Communication studies senior M.W. Kaplan leaned against the wall as they sat on their bed for a study session, laptop perched on their lap. A robotic feminine voice emanated from their computer to read aloud an assigned reading. The screen was dimmed and each word was highlighted as it was read. In another tab they highlighted information in various colors: yellow for general information, green for important things, pink for vocabulary, and blue to mark information or phrases they personally enjoyed.
This text-to-speech software, combined with annotation software that allows them to color-coordinate their notes, both help Kaplan with symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Kaplan explained that one of their symptoms is difficulty with their inner monologue.
“A lot of people can read easily because they’re reading it aloud in their head, but I can’t do that as easily,” Kaplan said. “So, outsourcing that to the computer makes it a lot easier to read.”
Both of these softwares fall under the realm of assistive technology, which John Lee, who works for Cal Poly’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) as an assistive technology specialist, defined as any tool that serves to bridge the gap between a person’s capabilities and the tasks they need or want to complete. Lee participated in a panel on May 16 in which he, along with other Cal Poly community members spoke about their experiences with and the importance of assistive technology.
“It can kind of make a person more independent in being able to do a task, but it doesn’t have to result in independence,” Lee said in an interview with Mustang News. “It could just be a way to allow a person to be able to function a little bit more satisfactorily and effectively in the kinds of things they want to do.”
The DRC offers various forms of assistive technology. The Tech Exploration Lab of the DRC’s Assistive Technology website has a list of devices available for students to use as testing accommodations. The Technology Checkout section lists the primary devices and software loaned out to students registered with the DRC.
Lee said that one of their biggest needs for technology is in regards to note-taking.
“For some students, for any number of reasons, they may struggle with taking notes,” Lee said. “So we have a variety of technologies that can be used to help a student take notes more independently.”
One of these technologies is the Livescribe Smartpen and its accompanying dot paper. The Smartpen, Lee explained, is a digital pen that works with a special type of paper called dot paper. The dot paper is covered in tiny micro dots that interact with an infrared camera on the tip of the Smartpen. This way, as the user writes on the dot paper, the pen stores in a digital image what is written.
Lee said the pen is also able to record audio, which it then synchronizes with whatever is written or drawn. He said this can be helpful to students who have difficulties focusing on lectures or students who have trouble with auditory processing.
“The pen, by recording, kind of takes that stress off of the student,” Lee said.
While some of these technologies, such as the Livescribe Smartpen, require students to verify their disability with the DRC to use, others are available to anyone. Lee estimates that the DRC currently has about 600 students borrowing equipment. Most of these students are using the Livescribe Smartpen.
Lee said that one misconception people have about assistive technology is that it can only be used by people with disabilities. In reality, he pointed out, nondisabled people use assistive technology on a daily basis sometimes without even realizing it. He said the difference is that people with disabilities often use assistive technology out of necessity, while nondisabled people use it for convenience.
“For example, something like voice recognition software — [nondisabled people] could use it to quickly crank out a text, but for someone who is unable to use their hands, that’s a necessity,” Lee said.
Assistive technology can and should be used by anybody, Kaplan said.
“The thing that I hear the most is like, ‘Oh, I don’t really need that,’” Kaplan said. “I think everyone should make everything easy for themselves. I think challenges should be voluntary.”
One important thing to note, Lee said, is that assistive technology is only helpful so far as the environment it’s used in is accessible.
Nutrition sophomore Reina Knowles uses assistive technology to combat symptoms of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition she has that affects blood flow. Things like standing are difficult for her, and having to stand for long periods of time can lead to fainting.
“They say that basically standing with POTS is akin to running five miles per hour,” Knowles said. “So a day with POTS can feel like a marathon.”
She spoke to the importance of creating accessible environments so that people who need assistive technology can use it. For example, she explained that she uses a shower chair in order to lower her risk of fainting while in the shower due to her POTS symptoms being amplified by heat. However, she can only use her shower chair if it can fit in the shower.
Kaplan explained that this lack of accessible environments to use assistive technology extends to the digital realm. Many professors assign their readings in PDF format, but sometimes the text itself is just an image, which isn’t able to be read by text-to-speech software. This is something that Kaplan said professors have the ability to mitigate through software such as Adobe Acrobat.
“One of the big things is image-only PDFs, so making sure that PDFs are actually text,” Kaplan said. “Someone has to do it, and it’d be cool if it wasn’t the student.”
In terms of the future for assistive technology, Lee said that artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are two fields he’s keeping his eye on. He said AI has the potential to make any device that uses live transcription functions even more efficient, and VR could potentially allow people with disabilities to operate in spaces they wouldn’t have been able to before. He gave the example of students one day being able to work in VR labs.
As assistive technology develops, it will continue to open doors for people to access spaces they otherwise couldn’t.
“Ideally, it would enable people with disabilities to have the same experiences as people without those disabilities,” Kaplan said.