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Mon, Apr 19, 2010 - Page 10 News List

IPad attracts interest as device for the disabled


Most people view the iPad as a slick multi-media entertainment platform, but Gregg Vanderheiden, a university professor, sees other potential uses for Apple’s new touchscreen device.

“Say you have somebody who’s had a stroke, for example, and they wake up and they can’t communicate,” said Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“Instead of buying a US$5,000 communications aid, you take out your iPad and download an app and — bam! — they can communicate,” he said.

The Trace Center helps people who are unable to speak and have disabilities to communicate and Vanderheiden is one of a number of researchers and others excited about the iPad as a relatively low-cost communications tool.

“There’s a lot of interest in the iPad,” said Karen Sheehan, the executive director of the Alliance for Technology Access, a California-based group that seeks to expand the use of technology by children and adults with disabilities.

Stroke victims, people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy or ALS, a paralyzing nerve disease, and children or adults with autism are seen as just some of those who could potentially benefit from the iPad.

“Anyone who’s non-verbal and needs a device to speak for them,” Sheehan said. “People with Alzheimer’s who do better with graphic-based communication boards instead of trying to search for a word.”

“People with traumatic brain injury, soldiers coming back from Iraq or people who’ve been in automobile accidents,” she said.

Sheehan said “there are a lot of powerful communications devices out there, some very good companies, but they tend to run into the thousands of dollars, which can be prohibitive for a lot of people.”

“You can take the iPad and turn it into a communications device very inexpensively,” she said.

The cheapest iPad costs US$499 and the most expensive US$829.

A company called AssistiveWare has already adapted for the iPad a communications application called “Proloquo2Go” it designed for the iPhone and the iPod Touch and is offering it for US$189.99 in Apple’s App Store.

“Prologuo2Go” allows people who have difficulty speaking to communicate using symbols to represent phrases or by typing in what they want to say and having it converted by text-to-speech technology into a natural sounding voice.

Sheehan said the iPad’s large touchscreen makes it potentially more useful to a wider range of people than the iPhone or the iPod Touch.

“They’re such a small area and for someone who has limited fine motor it’s hard to hit small icons,” she said. “It’s easier on the iPad to just click on an icon to say ‘I want juice,’ or ‘I want to watch a movie.’”

Joanne Castellano, the director of New Jersey-based TechConnection, which provides “assistive technology” solutions to people with disabilities, said the “avid Mac users” in her office are “chomping at the bit” for an iPad.

“They keep asking me ‘When are we getting one?’” she said.

“I’m sure we’ll get one,” Castellano said. “It seems like it would be something very useful to the community that we serve.”

“For anybody who has a reading challenge it’s useful because it has a nice feature where it reads books out to you,” she said.

Castellano agreed that the touchscreen controls are part of the attraction of the device, but said some of the gestures could prove challenging to some.

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