Assistive tech helping people with special needs gain independence

Assistive tech helping people with special needs gain independence
David Woodbridge (left), Access Technology leader at Vision Australia, conducting a workshop on assistive technologies, on April 6, 2017. Photo: Robin Choo
Published: 10:40 PM, April 16, 2017
Updated: 12:20 PM, April 17, 2017

SINGAPORE — Having lost his sight about 10 years ago because of a retinal detachment, Mr Zahier Samad, 30, often had to rely on his family or “the kindness of the public”.

With the help of technology, however, he can now message his loved ones, use a smartphone app to pinpoint when the next bus is coming, and access his emails or surf the Web via a screen-reader software — restoring his sense of independence, which he values fiercely.

Mr Zahier, a waiter at Nox - Dine in the Dark, was among a group of some 20 participants in a recent workshop at the Enabling Village on assistive technology, organised jointly by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Apple.

As part of its push for a digitally inclusive society, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim announced last week that the IMDA will work with tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft to train a pool of people with special needs to be Assistive Technology Ambassadors, to widen the use of such technology.

Rather than fork out for expensive, specialised technology, people with disabilities should be able to enjoy mainstream devices like everybody else, said Mr David Woodbridge, who is blind. The senior adaptive technology consultant at Vision Australia, the leading provider of blindness and low-vision services in Australia, had led the workshop and shared his experience with assistive tech features across the suite of Apple products.

Rather than depend on “eight to 10 different devices” to help him with his daily chores, the 53-year-old can rely on his iPhone to live independently.

He has his appointments read out, controls his air-conditioning through Siri, gets his daily fix of caffeine from a Bluetooth-enabled coffee machine, has his Apple watch tell him the time through a series of taps, and navigates the X-box using built-in speech output.

As a social worker in the 1980s, Mr Woodbridge was told that he could not get access to a database because he was blind, so he became determined to find a way to access it on his own.

“From that point on, I wanted to be part of the other side of the system that gave people appropriate information about things they could do, rather than couldn’t do,” he told TODAY.

He has since devoted himself to being “the best expert” he can be, working with tech giants to evaluate technology and equipment, for instance from Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung, for use by people who are blind or vision-impaired.

He also consults with developers on how they can make their apps more accessible for the low-vision and vision-impaired community.

The passionate advocate shares tips, tricks and tutorials on his podcast iSee, through the iTunes store and the AppleVis website, a community-powered website for blind and low-vision users of Apple products.

The topics include how to find and watch audio-described movies, how to play a blind cricket game and how to change the straps of an Apple Watch.

In calling for more awareness of the potential of assistive technology and for information to be shared better among people with disabilities, he urged people not to think of it as “scary technology”.

He noted that people can now buy it off the shelf and trawl for information online, and said: “If you don’t give it a go, then you’ll never know you can do a lot (with it).”

While Mr Zahier was initially “sceptical” about the workshop, he said he picked up useful tips and features he was not aware of previously.

“I was inspired by it, and I love to be an advocate of assistive technology and help people like myself lead a better life,” he said.

The IMDA said it hopes to reach out to about 160 persons with visual, hearing, physical or intellectual disabilities at more of such IT and assistive technology workshops, which will be conducted with Apple and Microsoft this year on a quarterly basis.