Connecting People with the Right Technology Has a Positive Impact On Their Lives,
REDMOND, Wash. — Sept. 1, 2006 — At
TECHConnection, we provide a place where people with disabilities,
their families, and colleagues can learn about assistive technology (AT) that can
help them use computers and access the Internet. One of the biggest hurdles we see
is that people don't know what kind of accessible technology is available and they
don't even know what to ask for.
Every day we connect people at our center with AT products
they didn't even realize existed. We start by discovering the computer tasks an
individual has trouble performing, and then match them with the various AT programs
and devices that can help them overcome those difficulties. We also have a lending
library so they can experiment with AT products at home or school, because the best
way for people to know if something is going to work for them is to use it in real
situations. When we find a perfect match, we put the individuals or their families
in touch with the right vendors so they can purchase what they need. That's what
we're all about: give people information; let them try the technology; and they
become empowered. It's a wonderful feeling to connect people with the right technology
and to see what a positive impact it makes on their lives.
A few months ago, I had the unique opportunity to demonstrate the transforming power
of assistive technology very dramatically when TECHConnection was
asked to help the design team of ABC's television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
equip a family and their new home with an array of AT products.
Every member of the Llanes family of Bergenfield, New Jersey, has either a severe
disability or a debilitating illness. Vic, the father, is blind, and his wife is
battling cancer. Zeb, their 16-year-old son, is deaf, and his two sisters, ages
13 and 19, both have impaired vision due to the same degenerative condition that
caused their father's blindness.
We recommended the AT products the family needed, but the format of
created a special challenge. On the show, a family is chosen
to receive a new home, but it remains a surprise until the moment the program host
knocks on their door. Within hours, they are sent on vacation for a week, and a
construction crew starts building their new home. As a result I wasn't able to meet
with the family ahead of time to assess their needs as I usually would, but I relied
on my knowledge of AT, instincts, and other colleagues.
Not only did the Llanes receive six new Windows computers installed with AT, their
new home was also equipped with home security technology designed for individuals
who are deaf and blind, who each need completely different types of security and
fire alarm systems. The Llanes home has an alarm system that would flash to alert
Zeb in case of an emergency, and would sound loudly to alert the rest of the family.
Technology is always improving⁚becoming easier to use, creating new opportunities,
and enabling people to do more. Some of the other AT products I was able to recommend
for the Llanes included:
Color detectors to help the blind members of the family identify and coordinate
clothing by color. They simply hold the device up to a piece of clothing, and the
name of the color is spoken aloud.
Alarm clocks that go under a pillow and vibrate to awaken a sleeper, and doorbells
that flash as well as sound.
Global tracking systems for Vic and his daughters
to help them navigate city streets or store aisles without help.
which is featured on the show, is a graphical sign language translator that converts
speech to sign language in real time to enable people who are deaf to communicate
more easily with hearing people.
Screen readers for computers that convert the
text of Web sites or downloaded books, newspapers, and magazines to speech, enabling
people who are blind to "read" the text as easily as a sighted person.
When I spoke to the Llanes later, they were extremely grateful for the gift of their
new home and the assistive technology, but were still feeling a little overwhelmed
by all of the new adjustments. There is a lot to learn, but they are not alone.
TECHConnection will continue to provide support and be a resource for the
For me, the joy of this work is in helping people, and what keeps me going is that
there are still so many people to help. I have met many wonderful people during
my 16 years at TECHConnection. They face serious challenges, yet they have
a great attitude, a quest for knowledge, and love of life that is inspiring. Working
with them makes me a better person. As I am teaching them valuable skills, they
also teach me. That is the reward of this job.
Joanne Castellano is the director of
a program of Family Resource Associates, a nonprofit organization in Shrewsbury,
New Jersey, that assists people with disabilities and their families. TECHConnection provides technology training and assistance
for people with various difficulties and disabilities that affect computer use.
Joanne's essay is part of a series of articles that profiles some of the key Microsoft
employees, partners and associates who make it easier for people to see, hear, and