[bksvol-discuss] High-tech devices help disabled get back lives


Los Angeles Daily News
Friday, March 18, 2005

High-tech devices help disabled get back lives

By Brent Hopkins, Staff Writer

Gadgets at CSUN conference offer sights and sounds

For $110, the blind can see. For $6,800, the mute can speak.  At the 
California State University, Northridge, Technology and Persons With 
Disabilities Conference, wheelchairs rolled through crowded exhibit halls 
while red-tipped white canes tapped their sightless holders through a sea of 
people. The six-day exposition, which runs through Saturday, has drawn 
medical professionals, manufacturers, educators and those simply hoping to 
improve their quality of life.

"This is a lifesaver," said Fran Mero, a Lancaster resident who works in a 
blind persons assistance program, peering through a powerful monocular. "I 
can read again! My vision's only about 2 feet, so I have to rely on other 
people. Now, I can rely on myself."

She's had limited vision her entire life, seeing the same things at 20 feet 
most people can see 300 feet away. Slowly focusing the metal grip of the 
6x16 magnifier, she could make out signs and read posters across the room. 
What began as fuzzy orange blobs became letters, then words, then sentences. 
She was soon reaching for her wallet, ready to buy the device that gave her 
normal vision once again.

"This is what makes this job fun," said Marv Walters, president of Agoura 
Hills-based Low Vision Optics. "They can find a bus, they can find their way 
around, they can go out in the street again."

The conference is expected to draw 4,500 attendees this year, the most in 
its 20-year history. Manufacturers from as near as Woodland Hills and as far 
away as Germany debuted new, more powerful devices, targeting everything 
from childhood disabilities to senior care. Bank of America showed off a 
talking automated teller machine, Nokia brought out a cell phone that speaks 
to help visually impaired users work through its menus.

"It's neat to see people come in and say, I had no idea -- now we can do all 
these things we couldn't do before," said Jodi Johnson, associate director 
of CSUN's Center on Disabilities.

Words+Inc. debuted its latest edition of the Say-it! Sam talking computer. 
Designed for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and muscular dystrophy patients 
who've lost their ability to speak, the computer uses a touch-screen 
interface to allow them to construct sentences that it reads aloud.

"It brings them their speech back," said Erik Reedy, who demonstrated the 
device for the Lancaster-based company. "You lose that, you lose a lot. This 
brings back so much we've even had people get college degrees with them."

A few rows over, a large crowd gathered around Sound Foresight Ltd.'s booth, 
as blind visitors listened carefully to the British company's demonstration 
of its UltraCane. The thick-handled device employs an ultrasonic 
echolocation system, similar to the sense used by bats to navigate, allowing 
users to detect objects in their path and above them.

Since regular white canes only help the user feel obstacles at ground level, 
low hanging objects present a unique hazard for the visually impaired.

A five-minute test was all it took for Tom Lange, a Woodland Hills computer 
instructor who's been blind since birth, to fork over $800 for one of the 
devices.

"I was walking around awhile ago and thought I was approaching a wall, but 
it turned out there was a (semitrailer) parked there," he grinned ruefully. 
"I smacked right into it, but with this cane, I probably would have picked 
up on it."

The canes made their American debut at the conference, as Sound Foresight 
looked for ways to distribute them beyond its www.ultracane.com Web site. 
Stuart Newsome, the Yorkshire-based company's health care director, chuckled 
as he described the enthusiastic American response to the high-tech gadget.

"You get it into people's hands and they're very excited," he said. "This 
being the States, the most frequent words we get are 'Wow, cool!' or 'That's 
awesome!' Yes, lots of words like that."

Brent Hopkins, (818) 713-3738 brent.hopkins@xxxxxxxxxxxxx

IF YOU GO

WHAT: CSUN 20th Anniversary Technology and Persons with Disabilities 
Conference

WHEN: Today 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

WHERE: Hilton Los Angeles Airport, 5711 W. Century Blvd.

Los Angeles Airport Marriott, 5855 West Century Blvd.

PHONE: (310) 641-5700


http://www.dailynews.com/Stories/0,1413,200~20950~2768770,00.html




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