Voice Assistants (VAs) are software that has been programmed to listen to users and (hopefully) perform resulting actions. “Users can ask their [voice] assistants questions, control home automation devices and media playback via voice, and manage other basic tasks such as email, to-do lists, and calendars with verbal commands.” –source. Some of the most popular VAs include (in order of popularity by a study by Adobe Analytics): Alexa, Google assistant, Siri, Cortana, and Bixby.
More than a convenience, voice assistants can be Assistive Technology (AT) for some users with disabilities. “For many people with disabilities, voice assistant technology can be a key tool for living independently. Voice assistant technology makes it easier to set up schedules and reminders, have more control over the home environment and lets people to connect with others easier. It can help people learn language and communication skills. Smart homes can empower people with disabilities to live more independently, giving us control over our environment and freedom to make choices able-bodied people may take for granted. As smart home technology becomes more widespread and affordable to those who need it most, our world will continue to become a more accessible place.” –The Mighty
You might be thinking, ‘if VAs are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them then?’ One of the challenges in using VAs that people with disabilities may face is getting their VA to understand them.
For people whose voice is impacted by their disability (sometimes called a ‘disability accent’), it can be extremely frustrating to have to repeat, repeat, and repeat when trying to ask their VA to do something; even more so when the VA can’t help them at all because it doesn’t understand their voice. Unfortunately, as is with many current VAs, if your accent isn’t one that the software has been trained to understand and respond accordingly to, it will have a hard time understanding you. Amazon/Alexa has taken some steps to help devices “learn your voice” and better understand individual users, but it is ultimately the work of the user to “train” their VA to understand them.
Recently, Google launched Project Understood to, “create a database that can help train Google’s technology to better understand people with Down syndrome.”
The need is great and Google’s initiative is very needed/smart business for them, but why did Google single out only people with Down syndrome? Why not include people who have Cerebral Palsy (CP) accents? People who have a Stoma? People whose voice has been impacted by a stroke or brain injury? Why not people who are deaf? Why not everyone who has a hard time with their VA understanding […]
My friend, Joe Stramondo, is a great many number of things, a dad, a philosopher and professor, a disability justice activist, and he is a champion of bidets, spreading word near and far of just how awesome they are. According to Joe, “Self-reliance when using the toilet is generally overrated, but even still, if a disabled person is looking for a way of cleaning themselves that does not require typical reach and dexterity, a bidet is an excellent option. For me, the biggest benefit is that it has sped up the process a great deal. Many mundane tasks take me longer than I’d like as a disabled person, but my bidet has taken bottom wiping off that list.”
Joe thinks bidets should be everywhere for everyone. And, in fact, in most parts of the world outside of the United States, bidets are quite popular.
Bidets originated in France in the early 1700s when bathing the whole body was considered an inconvenience. Now they are used widely all over the world, but haven’t taken hold in the United States. In Japan, for example, 70% of households have bidets.
Bidets provide a spray of water to clean your anal and/or genital areas. They can attach to a toilet or they can be a separate plumbing fixture. Modern bidets offer things like heated seats, heated water, and differing types of spray such as oscillating and pulsating. Many bidets offer air dryers as well. They range in price from $79 for a non-electric bidet seat to more than $6,000. Electric bidet seats start in the low $200 range for a “value” bidet seat to $600+ for luxury bidet seats. Bidet/toilets range from $2,000-$6,000+. I can’t really think of a benefit of having a separate bidet altogether as it would require more bathroom floor space, additional plumbing to add to your bathroom, and another transfer, but if you’re in the market for a new toilet, one that comes as a bidet/toilet could make sense if you have the budget for it. A new standard toilet plus a bidet seat is still cheaper than a bidet/toilet though.
Six disabled people of color smile and pose in front of a concrete wall. Five people stand in the back, with the Black woman in the center holding up a chalkboard sign reading “disabled and here.” A South Asian person in a wheelchair sits in front. Photo by Chona Kasinger, Disabled And Here project.
By Jen Mullins, BS, CTRS, MATP Staff
One of the most engaging aspects of my job is marketing! I am a storyteller by nature and so I enjoy listening to others tell their stories and crafting my own narratives. A well told story can bring people together by sharing about a specific cause and/or increasing awareness. In text-based marketing, I very much agree with the old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. I use photos and other visuals (such as emojis on social media or thoughtful spacing and use of white space in between text) whenever possible.
Missing photo icon that says “Image not found”
Both in general marketing efforts and specific marketing efforts that include stories about people with disabilities and their Assistive Technology (AT), I have found hardly any inclusive, representative, and high quality stock photographs to use. The majority of photos I have found are lacking; many of these photos have been taken thru the “medical model” lens (so to speak) where people with disabilities are portrayed as something to be cared for. On the flip side, people with disabilities can often be portrayed as “inspiring”, but we’re not here to inspire you; for more on this check out Stella Young’s TedTalk. To me, these kinds of photos can be harmful if they are the majority of photos we see of people with disabilities in marketing; we are more than just needs and we don’t want your pity! As a womxn with a disability myself, I know I look different from the outdated photos I see; it’s extremely frustrating not to see people with disabilities portrayed as as authentic, capable, confident, and whole people.
I’ve spoken with co-workers about accessing the kinds of stock images we really want to exist and thankfully I’ve been met with agreement and enthusiasm about the need for these kinds of representative & authentic photos. One of my co-workers and I have even discussed brainstorming a campaign where we have an open call for anyone who wants to be photographed and creating a shared image library.
Close-up of a Black woman putting a hearing aid into her left ear. She is dressed in all black, with her pulled back by a scarf, and looking into a tabletop mirror.
I’m happy to share that over the weekend I learned about Disabled And Here. “The Disabled And Here Collection is a disability-led effort to provide free and inclusive stock photos shot from our own perspective, […]
Each year around this time, I write a blog about Haloween costumes that incorporate a person’s assistive technology. It’s one of my favorite posts of the year, which is interesting because Halloween has never really been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I always found that choosing a Halloween costume was difficult and my choices were limited because of my wheelchair. I couldn’t wear anything stiff, bulky, or long, as it would get caught in my tires. With trick-or-treating, I always felt a little left out because I could never get up to the homes of my neighbors who had steps. Instead, my sister would have to get my candy (and she would always pick the best stuff for herself) and no one would ever even see my costume. Over the past several years, however, there has been more and more attention given to costumes that incorporate a person’s mobility equipment or assistive technology. I enjoy looking for these costumes and writing this blog every year because, to me, this represents disability pride, pride in one’s assistive technology, and a spirit of inclusion.
In fact, this is the first time ever I have seen a national retailer get in on the action. Through their Hyde & EEK Boutique line, Target is featuring four Halloween costumes with kids with disabilities in mind. The princess carriage and pirate ship are wheelchair covers sold separately from the costume to complete the ensemble, and the shark and unicorn costumes have been designed with no tags, flat seams, plush construction, and the option to remove attachments like hoods and tails for kids with sensory disabilities.
Some of the most ingenious costumes that are enhanced by assistive technology are those that are made at home. After much thought and research, my top three costumes in the do-it-yourself category are:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Fish Burial at Sea
For a few lucky kids with disabilities, the non-profit organization Magic Wheelchair aims to create costumes that are not just cool, but “epic”. Magic Wheelchair brings together artists, builders, families, and communities to create costumes for kids ages 5-17 who primarily use a wheelchair for mobility. The process typically takes about 8 weeks, and the results are amazing. 2019 Magic Wheelchair costumes featured dragons, […]
Recently, I got to meet and talk with Alisa Grishman of Access Mob Pittsburgh (AMP). Alisa is the inventor of the “Light Up Cane”; although she says that she’s not an inventor and just “had a good idea”. Sure sounds like an inventor to me! The Light Up Cane is essentially a cane that has a string of small lights and a small power bank attached to it.
Alisa’s idea came about while she attended an outdoor, nighttime concert. Using her cane, she was trying to make her way to the bathroom and no one could see her, so she kept getting knocked around. She made her way to one of the vendors where she bought a string of fairy lights & a power bank. She wrapped the lights & power bank around her cane and secured them with tape. When she walked somewhere during the concert, she could be seen and safe. Since the concert, Alisa and AMP has partnered with HackPittsburgh to do safety lighting installations on people’s power chairs and have other ideas in the works for illuminating AT for safety.
If you’d like to make your own light up cane or wheelchair or other illuminated AT device, AMP has recommended these lights. Additionally, small fairy lights are available and as well as small power banks. To secure the lights & power bank, Alisa & AMP used blue painters tape (less likely to leave stickiness on your device if you needed to remove it).
Sometimes the best inventions are born out of necessity. 🙂
By Paul Miller, Community Inclusion Specialist, MDRC
Paul, on the left with his walker, at a leadership development retreat where Paul taught the group about interdependence, disability pride, and leadership.
Independence is something we strive for as we grow up, but as an adult I have grown to understand that interdependence is a more accurate view of life. Interdependence is a concept explained best by saying that our independence relies on the help of others. My Dad passed away in January 2019 and when I think about him I think what a big part of my life he was. My dad loved to work with tools. He did a lot of work on my walker. He put on a cupholder and added some new wheels and a hinge. I use my walker to go all over town. I think of it as a symbol of independence. When I ride on the bus I fold it and have it against my legs. When I get to the store, I put a small grocery basket on it and shop. My walker, like any Assistive Technology, is a big part of my life. It is also a symbol of the relationship I had with my dad. While ridesharing is possible now, up until a few years ago, when I had an emergency with my walker, I called my dad for a ride.
The concept of interdependence is that no one is totally independent. Our independence depends on the help of others. This is a concept that is well understood in the disability community. The opening paragraph tells how my dad helped with my walker, which helped me be independent as well as helping me to bond with my dad. Last time I got some work done on my walker I got some help from a nice man in my church named Phil. When this happened I felt connected with my church. You also can get some work done on walkers at bike shops. At one time I did get some brake work done to my walker at a bike shop. I think the reason why interdependence is so loved in the disability community is it builds connections with other communities. It could also build up the disabled community itself since we help each other by talking about news and protests and opportunities in the disability community.
You have interdependence in any relationship like friendship or a work relationship. While working on this blog I got advice and grammar help from Paige, my personal assistant. This is an example of interdependence at work. Another example may be help with a presentation. The story I told about my walker is one example of how interdependence works. I don’t want to say independence is a negative concept. Independence may be what we say we want when we are young but interdependence, as a viewpoint, gives us community.
James works at Pathways in Marquette doing janitorial work and at times needs to communicate with his employer or even the bus driver who brings him to work. Due to his many disabilities, one of them being extreme hearing loss, James has a very hard time communicating clearly with others. His mom, Judy, is usually able to understand him but oftentimes finds herself struggling as well.
James was referred to Tanya, Assistive Technology Advocate at the Superior Alliance for Independent Living (SAIL). When Tanya met with James and his mom for the first time, it became a true mission to find something that would help him communicate clearly with others. Through a device demonstration, James learned about the application “Verbally” for his iPad, which turned out to be the answer he was looking for. When Tanya showed James how the application worked he was eager to tell us how he was doing when asked. After showing him the repeat button, he typed in “I love you Mom” and kept hitting repeat.
Upon leaving his house! Tanya said, “See you later alligator” to which he replied with his iPad, “After while crocodile” several times all while laughing with a big smile on his face!
I’m working on a trauma certificate and recently attended a symposium on Somatic Experience therapy for children who have experienced trauma. The presenter, Maggie Kline, LMFT, explained that for young children (birth to 18 months) who experience trauma, the body holds the memory and that therapy needs to focus on dissolving extra energy in the body, helping children find and feel safe, and helping the shock/trauma (reptilian) part of the brain heal.
According to Maggie, we are hard wired to overcome and release trauma. We are built to be resilient and there are tools to help children who have experienced trauma access that healing. These tools can help build from our innate resilience.
Maggie mentioned the Poly Vagal Theory developed by Dr Stephen Porges which explains that our nervous system has three modes:
Connection mode—the state in which we can socially engage, interact and function;
Fight/flight—our body’s immediate reaction to a threat that affects every part of the body to help us stay alive by either fighting the danger or fleeing as quickly as possible;
Shutdown—when the fight/flight has not worked and we sense impending death, this system kicks in and causes freezing as a form of self-preservation
Maggie taught our group that children who have experienced trauma can have triggers that remind their body of trauma and then their body flips from fight or flight into shutdown mode. Somatic Experience therapy and other therapeutic models seek to help children become grounded in their bodies and come out of fight/flight or shutdown mode by activating the calming parts of the nervous system. The goal is to reorganize and rebalance the nervous system after being overwhelmed by trauma. Then, children’s bodies don’t respond to a trigger when they shouldn’t.
If a child you care about has experienced trauma, please consult a therapist to help them work through the trauma and prevent or treat PTSD. That therapist will likely use toys and tools you can use yourself at home to help with rebalancing the nervous system. These toys are things you can use yourself with a child but they should not be used as a sole means of treatment of trauma. Professional support is needed. These are listed here as ideas you can use in addition to the support of professionals.
Tools and Toys for trauma:
Bubbles—help children extend their exhales longer than inhales which activates calming centers in the nervous system.
Rocking horses and hammocks/swings– activate the vestibular (body positioning) system to help with grounding knowing where your body is in space.
Drums—rhythmic, repetitive movements are soothing and activate the brain in ways that are therapeutic. This can also be seen in biking, running, yoga, and other rhythmic activities.
Maracas and other toys that create a shaking movement when used—shaking off is a physical response that is seen in other animals too—discharging the fight or flight energy. I frequently know […]
In June I was paging through my copy of Woman’s Day Magazine and was impressed with an article on Veterans and AT use: How My Veteran Husband Copes with His War Injuries . The focus is on caregivers/family/friends of veterans’ views and support, but the AT used is directly helpful to the veterans themselves. I’m excited that the article is finally online and I can share it here. As someone who has had PTSD, I found the PTSD Coach app very helpful. The ideas in the article are especially helpful for veterans but are useful to anyone with PTSD or PTSD symptoms.
What did you think of the article? Have you used any of the apps or tools yourself? What are your experiences of the AT?
Renown Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been one of my favorite artists since I was a young girl. A few years ago, I was excited to learn that Kahlo also had disabilities and she shared about them in her art and writing; in this way, she has inspired and emboldened me to do the same in my own artwork. Recently, I read an article that featured a photo of Kahlo using Assistive Technology (AT) to help her paint. While she was a young adult, Kahlo traveled on a bus that was in a terrible accident. “The accident broke Kahlo’s spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and she frequently [felt most comfortable in bed]. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father’s paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed.” In this photo Kahlo is laying on her back, painting while in bed. She is situated with pillows behind her head, a paint palette resting on her stomach, a large, tilted easel at her waist, and a vase filled with paint brushes on a nearby side table. A young child is at her side (near the vase of paint brushes) watching her paint.
Kahlo’s story and this photograph of her made me interested to find out what other kinds of easels are available for artists with disabilities. Just like Frida Kahlo and her family discovered, I found that there are different types of easels available that may work as Assisitive Technology for some:
Though I can’t say for certain, from the photograph it looks like Kahlo is using an adjustable drawing board. These boards can be placed on a variety of surfaces and the slant or tilt of the board is adjustable depending upon the needs of the artist.
The Alvin Reflex Table was designed with wheelchair access in mind, The device has a semi circle cut out for accessibility of wheelchairs. The 30″ × 40″ top has a raised, black, PVC edge that prevents items from falling off. The base of the table is wide enough to allow wheelchairs to maneuver through and has telescoping legs to adjust the height.
The Convert-able table is a large, multipurpose and adaptable table with 0º-90º of tilt. The optional Art Easel top keeps paper unwrinkled on a roll while horizontal guides hold the paper in place.