Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt.3: Possibilities

Over the past couple of posts, I have discussed how people with cognitive/developmental disabilities have had trouble entering into the digital world. I have talked about the dangers of leaving them behind and how mobile/app based technologies in their present form could help them overcome the barriers in entering this world. But what about the future?

Let’s say, hypothetically, we were able to get tablet computers into the hands of this population and teach them how to interact with the technology. They would be able to use the applications that are available to everyone to keep pace with the new world.

“But dude, wouldn’t it also be possible to create applications specifically for these people that would help them overcome obstacles in their everyday lives that have been standing in their way for years? You know, not just help them keep up with the status quo, but make their lives even better than they were before?”

You’re damn right we can.

Much the same way mobile technology allows most of us to use less of our brain power on the mundane mechanics of our lives, this technology could help to assist the cognitively impaired to keep track of the daily necessities that would otherwise require outside help. And much in the same way that these technologies are being utilized and developed to help teach children in schools, they could also be used to help teach the cognitively impaired to be more efficient in the mechanics of their lives.

Take for example Taskaid. This application allows one to create a todo list attached to a notification alarm that is set off by either location or time. So if you need to remember to pick up bread, you put it in your todo list and set it to go off the next time you go to the store. Through use of the GPS tracker in most phones and tablets, the app knows when you are at the store and it sets off the alarm.

In its present form, this technology could do wonders for helping the cognitively impaired keep track of their daily necessities, allowing them a greater degree of independence from professional caregivers. However, with a bit of development, it could be taken a step further.

If combined with tutorial apps, the educational value of location reminders could be huge. For example, let’s say Tom goes down stairs in the morning and goes into the kitchen. Instead of simply having an alarm sound to remind Tom to eat breakfast, what if his app could remind him to eat breakfast, list all of the different types of food that make a healthy breakfast, and instructed Tom on how to prepare these healthy breakfast items by himself? Now Tom is eating a full and healthy breakfast every morning without needing assistance.

What if we applied these type of apps to a professional situation? How many more jobs would the cognitively impaired be able to do if this technology were able to help keep them from forgetting important aspects of a job and could offer quick and easy reminders or instructions if they become confused by or forget how to complete a task?

The professional possibilities grow even more when you consider how many jobs now include the use of mobile technologies. Many restaurants now have their hosts use iPads to conduct their business. The iPads are used for keeping track of seating, wait times, and phone numbers for giving callbacks to people when their tables are ready. Many department stores have their stock boys and girls use tablets to keep track of inventory. If the tool required to do a job is the same one that offers professional assistance to the impaired in helping them be able to do the job, then with a little work, the job training and maintaining could be paired with the actual functions of the job seamlessly.

These advances could greatly increase the amount of financial independence of this population. However, money management is often a big problem for people with cognitive disabilities. Budgeting can be difficult for them. Apps such as Google Wallet are being developed by several different companies, which allow payments to be made directly through mobile devices. Simply swipe your phone past a sensor in the store and it takes money out of an account just like a debit card would.

If advances were made in the field of parental style controls over the accounts attached to the app, budgeting could be made much simpler. Imagine what it would be like if you could set your credit card to only allow you to buy $10 a month in candy. Or $20 a month in fast food. Or $30 a month on Amazon. Or if you could program your account to know how much money it has to maintain for you to pay your bills at the end of the month. And once you reach your limit, the account declines any charges you try to make. It would be a heck of a lot easier to monitor your spending without thinking about it. Create a budget once, program it in, and then curse at yourself violently when you realize you can’t buy a Snickers bar because you used up your candy budget for the month in the first two days.

By using technology such as this, many people with cognitive disabilities would be able to gain independence from their guardians and/or caregivers who at present have to maintain a high level of control over their finances.

An even greater amount of independence could be achieved if mobile technologies were utilized for medical purposes. Already, things like the Nike Fuel Band exist that monitor number of steps, heart rate, and calories burned and then through syncing with a phone, transmit the data to an online server. If products became commercially available that could monitor blood pressure, insulin levels, and an array of other medical information, and then automatically through a synced phone, notify an ambulance, emergency contact, and PCP the minute something was wrong, the need for this population to be physically monitored around the clock would drop substantially.

Besides simply improving on the independence of the individuals, putting mobile technologies into the hands of the mentally disabled could benefit society as a whole by allowing them access to people around the world who could help to inspire them, and be inspired by them. A large percent of people with cognitive disabilities find themselves stuck in a microcosm of other people with similar disabilities and the people providing them with care. On a day-to-day basis, this might not be an issue. But pretend you lived in a group home with 8 other people and whatever staff worked there and you realized that you love classical music. What are the chances that anyone else in that house is going to love classical music too? Or be able to help you develop that passion? The stats aren’t good.

But what if you could get yourself on Google Plus and converse with classical music lovers from all around the world? Share in discussions with people from France, use Hangouts to take music lessons from a volunteer teacher in Spain, or get help recording your own music from an audio tech in Germany. Now your love of classical music can flourish and you can share your own creativity with the world.

Picture how much the world could gain by bringing this population into the fold and encouraging them to use their own knowledge and creativity to add to global collective.

Here's the best part. I’m not even very smart and these are just the ideas I could come up with in a day. Image what could be done if real designers, programmers, and engineers, got together with social workers, educators, and personal care providers and put their imaginations to work. Think of the difference it could make for this population, society, and people as a whole. Mobile technologies are revolutionizing the world and with just the smallest amount of effort and support, they could change the lives of the mentally disabled forever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt. 2: Impact on the Future

During our discussion about how the iPad has helped her client Tom enter into the digital age, the woman telling me Tom’s story brought up the fact that in Maine kindergarteners are being given iPads that have been paid for with taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t understand it. If they can give them to little kids, why not my guys?”

My response was that, in theory, the iPads would help the children learn faster, more efficiently, and more independently. And since schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, getting things to work more efficiently means getting them to work more cost-effectively. So there is a theoretical benefit for society as a whole to getting these children iPads. The same can not be said for the mentally disabled.

However, this is not true. Not even a little. I knew that I was wrong the moment that I suggested it.

In truth, leaving this population behind and not assisting them into the digital age by supplying them with the hardware they need to do so is not only detrimental to their quality of life, but also to the society that pays to support them.

Like all people with handicaps that severely limit their ability to work and therefore support themselves independently, the mentally disabled are supported by taxpayer funded disability benefits. There is a direct correlation then, between the level of independence achieved in this population and how much assistance ($$$) they require from the government. Since it is now indisputable that we live in a digital world, the inability of a large number of people to interact with this digital world will heavily increase their need for living assistance.

One of the first places that this becomes apparent is in the professional sector. Many jobs previously filled by the mentally handicapped population are vanishing into the virtual domain. In the same way online retail is beginning to limit the number of physical retail locations with positions available to the mentally disabled, digital technology is helping to decrease the number of remedial positions the mentally disabled were once able to fill in all industries.Take for example the preparation of mailers. This consists of folding, collating, and packing things like newsletters for mass distribution. It was previously an excellent source of income for this population. The work was simple, abundant, and lent itself well to socialization since it could be done in an assembly line manner. However, due to the emergence of email, the need for this work is quickly disappearing.

By limiting the amount of paid work that this population can do, society limits the amount of independent funds they are able to procure for themselves. Increasing their dependence on social assistance.

And while their dependence on society increases, their opportunities to interact with society decrease. Since things like local newsletters are becoming digitized, their ability to find out about local news, events, and volunteer activities without use of the internet is disappearing. Without being able to interact with society, how will they be able to contribute to it? How will they be able to be a part of it?

This is exacerbated by the vanishing of physical media. Without things like CDs, DVDs, and covered books being produced, the only way for this population to keep current on social trends will be through use of the internet. Which requires a computer. A tool which, as previously discussed, can be difficult if not impossible for many of these people to use. There are even questions surrounding how much longer, or in what form, TV will be available to them. With television moving more and more into the realm of Hulu and Netflix style streaming, even this oasis may be lost. That is, unless we as a society invest time and money into equipping and acclimating this population with the hardware they need to be able to become “connected”.

Even something as basic as language could present future difficulties for a group of people if they are not “connected”. How often now do we hear people say “OMG” or “LOL” out loud? If this social trend continues to move away from complete, grammatically correct, adult sentences to what is essentially internet/texting originated baby talk, how will people who don’t use digital technologies be able to communicate? If one doesn’t use social media, how would they be able conceptually understand the idea of a meme or having something go viral? In this age of social media, the conceptual understanding of something going viral is integral to how we communicate. Living outside of this world could mean the inability to communicate meaningfully with those inside of it.

And this trend is only going to accelerate. Since these issues affect an entire population, demographic statistics are essential in developing ways to help them. And since most demographic statistics are now collected digitally, taxpayers will have to pay professionals to collect the data from this population manually. How much time and energy could be saved if we were able to collect demographic data on this population through their Google searches and online surveys just as we do every other population?

When working with the disabled, increasing independence is the name of the game. It improves the quality of life for the individual and lowers the financial burden on society. We are now at a crossroads. If we are able to get digital technology into the hands of the mentally disabled, we could increase their level of independence to a point that past generations could never have imagined. However, if we don’t do it, and do it fast, we run the risk of leaving them helpless and picking up the tab for our lack of action.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt 1: A Case Study in Awesomeness

Recently, I was told a story about a man named Tom (not his real name) who was given an iPad for Christmas this year. It was a story about how Tom was using his iPad to show Youtube videos to a friend at the dinner table. What makes this story interesting?

Tom is mentally retarded.

Due to this handicap, Tom has never been able to use the personal computing hardware necessary to access digital content such as Youtube. Tom’s condition makes using a classic PC or laptop difficult for him on both a cognitive and physical level. However, his iPad has allowed him to overcome many of the obstacles on both of these levels. And through the use of it, has improved his life in a number of ways.


It isn’t that Tom hasn’t used computers in the past. It is just that until now his history with them has been less than auspicious. In the past, whenever Tom has attempted to use a PC, he has become confused and aggravated quickly, and lost any interest he had in using it. The main problem for Tom was trying to conceptualize the process of how a windows based operating system worked.

Most of us understand this process well. We save files (i.e. jpegs, docs, PDFs) in folders. We then open those files with programs/applications that allow us to view the files (i.e. Microsoft Word lets you read and edit docs, iTunes lets you listen to MP3s). The folders containing the files can be stored in a number of places on the hard drive and the programs/applications are installed and saved in folders separate the folders that contain the files.

While this may seem simple to those who have been utilizing this technology for several years, the cognitive mapping that is involved in understanding and operating this digital structure is actually not that easy to develop. So whenever Tom wanted to look at some family photos in the past, he had to have one of the employees of his group home sit at the computer with him and open and browse all of the images for him because he was unable to do it for himself.

Touch based computers such as the iPad however, use a different setup. On the iPad, files live inside of the applications or apps. When an app is opened, all of the files are already there. So now, when Tom wants to see his collection of images, all he has to do is remember that the little picture of the sunflower marks the “Photos” app, touch it, and browse away.

While this operating system is much simpler for Tom to understand and use, there are still times in which the interface of individual applications become confusing and aggravating for him. One of the wonderful things Tom has realized about the iPad is that with a simple touch of the home button (easily identifiable as it is the only physical button on the front of the tablet) he is instantly returned to square one and is free to continue on with a different app. In the past, if Tom became irritated with a PC, he would simply give up and walk away. With his iPad however, Tom has developed the habit of moving on to something different whenever he begins to lose patience with what he is doing. This has allowed him to spend more time engaging with his iPad, which has in turn made him more comfortable using the iPad and decreasing the number of times he gets irritated with it.


Like many people with his condition, Tom also suffers from physical limitations that make using a PC difficult. The biggest barrier for Tom is his eyesight. Tom is legally blind and only retains about 30% of his vision.

While the quality of many newer computer monitors is quite good, few can match the quality and intensity of the iPad’s HD screen. And since it is a hand-held device, Tom can adjust how close it is to his eyes with an ease impossible to achieve with a desktop or even a laptop computer. Not to mention the fact that most monitors capable of matching the quality of an iPad cost almost as much money as an iPad themselves, without the rest of the computer components. And Tom is not a rich man.

Tom also suffers from limited dexterity and hand/eye coordination. This makes it very difficult for him to use the classic mouse/trackpad and keyboard combo. He has found that the touch screen interface is much easier and more natural for him to use. Being able to put his finger directly onto whatever he wants to access, he has been able to use the iPad to access digital information with speed and ease.

The wireless capabilities of the iPad has also come in handy for Tom. Due to his poor eyesight and motor functions, it is dangerous for Tom to be walking around an area with loose wires. It is also very difficult for him to plug-in cables attached to USB, Firewire, and headphone jacks. His Bluetooth headphones allow him to listen to music on his iPad and have done wonders compensating for his quickly degenerating hearing.

In addition it is also very important for Tom that his computing experience be portable. Due to his physical handicaps (and short attention span), Tom finds it difficult to sit in one place for too long. Being able to move around without having to disengage has allowed him to spend long periods of time with his iPad, increasing his level of comfort with it. It has also allowed him to share the things that he finds on the internet with his housemates who are bound by their wheelchairs. Since most computer desks are not very accessible or comfortable for people in the large electric wheelchairs that some of Tom’s housemates have, being able to hand them the iPad wherever they are in their chairs has given Tom the ability to share his experiences with others that have their own problems with classic PCs.


Armed with his iPad, Tom has been able to increase his quality of life in several meaningful ways. It has given him a greater degree of independence. Since Tom can not drive or take public transportation without supervision, small things like going to the post office to send letters or going to the DMV to update his photo ID have always been a time consuming and aggravating process. Now that he has personalized internet access and email, he is able to do these everyday tasks with ease from home. Saving him time, effort, and reliance on others.

It has also helped him to discover interests in new hobbies. In the past, Tom has never shown any interesting in cooking. However, because of a daily recipe app that he was able to get on his iPad, Tom has begun to spend a substantial amount of time in the kitchen. I’m told he still needs to be supervised while cooking (a restriction that my girlfriend has also placed on me), but he is improving. In this way he is finding things to make his day to day life happier while at the same time learning life skills.

The iPad has also helped him to expand his horizons with interests that he had previously. Since his ability to discover new music prior to getting his iPad was limited, Tom would listen to his one Miley Ray Cirus CD over and over again. Now, with Pandora, he has been able to discover a number of similar artist that he can enjoy. Which is something that I’m told not only betters Tom’s life, but the lives of all of the people that have to go on long car rides with him.

Tom, like many people with his condition, is a very disengaged and passive person who tends to make very little effort to change the environment around him. It was not uncommon in the past to find Tom spending most of his free time sitting on the couch watching TV. While one could argue that surfing Youtube isn’t much better, the fact that he is actively searching for content that he wants to view and then taking the time to share it with the people around him instead of simply tuning out and ignoring the world is very encouraging.

The thing that I find the most exciting about Tom’s story, is that the challenges that he faces in engaging with the digital world are not at all uncommon to adults with developmental disabilities. Many of the difficulties that Tom faces when trying to use personal computing technology to gain access to the digital world are the same difficulties that affect many of his peers. This makes it a logical assumption that his success with the iPad could be easily replicated.

Now, it is true that no two people are alike and that just because Tom has been so successful with mobile touch technology doesn’t mean that others will take to it with as much ease. However, the fact that he has has made so much progress, in such a short span of time, with such a readily available piece of equipment, in an almost entirely self motivated way is very encouraging. Me personally... I think Tom’s story is just plain excellent.