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Trends in Adaptive Technology: A Bird’s-Eye View

Editor's Note: Below is an interview with Chris Chamberlin, owner and President of Frontier Computing, a Toronto-based vendor of adaptive products and technologies since 1986. Mr. Chamberlin is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians' (AEBC) Toronto Chapter, and sits on AEBC's Fundraising Committee.

Q. What do you consider to be the most important technological advancements over the past 20 or 25 years for people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted?

A. One of the most important advancements has been the development of optical character recognition (OCR) programs. Before OCR, blind people really didn't have independent or immediate access to the printed word; now we can read just about anything--except perhaps for materials with images, handwriting or fancy fonts--and the recognition accuracy of the programs is increasing. Books, bills, mail, product/medication directions etc. can often be accessed this way now.

Handheld devices, like PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Apple products, are the other significant development.

Since blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people don't drive, they need smaller devices that are relatively lightweight and portable, when they're out and about. In the mid to late 1980s, Blazie Engineering brought out the Braille & Speak, with a braille keyboard for input and a speech synthesizer for output. In the mid 1990s, braille displays, which are indispensable for the deaf-blind, came along, and PDAs like the Braille Lite were possible, which provided both speech and braille output. Today, PDAs like the BrailleNote and BrailleSense are easier on the battery.

Apple's products, be it the Mac, iPad, iPod etc., don't have braille output but they have speech output capability built right in. This means they're accessible out of the box and cost less than adaptive technology solutions.

Q. In your experience, what technologies are in most demand and why? Has demand for certain technologies changed over the past 20 to 30 years?

A. Today, laptops outsell desktop computers five to one; perhaps five years ago, it was the opposite. Laptops take up less space, which can be important in college dorms or cluttered home offices, and they are portable--again, important for students and other people on the go. Desktops, however, are more durable and reliable.

We are selling fewer note-taking devices (PDAs) today. Recently, sales dropped from about six to two per month.

Students come to us usually for the Kurzweil scanning/OCR software, as this is the program used by the vast majority of educational institutions. This gives them independent access to many printed texts and other course materials.

Our working-age customers are often government employees, wanting the major screen readers like JAWS and Window Eyes, or screen magnification programs like ZoomText, which typically work well in the Microsoft environment. This hasn't really changed over the years.

A couple of years ago, we started selling small products to help people with vision impairments with daily living, such as braille and talking watches, braille/audio thermostats, braille/large print playing cards, electronic liquid level indicators, and more. Sometimes CNIB refers clients to us or customers learn about our products from our website or email newsletter.

We also carry the relatively recent Pen Friend, a device to make audio labels for everything from frozen food packages and condiment jars in the fridge to CDs and file folders. This product is especially useful for those who do not read or write braille.

Q. In your experience, have the people seeking technology changed over the years? Who are the majority of your customers?

A. These days, we have fewer younger customers than before. Perhaps this is because they are so well integrated into the school system that they already have the products and services they need. Many younger people just go straight for Apple products; while we don't sell Apple products, we do provide training for them. It might also be that more people are partially sighted today, and thus they don't need the higher-tech devices. The average age of our customers is 40 and up, but I hear this is the same in many quarters, including in consumer groups and recreational clubs for the blind. Perhaps this is because the population is aging.

A lot of our customers are high school and university students with learning disabilities. We sell programs to help people with dyslexia and other reading-related difficulties, who don't necessarily also have a vision impairment.

Q. Today, with the aging population and the increase in the survival rate of premature infants--both often resulting in additional disabilities--is technology evolving to meet this need?

A. Frontier Computing sells software to assist people with learning disabilities, particularly high school and post-secondary students with reading-related difficulties.

We also carry devices that use a switch, instead of a mouse or keyboard, for customers who do not have full use of their hands, for example.

For seniors, there is a seniors' guide that loads when they turn on their desktop computer, which really simplifies the interface for them. Instead of pressing combinations of keys, all they need to do is press one button to, say, scan a book or browse the internet.

Q. Over the past 20 or so years, there has been a proliferation of adaptive technology vendors in Ontario. Why is that? Is demand increasing or is there now more government funding available? Is this the same right across Canada?

A. Frontier Computing gets orders from all over Canada, not just Ontario, though we are the largest vendor of vision-related devices authorized by the Ontario Assistive Devices Program (ADP). Vendors can qualify for ADP authorization quite easily, but probably a good 75% shouldn't be in the business because they don't have the resources to support their products or services. The demand for products is pretty constant.

We have had customers in Western and Eastern Canada, though not all provinces have a funding program, or some only have limited resources available. To fund their equipment, students often use bursary money. Other customers save up for a time; I find that those who pay out-of-pocket for equipment "know their stuff" better than those who do get assistance with funding. They invest more time and effort in learning about technology because they're investing more of their own money.

Q. What do you foresee as the technological need for the blind in the next five to ten years? What will developers and manufacturers have to do to meet this need?

A. I foresee more and more devices with accessibility built in as part of the development and manufacturing process. I think Apple has set the bar. People who are blind or partially sighted are already buying Apple products, as well as cell phones from companies like Samsung and Nokia, which can be made somewhat accessible.

It's much more convenient to walk into a local electronics or telecommunications store to buy a mainstream product that's accessible out of the box than to apply for ADP funding (assuming your province offers financial assistance), find an authorized vendor, order the authorized equipment/software, wait for it to be delivered and then be trained on it. That can take months.

For many people across Canada, it will be cheaper to buy a mainstream product with accessibility already built in.

It's very possible that there won't be any need for adaptive technology vendors sometime in the future, at least for those with vision impairments. Theoretically, in any case.

As for Frontier Computing, we might have to look at new ways of training people on their equipment, especially those who do not live in Ontario. There is only so much you can do over the phone or by email. One possibility is to conduct training remotely, over the internet, through webinars or through Skype. Training manuals aren't usually provided in alternative formats these days; they're usually online. Since customers would need an internet connection to access online manuals, they might just be interested in being trained online by our staff.

Q. How has Frontier Computing's profile changed over the years?

A. Frontier Computing has grown a great deal over the years. We carry a large range of products and we're always looking for ways to augment our current lines. Over the last couple of years, we've started selling small blindness-related products for independent living, and this accounts for a good portion of our sales.

Today, programs for persons with learning disabilities, with or without a vision impairment, account for 50% of our business.

At the beginning, when Frontier Computing was established in 1986, we had four employees, but we grew a lot through the 1990s and 2000s. Two years ago, we had 14 employees, but we now have 12, due to the economic downturn.

We're very fortunate to have the level of support we have from the local blind community. We're only too glad to give back by sponsoring events, exhibiting products at conferences, volunteering our time etc.

Technology has taken huge leaps in regard to people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted but, unfortunately, it has not particularly increased our rate of employment. Employers' attitudes are the key there. I still enjoy working in this field and find it rewarding because I see how technology makes such a difference in people's lives--in education, some aspects of employment, recreation, and simple daily activities.