Category Archives: technology
One thing that has helped me quite a bit as a blogger, writer, grad student and person with chronic pain subject to flare-ups has been speech-to-text software. The basic idea is fairly self-evident: You install the software, plug in the headset that comes with it, open up the word processing program of your choice, and start talking.
Repetitive motion is one of those things that can be the bane of one’s existence if that person happens to have chronic pain issues; while there are people who might say, Oh, typing at a computer can’t be that painful or Just work through the pain or some other ridiculous piece of “advice,” typing can, at times, be enormously painful or draining for some folks with pain issues. No matter how much one may want to complete a piece, post or assignment, sometimes it just will not happen due to pain. When it feels like your hands are encased in cement blocks, there is no “working through the pain.” Having your hands and wrists feel like they have been set on fire by pain when you are on a deadline — like a lot of circumstances surrounding pain flares — can be excruciating. It’s kind of like having your hands and wrists feel like the Human Torch, but without any of the cool superpowers.
With speech-to-text, the additional pain brought on by repetitive typing is significantly reduced, as it takes at least some of the typing (but not editing, as I will address below) out of the equation. There are some additional issues to consider, however: one is “fibro fog,” the name given to some of the cognitive effects of a fibromyalgia flare, which can, for the person experiencing the flare, make it difficult to put thoughts, words and sentences together with anything resembling coherency. This is more of a condition issue than one that has to do with typing, but it’s fairly obvious as to how fibro-fog could impact the use of text-to-speech: if your thoughts are jumbled because of pain and fatigue, it’s likely that they will be just as jumbled regardless of whether you are typing or speaking into a text-to-speech headset. I’m fairly lucky with fibro-fog myself, as it tends to be rather mild unless I am experiencing a pain flare that feels closer to acute pain than chronic, but typing is one of those processes that can seem bizarrely confusing during a massive pain flare-up (and the whole “simple things as confusing” side effect is damn near impossible to truly understand unless you’ve been through it).
Of course, there are some aspects of text-to-speech software that are less than perfect: similar to the iPhone’s auto-correct feature (some of the amazing slip-ups of which have been documented by websites such as Damn You Autocorrect), speech-to-text software can “read” one spoken word or phrase as something else entirely, sometimes producing hilarious (or irritating) fragments that often make no sense within the context of what you are actually writing. My personal favorite thus far has been my speech-to-text program “translating” Judith Butler as Judas butt lark, which made me wonder if I need to work on my pronunciation skills if only for the convenience of my software program.
There is also the cost issue: many speech-to-text software programs are expensive. In a utopia, everyone who could benefit from text-to-speech programs would have a reliable and fairly-priced one ready for use. I’m one of those weirdos who thinks that accessible technology should not be something available only to those who can afford to pay for it, but that, unfortunately, is most likely a long time coming.
At the risk of understatement, exciting things are happening when it comes to robotics and artificial intelligence and the potential applicability of these fields in the lives of PWDs.
[Description: A small, bright yellow robot with two eyes and a black nose stands in front of a white background. Outlined in orange and bright blue, the robot leans slightly to the left while it sits atop a small black pedestal] Image courtesy of this page on the CMU website.
The little ‘bot pictured above is Keepon, developed by Hideki Kozima and Marek Michalowski at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keepon’s purpose is to interact with children with emotional, neurological or sensory processing disorders, and who otherwise may have difficulty interacting with other children, relatives, or caregivers. However, Keepon has become something of an internet sensation in recent years, most notably when a 2007 video of the robot dancing to Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” became extremely popular on YouTube, and inspired a Wired Magazine-backed promo video for Spoon featuring Keepon. As this 2008 excerpt (accessibility warning: video is not close-captioned) from Discovery Channel’s show “The Works” demonstrates, there is quite a bit of potential for Keepon’s original purpose; it may be cute (and a great dancer), but the potential for this sort of technology to help children with disabilities is worth further exploration.
A New York Times article from this past July, written by Amy Harmon, discussed another A.I. creature, Paro, which is made to resemble a seal cub. Paro was first developed by Takanori Shibata, a researcher working at Japan’s national science institute AIST. The NYT article describes Paro thusly:
Paro is a robot modeled after a baby harp seal. It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently.
The whole article is worth a read, as it covers the success that some senior residential communities in the U.S. have had with using Paro as an assistive device — sort of akin to animal therapy without an actual animal (which might cause problems for, say, residents with allergy issues) — for some residents. There is also a video at the NYT’s website (unfortunately, sans transcript) that shows Paro in action. The article also discusses at length some of the benefits of this sort of technology, as well as some of its limitations.
Of course, Keepon and Paro are only two examples of the amazing possibilities of artificial intelligence, and it remains to be seen as to whether this technology — which, like many new technologies, currently comes with a rather hefty price tag — can be made more accessible to people or organizations that cannot afford to pay $6,000 U.S. for a Paro. Hopefully, these A.I. breakthroughs will not be as pricey in the future, and will be made accessible to a wider variety of people — including PWDs.
When writing in my own space, I tend to make a lot of jokes about how much I enjoy doing “history in the future!”, by which I mean a lot of primary sources are on-line. Last year, for example, I randomly put the name of one of the people I was writing about into Google, and out popped a bunch of articles he’d written about his theories on Deaf people in the 1860s, which drastically changed my thesis.
For those of us who like to highlight disability related history, the internet can be a huge boon. Whereas as little as five years ago, reading Susan Burch’s description of the Hotchkiss videos for the National Association of the Deaf would have been my only way of learning about them, various video-sharing websites (especially YouTube) allow for us to see these videos, and get a better idea of their impact and importance, for ourselves.
Transcript, as provided by pdurr on YouTube:
Description: John Hotchkiss is an older white man wearing a suit and signing for the camera.
Excerpt of Hotchkiss discussing memories of old hartford from the NAD Motion Picture Project
translation of excerpt by P. Durr – NOTE translation’s accuracy is not confirmed.
“Another time Clerc called a boy who had passed by his house asking, “Please tell (name sign of bent L handshape going downward from top of lips to bottom of chin indicating a beard) S-T-E-W-A-R-D to please have wood delivered to me.” “My pleasure,” the boy replied and went on his way. But this boy completely forgot about this message as his mind was set on playing. Thus, it totally slipped his mind to inform Steward (name sign) of Clerc’s message of his need for wood and Clerc never received any.
A few days passed and again Clerc approached this boy, tapping him with his walking stick and holding him by the shoulders. “I told YOU to PLEASE tell Steward to bring me wood and you said, ‘Ah huh, Yes, Yes, Yes’ but instead you went off and completely forgot. Darn you for forgetting.” and he went off in a huff. As days went by, Clerc would continue to bump into this boy and would always say “Darn, you’re the boy who forgot” (hand at mouth) and stomp off.
The boy was embarrassed and became weary of Clerc’s insults so he decided to go to him and asking his forgiveness for having forgotten to deliver the message to which Clerc let out a joyful laugh and said “alright, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, be on your way.” And with that they departed.
Context, of course, is important. Hotchkiss is telling a story about Laurent Clerc, who is considered the father of the US Deaf Community – for certain definitions of Community, which I will get to in a moment. Dr. John Hotchkiss himself is a very important member of the Deaf community, having been part of the first generation of Deaf students to attend Gallaudet University. Once he graduated he took up teaching, and was a passionate advocate for the continued used of Sign Language in teaching Deaf children.
In the 1910s, the National Association of the Deaf began making several films of Sign Language masters such as Hotchins, and they toured the country. While they were mostly seen by Deaf students, there were hearing students who also saw these ‘silent’ films, exposing them to “the beautiful language” as well.
These films were created as a means of combating the oralist movement (requiring Deaf people to learn to lip read and articulate verbally, a movement that also attempted to ban Sign Language in schools), as well as recording the history of US Deaf people. Looking at the present, the increasingly easy access to video technology is leading to a similar growth in easily accessible videos by and for Deaf people, many of them on YouTube.
What is not obvious from this one video but would be if you went seeking out the rest of the National Association of the Deaf videos from roughly this time period is that “the beautiful language” that they’re preserving is pretty much the beautiful language of white men with the means to attend Gallaudet University. Gallaudet accepted one class of women pupils, and then refused to accept any more for over a decade. Even afterwards, women pupils were discouraged from attending, because they risked “stealing” jobs from more-deserving men. As well, there was a great divide between white and non-white/people of colour in terms of Deaf education. There was a segregated Deaf school system in parts of the US, and Black Deaf schools developed their own form of Sign Language. You can read a bit more about this at the Black ASL Project. Historians like Susan Burch make it very clear that there was no attempt by white Deaf leaders to support Black Deaf people, and only limited support in the non-segregated school system of the North and Western US.
I like to highlight some things in disability history because I find it frustrating that, if you want to learn about the history of disability in a non-specialized context, you’re probably only going to learn the tragedies. I’ve taken classes that have talked about forced sterilization and the eugenics movement, both in North America and abroad, but never had a class that dealt with the foundation of the Deaf press, say, or the National Fraternal Order of the Deaf – even in classes that were about Fraternal Orders in the US. I’ve taken classes that have focused on the resistance of marginalized people, but somehow fail to mention decades of resistance by people with disabilities, and often fail to mention even the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We have a history that is more than tragedy, that is more than the last 20 years of fighting. It is not all brave plucky fighters, and it is certainly not all wonderful people who had no prejudices and only celebrated good things. People with disabilities are people, and I think talking a great deal more about this history is part of the way we fight against stereotypes and the boxes people put us in.
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I read recently in an issue of Family Circle Magazine (DON’T JUDGE ME!) (There was a fried chicken recipe I wanted to try out!) that “Japanese research” (could they be any more vague and list any fewer resources?) indicates that using a Wii Fit burns just as many calories as doing moderate exercise. There was no resource listed, nothing. Just a blurb stating that there was some research going on in Japan telling us that the Wii Fit was good for us. I have read on random gaming and parenting boards that there is hubbub about the Wii Fit that it is exercise vs. still being “just a video game”…
Now, I don’t really care about calories as much (or at all) as I do having access to some kind of exercise or movement that I can do without having to leave my house and trek all the way up to the base, or pay for a pricey gym membership, or exhaust my silverware drawer trying to get there, or trying to get through a class of exercise that is of a safe level for my body. Sometimes I need to move. I’ve found our Wii Fit to be small chunks of movement that I can handle when I am ready for some, and unlike a yoga class, something I can stop quickly when I am out of resources. I could go on…but you get the idea. I still prefer a good swim when I have a good day, but we all know that our bodies do not always give us what we want…
Having a Wii Fit in my house has been something useful for me, and I acknowledge that there is quite a bit of privilege there as well. There are disabilities that don’t make the amount of movement required for the Wii Fit accessible at all. It isn’t affordable for everyone (and we had the console already when the balance board was released, but the board is not required for all the games), and the games aren’t released in all countries. Even on a good day I can not always use the board safely, and sometimes my old issues with eating disorders can’t handle some of the game details that include measuring your weight and abilities to balance…
But the Wii Fit has made exercise, and moderate amounts of movement, available to some people for whom it wouldn’t otherwise have been available and accessible.
What are your thoughts, gentle readers? Have any of you used the Wii Fit and been pleased with it, as I have? What are your major complaints with the idea that it is an accessible form of exercise/movement? Love it? Hate it?
Photo Credit: Keith Williamson