There is a small but growing movement among people with disabilities, engineers, students, families, and others who cherish personal independence and freedom of choice to take access to Assistive Technology (AT) to its next stage.
This is an opportunity for all of us to gain control over the tools we need to support ourselves in truly customized ways. It is just beginning, but this movement to control how we design, create and use AT is something we all need to embrace within our local communities.
About the ATMakers Movement
How does this initiative propose to accomplish an effective collaboration?
ATMakers.org is an experiment in solving problems in Assistive Technology using the skills and tools of the Maker community. In short, we’ve seen tools in the Open-Source Hardware and Software community that can be incredibly useful for people with severe physical and cognitive challenges – we’d like to help introduce these communities to each other.
Founded by Bill Binko, co-founder and principal technologist at LessonPix.com, we hope to provide descriptions and instructions that allow a community of Makers (for example a high-school robotics club or regulars at a MakerSpace) to build customized technology solutions for Assistive Technology Professionals and individuals whose lives would be enriched by them.
AT Makers sees the solution to access as needing local collaboration between people with science and engineering backgrounds, AT professionals, and users of AT. The immediate outcomes are building relationships between existing stakeholders:
STEM clubs & Robotics Teams
Complete service projects with our step-by-step guides
Apply your skills where they’re needed today
AT Professionals & Users
Find Makers in your area who can help
Learn about new technology you need
Makers & Engineers
Bring your skills to bear on today’s AT problems
Help mentor the next generation of AT Engineers
The Guides that ATMakers have developed involved straightforward projects that can be used to create ongoing collaboration around more sophisticated projects at larger scale. These guides can be found at http://atmakers.org/category/guides/ and include such ideas as:
How to get your AT pieces printed when you don’t have a 3D printer
Making 3D printed Switches
3D printed Camera Mounts
IOS Switch Controls on a budget using Bluetooth keyboards
An end-to-end video of how to make the Cariboo Adaptation
Connecting an AT switch as a PC keyboard for under $20
We don’t have to wait until some large medical manufacturer or medical supply system decides that our AT needs will produce enough revenue to warrant design and production. ATMakers says that we can do much of what we need by working together using community skills and lived experience to actually begin to customize what we need at a reasonable cost.
We have to become more conversant with the latest production and manufacturing technologies, and we have to find the people with the skills to help us make this real. These people are already in our high schools and elsewhere in our communities and they are already interested in taking on challenging new projects that will actually be of use in our community.
Time to reach out, learn together, and build what we need!
Amazon’s second generation Dash Wand is out. What potential does it have to support personal independence for members of our community?
The Wand is an example of the use of a technology platform (Amazon’s Echo/Alexa) to reduce the friction in accessing products of all kinds. While the technology is not specifically aimed at people with disabilities, it is usable by people with disabilities. It requires that each PWD examine how to adjust the platform’s capabilities to any specific need for personal accommodation.
In this sense, it is the same challenge that we always have in interacting with this world not designed for our use. But as technology tries to make everything easier to use, some possibilities are also opened up for our community.
I have been using the Wand with my Amazon Echo for some weeks now, and I will try to review some of those possibilities. Frankly, though, only actual use by members of our community will illuminate the real range of those possibilities.
You can activate Alexa, ask questions, make phone calls, listen to your favorite music, run your Fire TV, change your home’s environmental conditions, and so on by voice. Since you can be anywhere in your house when you do any of these things, some mobility and fine motor characteristics become immaterial in controlling a remarkable part of daily life.
The sheer number of skills available for the Echo (15,000 right now) means that you can probably find some to use if you can actually locate them in that disordered app universe of potential. I haven’t been able to find overviews of disability-friendly skills, but there are some in there, especially for making community access easier. This is much the same situation in the use of ride-share systems, where you can reduce the pain points of using public transportation with judicious choices.
There is a portable version of Echo, called the Tap, that can use any wi-fi system and has Bluetooth connectivity. It originally required pushing a button to access, but now has a hands-free method. Take it on trips, use it at work, etc.
The Echo dot is a relatively inexpensive small version that can be placed in any room in your house, linked to your wi-fi, and can be used for all the typical Echo uses, plus things like a local intercom for talking to others in the house.
The Wand’s biggest potential use is in purchasing products that you will use over and over. You will need to be a Prime member to make the best use, and that is $99 a year, a significant cost. The primary reason for choosing this is the two-day free shipping benefit and the ability to choose items as you notice your need for them with periodic shipping of the accumulated items.
The Wand itself allows you to use speech directly to order items that you wish to purchase. Speech ordering seems to work best with those items you order regularly. The other thing that the Wand can do is scan a barcode and place the item in your shopping cart on Amazon. You don’t have to have Amazon open at the time. In either case, the items will not be purchased until you go on Amazon and tell them to process the order. So, you can order items as you think of them and then regularly process the purchase.
I have not yet tried to scan a barcode in a store using my phone’s wifi hotspot yet, though I intend to try that. It would be easier to pick from alternatives in a market and then order that item repeatedly once I got it through Prime.
Not every item you might want will be delivered in two days, only those available through Amazon Prime. This reality has gotten me to change my preferred items to those covered by Prime.
There is also a system for delivering items you would use a lot and regularly. I have avoided using this because I don’t quite get how it works yet. It is called Prime Pantry, and if you order 5 items that qualify as part of a Prime Pantry Box, you get free shipping. I think the idea is to have regular orders delivered to your home that would ordinarily be the sort of thing you would get every week from a supermarket.
There are also other tools for ordering items through Amazon, such as Dash Buttons for products you know you will be using regularly. The buttons are on your home page making it easy to reorder. You can also subscribe to items when your use is very predictable, such as supplements (60 pills, two a day, order every 30 days). They will warn you when they are going to process the subscription and it is easy to change your subscriptions and Dash Buttons. If you choose enough qualifying subscriptions, you get a 15% discount.
These services are very different from the way I have purchased such items throughout my 70 years, but I have become used to the new choices, and I am beginning to understand their usefulness.
These services (at least to the extent that you don’t have to pay for shipping) would allow regular purchases without having to travel to get them. With the barriers to using public transportation and the cost of owning and running a vehicle, such an approach to repeated purchases could be very attractive. Also, with many mobility impairments, preparation for travel and managing grocery bags while using a wheelchair (for example) are wasted time that could be used for other activities.
Thus, such systems can be viewed as steps in expanding convenience and reducing the amount of time that the real ongoing lack of accessibility in American society imposes on our community.
Over the next couple of years, more systems like Echo and apps like Alexa will become more mature. For example, Google Home is rapidly developing as a hands-free voice activated system focused on much the same universe as Amazon’s. There will be more.
It is important that our community understands the abilities of such systems, and share our experiences. It is also important that our community begins to expand those skills used by such systems so that they more readily match our needs, through the development of these skills and apps by members of our community.
In the meantime, decide what you want such a system to do before deciding which one you will use. While all such systems will become more capable over time, the one you choose needs to support your life now even if you expect it will mean more to you in the future. Cost is obviously an important factor in picking a system as well. Costs will likely drop overall. But once you choose a system, you’ll be stuck with it for a while.
To summarize: The two big areas of use of such systems are your personal living situation and those community services which you now use or would use if it was easier to do so. Investigate and research.
And don’t forget to google “voice activated home systems reviews” every once in awhile to see what’s new.
In my last post, I tried to make the case that now is the time to disrupt special education because it has become rigid, compliance-driven, bureaucratic, and politically corrupted. In other words, the mission of special education as it was originally envisioned when it began in the 1970’s has been gradually parasitized by the interests of other groups besides the students whose educational benefit was the point of the law. To transform Special Education, we will need to truly innovate in ways that are stable and sustainable.
Any whole-system changes, like charter schools, however individually successful or unsuccessful they might be, absorb many of their assumptions about how education must be delivered from the current system. These remains of the old system doom such efforts to the same slow decline toward which public education as a whole is currently drifting. We need to think about how education should happen much more from scratch.
So, how should we frame our strategy for transformation?
Not just inclusion, but full integration of “regular” and “special” education. There is no organizational quality justification for the segregation of special education from regular education other than outside economic, political, and stigma-related interests. Certainly, students aren’t better off educationally. If the goals of education are the inclusion of all in American society, and the universal respect for individual difference, the continuing segregation of special education is a slap in the face to these very American values.
Making student-directed planning (SDP) the core of transformation. I am a member of a statewide advisory group focused on improving the education of students who are deaf-blind. There are roughly 300+ students who meet the criteria for this special education eligibility set of characteristics in Michigan and many county and local special education systems have only one or a handful of such students. Often the districts are at a loss about how to approach supporting the educational benefit of these individually unique students. A Federal program (DB Central at Central Michigan University) provides TA and facilitation support to local districts trying to build high-quality supports for their students who are deaf-blind. Their experience is instructive.
School districts prefer DB Central’s person-centered planning approach to the much more typical mind-numbing compliance-driven IEPC model. The districts, student, and family come away from the PCP experience with a consensus on support, and relationships that allow meaningful adjustment of the plan instead of conflict. This could be the reality for everyone in school if student driven planning and supports implementation was the center of a collaborative effort.
Universal Assistive Technology (UAT), embedded in student and family control, maximizing educational coordination, and connecting individual and student groups to the larger community. UAT would be based on supporting the customized learning of each student for each educational outcome. The celebration of Neurodiversity would be a universal as well since the evolution of the use of AT by each student would reflect that student’s particular neuro-developmental pattern in reaching personally useful cognitive/emotional outcomes.
This dimension of the framework for strategic educational change also means that schools will stop treating AT as a luxury for students and accept that student control over the use of AT and related technologies is a premise of educational benefit, not an opportunity to engage in power struggles.
All students will live in adulthood as part of a world in which every aspect of their lives is conditioned on the availability, access, and usability of AT and other related technologies. That is, we all use technology as (AT) support for our cognition and mood, all day and every day of our lives. It is criminal to deprive students in special education systems of the same necessary access to supportive technology that is now the birthright of everyone else.
In the same way that Accountable Community Organizations expand the universe of health care by distributing collaboration throughout the entire community to produce mutually reinforcing outcomes, so education needs to dramatically expand the scope of the concept of “wrap-around” to include everyone in the community who can contribute to the education of all of its students, including those now segregated into the “separate-but-equal” model of current special education practice.
This collaborative model also helps break down the “manufacturing” of education that produces graduates like Kellogg’s produces boxes of cereal.
We have the promise of such an approach in the current assumption that students who aren’t labeled are expected to participate in community experiences including many not sponsored by or paid for through school districts. Why should the expectations be different for students with educational disabilities?
Memoranda Of Understanding (MOU’s) are common methods of coordination across organizations and resources that pursue different, but complementary, outcomes. Such a system of community networking and mutual respect would help eliminate the factory model of education and promote those values that have always been the best that education could offer.
Happy 4th of July! Celebrate by thinking about how to expand freedom and choice for yourself and your community through AT.
But, over the years, the large-scale vision of educational support customized to each individual student has become rigid and bureaucratic, creating a very complex and administratively expensive set of interacting “standards of care”, to use the medical phrase. This complex of standards is a direct result of the legal struggle that led first to the law itself and then to a long series of school district and court battles that continue today, largely focused on narrower and narrower education issues and often focused on jurisdictional or procedural disagreements (though occasionally big-picture values, like the recent US Supreme Court Decision break through).
I happened to be working in a different role in the early 70’s before the original national special education law was passed, and I participated tangentially in the discussion that parent groups, educators, and legislators were having about what vision the proposed national framework for special education should have. At that time there were two very different and, in some ways, opposing concepts of that vision:
One was what we would call a “wrap-around” model today, involving memoranda of understanding among all the local support systems, and collaborative models of planning, coordination, and implementation of an education plan for a specific student.
The other (the one we more or less have now) was to make the local or intermediate school district the final responsible party for all aspects of eligibility determination, testing, plan development, coordination, and implementation.
As I remember (it WAS over 40 years ago), the choice of the second alternative was based on analogy with the then recent civil rights legislative victories and the critical value of litigation in the development of effective civil rights enforcement and local change in law and practice.
Now, I would argue that the momentum of that original vision of special education is largely spent, and current change efforts will increasingly focus on less and less meaningful targets, applicable to fewer and fewer students, even if occasionally, the regressive decisions of individual districts allow for value based visionary court decisions.
I do believe there is a way to harken back somewhat to that original vision (I will go over that as part of my next post in July). But I also believe that we must begin to build a new vision of how special education might transform itself into something that would reflect the best of what we hoped for in that turbulent educational and disability rights ferment of the 70’s.
Next Post: Initial Exploration of the Potential for Transformation in Special Education