Different tools, different abilities

Different tools, different abilities

We tend to take a lot for granted in life. And this includes being able to use everyday gadgets such as computers, phones—or even keyboards and mice—with ease. There are many disadvantaged people who find it difficult to read a monitor or a phone’s screen, input data on a regular keyboard, or control a mouse. However, there are some gadgets for those with special needs. And no, we don’t mean gee-whizz mind-controlled wheelchairs and eye-tracking robotic arms that are still to hit the shelves. A look at a few things that are available.

Maltron adaptive keyboards


Price: $375-545

Some of these may appear to be escapee contraptions from a heavy industries factory floor rather than desktop keyboards. Yet Maltron adaptive keyboards are designed to enable people with special needs to input computer data faster and more easily than conventional keyboards. From expanded keyboards for physically challenged and visually impaired individuals which can be operated by a person’s toes, to single-hand usage ones, or even single-finger or head/mouth stick keyboards for people who do not have the use of a full hand, a wide range of specialized alphanumeric input devices is available. Basic guidance and incremental training exercises with lessons are also provided for some of these keyboards.

Zac Browser


Price: Free

Given the ubiquitousness of the Internet, perhaps one of the most compelling and flexible teaching tools to deploy for autistic children is the Web browser. Unlike other regular run-of-the-mill browsers, the Zac Browser has been developed specifically for children with autism disorders. Thus, it offers an entirely different online environment. Instead of forcing children to read and learn through text-based fine print, Zac uses games, videos and diverse simple activities that make them play, sing and discover things on screen, thereby sparking interest and holding the attention of wandering minds. All sections do not work as promised, so be prepared for some disappointment. It’s best to first familiarize yourself with the program and then guide the child through it. The browser also provides a link to news on the latest developments and discussions on autism.

Text-to-speech apps on Android phones


Price: about $4 (Rs186.4)

The Android operating system for cellphones has been blessed with text-to-speech, or TTS abilities (called Pico voices), and a gesture-recognition interface right from its initial 1.6 edition. All speech-enabled Android apps can use these voices—available in French, Italian, German and Spanish, apart from English—to convert your cellphone into an “eyes-free" handset that can talk to you. TTS apps include vocabulary builders, flashcard games, e-books, SMS reader, a speaking notepad, and NightWatch (this announces the time when you touch the phone), among other things. You’ll find a list of eyes-free apps at http://is.gd/dUzzu. And now Froyo (or Android 2.2, as it is also called) further offers the ability to plug in additional text-to-speech engines for all talking applications on the phone. These high-quality text-to-speech voices can be purchased via the online Android app store, Market.

Braille + Mobile Manager


Price: $1,395

This personal digital assistant (PDA) is intended for people with impaired vision and limited movement who want to use a PC. The hand-held 210g gadget comprises a Braille keypad for input, 256MB internal flash memory and a hard disk which offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. It comes with a special Word-compatible word processor, appointment calendar and address book (that can sync with Windows). In addition to recording voice, it can playback audio (MP3, WAV, Audible.com and Ogg and stream audio files from the Internet) as well. Thus, using Braille + Mobile Manager one can independently take notes, access mail, surf the Web, listen to podcasts and other media, among other things. The biggest downer with this one is its exorbitant price.

NoHands Mouse


Price: $360

The NoHands Mouse consists of two foot-driven pedal controls—one for the movement of the mouse cursor on the screen and the other to execute clicking. Compatible with various flavours of Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, this device has a pressure-sensitive mechanism which by default operates a heel-click as a right-click and a toe-click as a left-click. It can also be used in conjunction with a regular mouse. If required, NoHands Mouse can be combined with an on-screen keyboard and voice-recognition software to eliminate the use of a keyboard altogether.

Similar alternatives include the $33 StealthSwitch (http://is.gd/dW5Te) and the $150 Savant Elite Triple Action Foot Switch (http://is.gd/dW5ZE).

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