Autism. In order to join,  a member has to register on the Autcraft website, and await a response. Once registered, kids can play with others without the fear of being judged and bullied. Once they get comfortable in the environment, they share their interests with others and start making new friends, and they learn how to interact with others better. 

Autcraft has been very popular with kids with Autism who have a naturally "engineering" brain. Their knack for being detail oriented and ability to be analytical and logical really helps them flourish in Autcraft. On top of that, it gives them a fantasy world where they can let their imagination run wild, especially when they are playing with so many other similar people from around the world. After playing Autcraft, kids with autism have shown tremendous progress in reading and writing skills. They also have more self confidence and make newer friends easily.

Through Autcraft, kids develop their Minecraft skills so well that other kids come up to them to talk about Minecraft. Contributing something valuable to a social conversation boosts their self confidence. Autcraft has given kids on the spectrum new ways to make friends and be social. 

Watch this video to see how Stuart explains what Autcraft is, how it works, and the benefits it brings to kids on the spectrum.

Stuart Duncan, who has an autistic son, is not just the creator and moderator of Autcraft. He also provides ad hoc counselling to players, and maintains a blog separately where he writes about Autism from a parent's perspective.

Autcraft website
Stuart Duncan's Blog

Photo source: Savvy Advocate Mom

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Simple Audiobook Player For Seniors And Blind People

Books are an integral part of our lives! Doesn't matter if we are voracious or occasional readers - we always appreciate the entertainment and knowledge books impart. However, in case of blind people or sighted people losing their partial or full vision, physical books can seldom be an option. That's where audiobooks come into the picture, but they come with their own challenges. 

This post has been written by Marcin Simonides who has created a very simple, minimalist interface for playing audiobooks for blind and/or elderly people.

When eyesight deteriorates, either due to illness or advanced age, many people turn to audiobooks as an alternative to reading. With today's technology there is an abundance of services and devices one can use.

For many seniors, however, mastering the technology can be an additional obstacle. Most audio players are designed either to be small, which requires that buttons are tiny and close together, or big with touch screens which is susceptible to accidental touch. Either way it is easy to inadvertently press the wrong button, especially if fingers are no longer as flexible and precise as they used to be. Add to this features like shuffle or repeat that sometimes get enabled by mistake and a simple task of playing your favourite book feels like entering a minefield.

I have not felt this myself (yet). But I have observed my grandmother struggle with a number of audio players.

Over the past few years we have tested many devices. The best one was a second-hand CD player with MP3 support. Sadly, it did not store the last played position and playback started from the beginning after it has been turned off. And it still had too many buttons.

An ideal audiobook player for my grandmother would have as little features as necessary, namely play and pause, and it would be easy to operate with imprecise gestures. How hard can it be? :) I've decided to try.

I'm not good at building stuff but I'm a software developer so I have decided to take an off-the-shelf device, an Android tablet, and achieve my goal with a custom app.

I came up with something like this:

The app plays audio files but also does three things that are geared towards visually imparied and elderly:

- it reads the book titles when the screen is enabled and when browsing,
- it has large START and STOP buttons in contrast colors,
- stops playback when placed with the screen downward on a level surface.

And, last but not least, the app can be installed in such a way that the user cannot leave it. This hides all the complexity of the underlying system and other applications - the device serves one purpose and one purpose only.

For the time being it is still an experiment although my grandmother is already using it.
The application is available for download on my website (it will also be available in Google Play within a few weeks) so you can test it yourself and give me your feedback.

Similar work

Obviously I'm not the first one to recognize the problem. During my research I have found two other project with similar goals but different solutions. Both are custom made devices based on the Raspberry PI platform.

Marcin Simondes is a software developer and lives in Wrocław, Poland.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

[VIDEO] Assistive Technology For Quadriplegic Student: Conversation With Francis Feoko

photo of francis feoko talking to venkat rao on skype

I recently got a chance to talk with Francis Feoko, a C5 quadriplegic, who is a sophomore in the Bay Area in California. Francis wanted to share with Assistive Technology Blog's readers how, being a college student, he takes care of his home and school work and how technology has made him more confident and self sufficient in a classroom setting. He wants other students with disabilities to know that there are options available out there that can make working on classwork and homework  a breeze. Technology has boosted Francis' self esteem and motivated him to do things on his own.

What's great about Francis' setup is not just his device of choice, which is iPad 2, but also his mindset and willingness to explore assistive technology devices for himself, which is really important. There are so many devices available now, but which one suits us best in different circumstances? Francis also reminds us that "what works best for me may not work for others". 

Francis uses different apps for different classes - For his math class, he uses Notes Plus, an app that gives him lots of flexibility in terms of drawing graphs and using various shapes and symbols for his math homework. Since he is C5 quadriplegic, he cannot use his fingers, so he uses his pinky finger's knuckle to write his equations. (he has used a stylus in the past but has gotten used to his pinky for writing now) Once done, he likes to email his homework to himself so he could review, reorganize and make changes as needed, before submitting it to his teacher. Francis used to have a notetaker who would take notes for him in class, but now he just uses the iPad to take notes himself.

Notability is another app he uses for "visual learning". Notability lets Francis copy and paste images from the internet, so if he is learning something and wants to use pictures to help him understand the concepts better, he uses Notability that lets him add and organize pictures into his notes to make them more visual.

Since he is a computer science student, Francis has to write code for his C++ or HTML homework. In order to do that, he remote logs in to his laptop computer through his iPad using an app called Splashtop. Sometimes it is not easy for him to take his laptop to school, but thanks to Splashtop, he can access his laptop even when he doesn't physically have it with him. 

Francis also uses Read&Write Gold to have his notes read back to him, although later in the conversation he suggests that many iOS apps now have the ability to read notes back to the user. One advice he has for other students with disabilities is to explore assistive technology options before signing up for a class. Some classes may require special accessibility options that may not be available at school.

Francis also feels like more people with disabilities should be employed in the technology industry since they are daily users and understand what exactly needs to be developed to take accessibility to the next level. He works part time at his school's Disability Resource Center where he works with their Assistive Technology Specialist who is on top of things, and knows about all the newer apps that are being released. Francis is also  a client of Department of Rehabilitation and encourages others to be one too. Through the department, he gets in touch with other experts who help him with other accessibility needs. For example, the experts at his local department of rehabilitation office made a front mount for his backpack so he has easy  access to his things all the time.

Here is a video of me chatting with Francis. What was supposed to be an interview turned out to be a casual and candid conversation where Francis shares his experiences and insights about his disability and how technology has been helping him be more and more self sufficient. During this conversation, he also mentions his love for the Assistive Technology Blog and how he has been sharing posts from this blog with his friends and teachers in his native country Fiji!

Thanks for a great conversation, Francis!