Way Cool Text Pager, Dude!

Like all kids, students with disabilities want to fit in. So smart companies are marketing assistive products with peer acceptance in mind

By Suzanne Robitaille

Prodded by Michael's physical therapist, his parents bought him a three-wheeled recumbent wheelchair with large and colorful wheels, different gears, a flag strapped on the back, and the ability to go up and down hills just as fast as a regular bike. Soon, all the kids at school wanted to try it out, and Michael became a very cool dude to hang out with.

Michael's story will become more common as parents and professionals realize that when it comes to adapting assistive technology to the classroom, peer acceptance matters -- a lot.


  Some students with disabilities reject assistive technology out of fear of being seen as different or "uncool," even when the benefits are clear. Fact is, kids with disabilities want what all teens want -- to fit in. "It's human nature, particularly for children, to eschew products that make them stand out from the others," says Ellen Mosner, director of product development for the accessibility group at Microsoft. "You can never underestimate the coolness factor."

Dan Comden, the technical coordinator for the DO-IT Scholars, a national program for gifted students with disabilities, says the most common resistance he has observed is in the use of communication devices. Many students with disabilities don't like the equipment because the synthesized voice isn't their own, he says. Others don't like the extra attention focused on them when they use it.

But how about this: What if the synthesized voice that reads Web pages sounds like say, Britney Spears? Might blind kids feel more socially included when their peers crowd around to listen?


  Just as the telephone, cell phone, laptop computer, and PDA are socially accepted communication devices, so, too, can specialized assistive technology become fully accepted in social settings. How the device looks and feels can be a major consideration for people, especially kids, says Dr. Thomas King, a professor of communication disorders at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and author of Assistive Technology: Essential Human Factors.

The technology we use tells others and ourselves about who we are, how we think and act, and what's important to us, he says. Moreover, the design of the tool and the materials from which it is made can convey impressions about the device or the user in terms of viability, strength, and durability. "The best, most complex products are destined for failure if human factors are ignored in design and intervention," he adds.

Gradually, manufacturers of assistive technology are catching on. Some are rolling out products that combine accessibility with style. That helps destigmatize disabilities, making kids more receptive and willing to stick with hip, assistive technology.


  Take Motorola's new Talkabout T900. Motorola took the concept of text pagers, which were originally designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and rolled out the sleeker "two-way personal interactive communicator" in colors such as "raspberry ice" and "mystic blue." Television ads show teens exchanging party invitations, jokes, and gossip over instant e-mail and text messaging. Suddenly, it's neat to have a text pager -- even if you don't have a hearing impairment. For people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, this is a big plus.

Nokia Mobile makes the Inductive Loopset for profoundly to severely hearing-impaired users with t-coil-equipped hearing aids. The t-coil drowns out feedback and surrounding sounds so the user only hears the other person's voice on the telephone. Nokia designed the coil to resemble the headsets that many hearing people use for hands-free conversation when they're driving. The difference between the two is barely noticeable.

Assistive tech vendors make similar coils but can't offer the piece de resistance: an ultrachic Nokia phone in five interchangeable colors. Never before have the hearing-impaired been able to use the same trendy devices designed for hearing users.


  Microsoft holds focus-group sessions around the world, talking to kids, parents, and teachers, and incorporates their suggestions into its designs. The company then audits homes and schools to see how users are interacting with computers and software. Last year, Microsoft flew eight teenage members from HiP kids, a national magazine for deaf youth, to San Francisco to try out a closed-captioned simulation of Encarta Encyclopedia. Its latest version is loaded with accessibility features such as narrator, sound sentry, and on-screen keyboard that synchronizes with the Windows operating system.

It's far easier for kids with disabilities to incorporate Encarta into their daily activities than use an individually tailored program that none of their classmates have seen before. Encarta may not be cool -- heck, it's used for schoolwork -- but it does help integrate students with disabilities into mainstream education.

Then there's Lernout & Hauspie, which took speech-recognition to the corporate world for PC users who dislike typing. L&H also has an educational division and makes the Kurzweil 3000, a program that reads scanned or electronic text aloud to the blind or those with reading difficulties.


  Some kids with reading difficulties are extremely reluctant to tell their friends they have a problem, says David Bradburn, product management director at L&H Kurzweil. "I have learned of schools where the teenagers send their parents in to collect the scanned material to ensure they are not seen by their peers."

Working with developers who are in touch with the market, L&H made the speech more real-sounding (remember Britney Spears?), with different pitches and the ability to switch between male and female voices. Their efforts helped humanize the software, making kids more receptive to the program. And Kurzweil 3000 is not an attention-getter, Bradburn says. It's used with earphones in a school or library setting, so most people assume the students are using a multimedia program. Some schools have adopted the software for all students, even those without learning disabilities, he adds.

Seamless, cost-effective accessibility can be good for teens and good for business profits, but make no mistake: Federal law and regulations play a role, too. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public school districts to provide assistive technology devices and services to students, as determined by their teachers.

Washington has set aside $7 billion in fiscal 2001 and $9 billion for fiscal 2002 to help fund states' assistive technology purchases. And because industry fears a backlash from disability groups that could make them the target of lawsuits and more regulation, it's complying to the hilt.


  For someone with a speech impairment or hearing loss, assistive technology can make the difference between being able to participate in classroom discussions or sitting on the sidelines. The Education Dept. says 11% of the national student population from ages 6 to 17 falls under IDEA. Of those children, 96% go to regular public and private schools along with nondisabled peers.

Visual aids, mouse trackers, and listening devices are so important to the daily lives of disabled students that to lose users over issues of style and design is a shame. If children with disabilities are to grow up and become productive workers, they must be comfortable with the products that help put them on an equal footing with other workers.

With the resources necessary to market and study kids' desires, big tech companies have a selling advantage over more specialized vendors. They've already wired classrooms with just about everything except videogame star Lara Croft. Now, with adapted versions of pagers, software, and voice-recognition programs, they can help kids learn, as well as feel more accepted by their classmates. And that's a win-win situation for everybody.

Robitaille is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online

John Williams will return to Assistive Technology next week

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht