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Technology, Aging and Disability

Editor's Note: Kaye Leslie works at Scotiabank in Toronto as a Manager of Workforce Diversity. She has written and published a chapter on disability and seniors that has been incorporated into a textbook, which is being used by faculties of Social Work in universities across North America.

As a baby-boomer with a disability, I have a particular interest in the way in which technology is going to affect the quality of our lives over the next few decades. And, having recently taught a course at Ryerson University on Aging and Disability, I maintain a professional interest in examining projected technological trends that will affect seniors with disabilities.

My interests in the field of aging and disability have led me to accept the position of co-chair of the "Growing Older with a Disability" conference to be held in Toronto on June 16--19, 2007. This conference is part of a Festival of International Conferences on Disability, Aging and Technology that will include the following four concurrent conferences: Growing Older with a Disability, International Conference on Technology and Aging, Advances in Neuro-rehabilitation, and Caring for the Caregiver.

The second on the list, The International Conference on Technology and Aging, will explore how the technological revolution can contribute to a positive quality of life as we age. This conference will provide researchers, designers, policy makers and consumers the opportunity to present and learn about new and innovative technologies being developed to help older adults participate fully in their daily lives.

Some topics of interest will include the design and use of assistive technology, smart homes and intelligent systems, technology for caregiving, impact and outcomes of technology on quality of life, policy and legislative issues.

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Through the use of assistive technology I am able, without vision, to access text on my computer using screen reading software, read the latest novels on CDs in digital format, communicate with friends and family using email and accessible cell phones, watch movies with descriptive video captioning and enjoy many other activities that the previous generation would not have imagined possible.

During the past 40 years I have seen many changes in technology for the vision-impaired. I recall, for instance, my first talking books arriving in a large container filled with vinyl records. And while I am astonished at the changes that have occurred in technology in just the past 20 years, I know that these changes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Ray Kurzweil is as knowledgeable as anyone as far as the future of technological change is concerned. Ray Kurzweil is the inventor of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first device to transform print into computer-spoken words, enabling blind and vision-impaired people to read printed materials. When this print-to-speech reading machine was invented in 1976, the technology was regarded as the most significant advancement for the blind since braille's introduction in 1829.

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Kurzweil explains his concept of the rate of technological change in exponential terms: "[I]t is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (at today's rate of progress, that is).

Recently, a Nobel Prize winning panelist announced, "we're not going to see self-replicating nano-engineered entities for a hundred years." I pointed out that 100 years was indeed a reasonable estimate of the amount of technical progress required to achieve this particular milestone at today's rate of progress. But because we're doubling the rate of progress every decade, we'll see a century of progress--at today's rate--in only 25 calendar years.

When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace, so the intuitive view is that the pace will continue at the current rate. Even for those of us who have been around long enough to experience how the pace increases over time, our unexamined intuition nonetheless provides the impression that progress changes at the rate that we have experienced recently.

From the mathematician's perspective, a primary reason for this is that an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration. So even though the rate of progress in the very recent past (e.g., this past year) is far greater than it was ten years ago (let alone a hundred or a thousand years ago), our memories are nonetheless dominated by our very recent experience. It is typical, therefore, that even sophisticated commentators, when considering the future, extrapolate the current pace of change over the next 10 years or 100 years to determine their expectations. This is why I call this way of looking at the future the "intuitive linear" view.

To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming "singularity", it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China.

In response to the emperor's offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.


It is no secret that the population is aging, and with advanced age comes a variety of sensory losses, mobility restrictions, cognitive challenges and ultimately the inability to drive a car or perhaps function with stairs and other issues in the home environment. Our workplace may also need to be altered in order to accommodate employees who are working longer and whose needs are changing.

Now consider this interesting development, as reported by Karen Solomon in Robotics Trends (

Dean Kaman is the developer of the Segway Human Transporter, the gravity defying, upright scooter with oversized wheels that was shrouded in secrecy while under development. But the same technology that propels the Segway - the microprocessor assisted gyroscopic wheels that allow the Segway to balance the same way the human body does--was incorporated into one of Kaman's earlier, and possibly more high-impact, inventions.

Kaman's company has also developed the Independence iBot Mobility System. The iBot, a type of wheelchair on steroids, is a revolution in transportation for those that use wheelchairs. It offers unprecedented independence and mobility. Not only does the iBot operate as a slimmed-down standard wheelchair, but it also has 4-wheel drive mechanism, designed for rough terrain like sand and gravel, uneven surfaces, as well as slopes and hills. But most incredibly, the iBot has two gyroscopic wheels that balance the chair with the stability and reliability of a standing person. When working together, these wheels can scale staircases of any length, either with the use of a handrail or with an assistant. (A small amount of physical strength in the upper body is required.)

When not using both wheels to scale stairs, the two wheels stack one on top of the other and allow the iBot to elevate the user to a normal standing height, enabling the user to see in a crowd and reach items from a top shelf. To see this is incredible - it's as if two small unicycle wheels were stacked vertically to balance a 200-pound wheelchair with a 200-pound person.

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As reported by the Canadian Medical Association, in 1900 life expectancy at birth in developed countries was about 40 years. By 2000, life expectancy in Canada had nearly doubled.

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In order for people to live long, happy and productive lives, it is necessary to plan for the future needs of aging individuals and create an infrastructure that is integrated and does not lead to social isolation and limited communication.

People with disabilities have been advocates of the concept of "universal design" for many years. If adopted by developers of appliances, homes, cars, communication devices, and transportation and recreational facilities, universal design will enable all citizens to have equitable access to products, services and information. It will undoubtedly result in a healthier and a more independent quality of life for all.

As it stands, people with disabilities are constantly faced with barriers when accessing everyday tools such as bank machines, telephones and VCRs. Many stoves and ovens are designed with flat screen panels, preventing blind or vision-impaired individuals from being able to access the unit without sighted assistance or some form of marking system. Rather than having to retrofit, it would be much more economical if these products were designed with universal access in mind in the first place.

The economic basis for addressing these changes is sound now that we have come to realize that there is a sound business case for making our workplaces accessible to all. Accessibility results in employers being able to access a highly skilled segment of a previously untapped labour pool--people with disabilities.

I have worked in Human Resources for the past 25 years. As a "Manager of Workforce Diversity", one of my roles involves recruiting employees with disabilities, both hidden and visible in nature. I am frequently astonished at the calibre of candidates applying for positions who are prepared to accept contract or part-time opportunities in spite of their experience and credentials. With technological advancements in conjunction with the trend toward universal design in both technical and non-technical areas, it is my hope that existing barriers to employment will be eliminated and that hiring managers will then be able to focus solely on the skills, abilities and motivation of all potential employees.