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Connecting People with the Right Technology Has a Positive Impact On Their Lives, and Mine

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 Extreme Makeover: Home Edition 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.
  • iCommunicator, 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 family.

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 TECHConnection, 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 use computers.

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[image: Portrait of Joanne Castellano]

Joanne Castellano
Director of TECHConnection

Castellano helped ABC Find the right AT for the Llanes Family, featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

"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."

"Technology is always improving—becoming easier to use, creating new opportunities, and enabling people to do more."


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