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Technology & Disability: An Interview with abledbody.com's Suzanne Robitaille


Technology & Disability: An Interview with abledbody.com's Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is founder of abledbody.com and author of the Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices

Updated November 09, 2013

The following interview with Suzanne Robitaille -- founder of abledbody.com and author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices -- was conducted via email November 12, 2012.

Q. What's Been the Most Significant Technological Development During the Last Decade for Persons Who are Deaf or Hard or Hearing?
There are so many! The oldest is probably the cochlear implant since it has been around for over 20 years, but has evolved significantly since the Food & Drug Administration approved the first one in 1984. The processor itself has gone from being a large unit that you clipped to your belt to ones that fit behind the ear. Recently two of the three major cochlear implant manufacturers have taken steps to develop a button-size device that won't be noticeable at all. Only around 200,000 people have received this technology to date, so there are a lot of deaf people out there who will benefit from having their hearing partially restored by technology, particularly older people who need more than just a hearing aid. The cochlear implant works by directly stimulating any functioning auditory nerve cells inside the cochlea with electrical impulses, bypassing the defective hair cells. It's a truly life-changing technology as it restores hearing to the point where deaf people can hear on the telephone, hear and understand conversation, and pick up ambient noises like raindrops or an airplane.

Another great development is the speed and prevalence of Wi-Fi as it has enabled technology innovations for the deaf such as mobile video relay services from companies like Purple Communications and Sorenson Communications as well as video conference calling such as Skype and FaceTime, which is Apple's version that's built-in free for the iPhone 4 and 5. This has been somewhat limited to Wi-Fi and not 3G, because video conferencing takes up a lot of data usage. There's an iPhone and Android app called Tango that enables 3G video calls but the quality isn't as good. AT&T actually just announced that deaf people on certain calling plans could use FaceTime on 3G for free. I also really like visual voicemail; this has been a tough nut to crack for the deaf community. Ideally we'd do all our communicating online or via text/chat, but the phone is still the 500 pound gorilla. Google Voice and apps like YouMail will transcribe your phone messages onto your mobile device in text format.

The last decade has given deaf and hard of hearing people better access to captioned and subtitled DVDs. The problem is that as technology gets more sophisticated, it has opened up new content opportunities that are not accessible, such as YouTube videos, Webisodes, and streaming media. Netflix has done a total turnaround in this space; they used to completely ignore deaf people's pleas for subtitles, particularly in their streaming services, but they were faced with a class-action lawsuit and they're now rushing to add subtitles to their library of movies by 2014. You can get Netflix on your iPhone too.

What Products, Mobile Devices, or Apps Would You Recommend Older Persons New toTechnology Should Check Out?
At the very least they should be able to set vibration patterns on their phones as a form of caller ID. The iPhone has an accessibility section for deaf and hard of hearing that includes the vibration alerts as well as flashing alerts when the phone rings. There are apps that will make the TV louder with the use of headphones, such as LouderTV, which is $1.99. There's an app called Tap Tap that will react to smoke alarms and a door knock for example ($2.99). There's an app called Dragon Dictation that's free, where a person can simply speak out loud into their mobile phone, and the text is translated. It's not perfect but it will get the job done.

For people who don't have or don't want an iPhone, there are some other technologies that will help them in day-to-day living. TV Ears is a wireless speaker that will make the TV easier to understand. Hearing loop systems are a great choice for hearing aid users in public spaces like places of worship or opera houses; if the venue is "looped" with electromagnetic technology, then you simply turn your hearing aid or cochlear implant to the built-in "T-coil" setting and it will amplify the sound of the person who is speaking (or singing). You can also loop your house. Or if the venue is not looped you can ask the speaker to wear an FM neck loop unit. You can also buy portable loop systems for around $300 from Harris Communications.

Is There One Assistive Device You Can't Live Without?
When my son was born last year I really relied on the visual and vibrating baby cry monitor. Because I don't hear anything when I remove my cochlear implant, which I do every evening when I go to bed, and my husband (who is hearing) sometimes travels for work, I needed a device that would alert me to his cries. I had the Graco Direct Connect Digital Baby Monitor that I put under my pillow. It wasn't as strong as I would have liked it to be, but it worked. I have the Sonic Boom vibrating alarm clock that shakes the bed; my husband won't let me use it because it scares the daylights out of him, but I take it with me when I travel for work. I use email and chat whenever I can, and still rely on a good, old-fashioned landline phone for the highest quality sound when I'm on a business call. I have an iPhone 4, and I use visual voicemail for it. Just being able to do things like make a dinner reservation via the OpenTable app, or order a pizza online, is a breakthrough for the deaf community. I am not a fan of the new iPhone Maps app because it tries to talk to me!

What Effect(s) Has the Evolution of Technology Had on Deaf Culture?
I think it has brought deaf and hearing people closer together, and allowed the deaf community to raise awareness for the things that are important to them, like American Sign Language. Marlee Matlin just came out with a free app called Marlee Signs that is just a basic everyday sign app for everyone to pick up a few words here and there. There are apps to teach baby sign language, too. And the Internet has shown there is a whole community of Deaf people doing great things, like dance, acting and athletics. You can go on YouTube and watch deaf people do ballet, or there's a very beautiful hand dance called the Thousand-Hand Guanyin that is performed by Chinese Deaf people. They performed at the closing ceremony in the Athens Paralympics. A lot of the Internet is becoming more accessible; YouTube is providing transcriptions, which aren't captions, rather it is speech recognition, and I predict this will get better. You can now watch TED videos with subtitles with a new app called TEDiSubtitle. It's really about equalizing the mobile and digital experience for deaf people. You know, recently American Girl came out with a doll with a hearing aid, and I did a story about it on abledbody.com, and so many people commented on how cool it was to have a doll with a hearing aid. At the same time there were a number of people who asked, "What's that-Bluetooth?" The convergence of communication is another piece; we can chat, text and Skype like anyone else but we're getting incredible benefits out of it, enabling us to work, live and play like never before.

What Programs and Resources Do You Recommend for People with Hearing Loss and Their Families?
Online, I'd recommend DeafRead, a network of blogs that discusses a variety of news and topics.

If you're interested in learning more about Cochlear Implants, you can start out at Cochlear Implant Online and you can call or write the manufacturers because they each have their own support groups that will help you make your decision.

For products, I recommend checking out Apple's Accessibility Page and Microsoft's Enable page for computer and mobile device accessibility updates.

For bigger picture accessibility issues I like IBM's Accessibility website, Yahoo!'s Y Accessibility blog -- the Blind Film Critic is hilarious --, BBC News Ouch and the Indiana Assistive Technology Blog, which is run by some smart folks at Easter Seals.

For advocacy I like the CaptionAction 2 newsletter and the Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC), which has a group and a newsletter.

There are two good organizations worth looking into: Hearing Loss Association of America, which has chapters around the country, and the Alexander Bell Association, which has a biannual conference.

What Enhancements to Existing Technology are You Most Optimistic About?
I'm looking forward to real-time speech to text that will transcribe live conversations, speeches and events without the use of a translator. I would like to see visual voicemail as a native app on mobile devices. Nobody likes to pick up their voice mail anymore, so this would help hearing people too. I'd like to see a proven effort among online content providers to make their movies and TV shows accessible. I think crowdsourcing this effort could work; people could volunteer to add or edit the captions; Netflix is actually looking to do this through Amara and there's a new service called CaptionMatch that tries to match needs with the availability of caption providers.

But it's really been a frustrating time for the deaf and hard of hearing community to get progress made; these aren't little independent TV producers; we're talking about conglomerates like Warner Bros. and CBS Corporation, which own the CW Network, and Crackle.com, which is owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. When you click on the FAQ about captioning on Crackle.com, it gives you the mailing address of their senior legal counsel in Hollywood. Companies are just so afraid of being sued, instead of just doing the right thing that would benefit all of their customers as well as enhance their SEO capabilities.

CaptionAction 2, which is run by the former About.com Deafness guide, Jamie Berke, is an advocate who is working to change the landscape. The Federal Communications Commission recently passed legislation called the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, but the FCC doesn't have control of anything that's online, only over the airwaves, meaning TV, or anything that has aired on TV before going online. It's going to take Justice Department level intervention, and it's starting to happen.

I'd like to see the U.S. move towards the U.K. in establishing guidelines for hearing loop systems in public spaces. I also think assistive technology will give way to more universal design, where a product or service has been designed from the ground up with the needs of the widest range of people in mind. Think about the drive-thru experience at your local fast food restaurant; there are so many things wrong with it. There is no audio version of the menu for people with low vision or dyslexia; the person who is deaf cannot hear the server; the person without full mobility has to reach out the window and grab the bags. We have to create better experiences for people of all abilities. The brands that do this will create lasting loyalty among their customers.

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