My first real knowledge of differently abled people using computers came about 35 years ago when I was in college. There was a recent graduate of the college who was seriously physically limited. He lived most of his life in an Iron Lung. he could not walk and his hand and arm strength was very limited. He did have an amazingly powerful mind though. We loved it when his mother rolled him into the computer lab on his travelling bed with attached respirator. Why? The man could look at a listing of your code and find problems no one else could. He had a problem using a keyboard though. Most keyboards back in the day would automatically repeat a letter if you help down the key too long. He could not move his hands fast enough. Eventually they found someone to make him a custom keyboard and he was able to work from home as a programmer. The right technology enabled him in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
More recently I learned about David Hayden and his note taker project. David is legally blind. This makes taking notes in math classes pretty difficult. He can scan the board using an assistive vision tool (monocular for example) but the time it takes to move from looking through a tool like that to putting his face close enough to a notebook to draw diagrams means he was missing a lot. It just didn’t work. David is a double major and his second major is computer science. (First is math) So he decided to turn to technology to help.
David combines a custom designed and build camera with a high quality zoom and a Tablet PC for note taking. The tablet’s split screen shows the board and the professor’s work on one panel and his notes on the second. He can control the camera from the Tablet PC while he takes his notes. The time from viewing the board to viewing his notes pretty much goes away. at least it is not worse than fully sighted students. Does it work? Well it looks like he will be going on for a PhD which I think is a positive note.
David winning the top prize for Tablet PC applications at this year’s Imagine Cup.
Want to read more about David?
Cameron Evans (Microsoft CTO for Education) put up a post on his blog about David Hayden and Note-Taker (Visually-Impaired Student Solves Accessibility Challenge, Becomes an Entrepreneur ).
The ASU Web site (David is a student at Arizona State University) also has a great article on David and this project – http://asunews.asu.edu/20100716_imaginecupnotetaker
For more general information about computer accessibility see the Microsoft Accessibility web site