Tuesday, February 24, 2009

GPS: The Future Is Bright

Bright for the disabled, that is.

Right now, technology is like a speeding passenger train, and we're all along for the ride, like it or not. Mostly this is a good thing, and I think of all the booming technologies, GPS (Global Positioning System) promises to be especially useful to the disabled community.

Case in point... Google Latitude.

Google Latitude is a new application designed to run on a (growing) number of mobile devices, or on your home computer. In a nutshell, it allows one to track (with permission) the locations of others who also have the application installed on their own mobile device, like a cell phone, Blackberry, etc. See their blog site for a complete list of features and even a short video on how it all works.

So how exactly does a system like this assist the disabled? If you've ever had a son or daughter call you from a noisy location (such as a sporting event or a concert) and ask you for a ride home, you know how hard it can be to make sense out of what they're saying. Now multiply that frustration by ten if you happen to be deaf.

Enter Google Latitude. With a simple call, you get a sort of snapshot of where they are, superimposed over a map of the area, thanks to Google Maps. Then all it takes is a quick text of the address, and using Google Directions, you're on your way. The days of losing members of your group at theme parks may be coming to a close. (Relax kids, there's a "hide" feature if you don't want to be found. LOL)

And for the blind, this assistive technology seems to be even more promising.

Carlos Garcia of Human Network Labs has developed a prototype of a "situational awareness" device that would help blind parents keep tabs on their children. The device uses data-tracking technology (not GPS) and will require the parent and child to wear a communications device about the size of an iPod. This device would then speak (using synthetic voice technology) the location of the child, his or her distance from the parent, and explain how to reach the child at their current location. Using Google Latitude with the same speech capability instead, a person who is blind can achieve the same results if both they and their children are carrying mobile devices -- and what kid isn't these days?

Google Latitude will work on most color Blackberries, most Windows Mobile 5.0 devices, most Symbian S60 devices, and phones powered by Google's Android mobile software, such as the T-mobile G1. It will soon be calibrated to work on the iPhone and iPod Touch too. (The iPod Touch has built-in speech with VoiceOver.)

The bottom line. This is a seriously killer application with life-enhancing benefits for the blind and deaf, and could also prove quite useful for anyone with a disability which limits their ability to locate friends and loved ones while out in the so-called "real world." The trains are running, friends, and finally, they're running on time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Disability: The Adventure

Pushing the envelope of what we can and can not do.

As a disabled person, I am reminded almost daily about my in-built limitations -- what I can and can not do.

Some barriers are blatant... that seemingly insurmountable mountain of steps which pile upwards toward the doors of the courthouse are one example. Lady Justice may be blind, but she certainly doesn't ride in a wheelchair.

Then we have the barriers which are not quite as obvious. Deep pile shag carpet that seems custom made for bogging down the wheels of your power chair. Car doors which don't open quite far enough. "Child Safe" containers which require the use of two good hands, and the strength of Hercules to open. I'm sure we all have our own personal favorites to add to that list.

But then we come to a third set of barriers which I like to call "perceptual" barriers. These are barriers which we build up in our own mind, but in reality are not quite the barriers we perceive them to be. Let's try a little test.

Which of the following activities are impossible for someone who does not have the full use of both legs?

1. Downhill snow skiing.
2. Mountain climbing.
3. SCUBA diving.

If you answered "none" then you are absolutely right. Every day, scores of handicapped people enjoy these leisure sports, and more, due in some cases to the use of adaptive equipment, but in others due simply to the overwhelming desire to "see if it can be done."

While the Toledo area is not well known for downhill skiing or mountain climbing, we do have a wonderful resource right here if you've ever wanted to try your hand (or fins) at SCUBA diving.

Aqua Hut (located at 2543 N. Reynolds in Toledo) is, according to their website, "Toledo's only SSI (SCUBA Schools International) Platinum training facility" offering certified S.C.U.B.A. (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) training as well as a host of other programs and services of interest to Toledo area divers.

Of special interest to our local disabled community is their newly launched Discover Scuba program, which provides free training, support and the use of diving equipment to any qualified disabled person over the age of twelve (see website for additional details.)

Initiated locally by retired Toledo firefighter Greg Locher and Aqua Hut owner Jeff Davis, Discover SCUBA is a free diving program certified by the Handicapped SCUBA Association, and the instructors are trained to help people with a myriad of disabilities to become comfortable underwater. All you need is enthusiasm and a bathing suit. For more information on their next Discover SCUBA event call Aqua Hut at 419-531-4655 or Greg Locher at 419-882-5479.

So, the moral of this story is, you are probably not as limited as you think you are. Spring is coming to Toledo, and with it the opportunity to try new things. Learn to explore your "limits" -- learn to question your self-limiting beliefs. Is SCUBA diving not your thing? Then look into trying something else. By expanding your horizons, you expand your world. Isn't that what makes Life just a bit more worth living?

As for me, I just might have to try SCUBA diving. Sounds like fun!

P.S. Found This YouTube Video about the last event. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Crisis? What Crisis?

The Economy, The New Prez, and the Sinking Ship.

Those of you who remember the 70's as fondly as I do no doubt remember Supertramp's now classic album, "Crisis? What Crisis" -- if not for the incredible songs, then for the imaginative cover artwork.

For those of you unable to view the provided image, the cover shows a young man lounging in a beach chair, with small table nearby (complete with drinks) and a bright yellow umbrella which shields him from the view of pollution and utter desolation behind him. But enough music history. This isn't about music.

I've been watching the Senate this week as they bicker like small children over how to spend something like 800 billion dollars of taxpayer money that doesn't even exist yet. One side wants more tax cuts, the other side wants more public services and bailout relief. As usual, the division runs cleanly down partisan lines. And as Rome burns, the fiddler plays on. But enough politics. This isn't about that either.

I'm sure I don't need to convince most of you that the crisis is real. For the disabled among us who depend on public services for things like shelter, food and transportation, the "economic downturn" is affecting us in a very real and measurable way. At the very time in our nation's history when the need for these services is greatest, their availability is decreasing due to a lack of funds. Clearly, if change is coming, it had better come soon. President Obama seems to get that. Good man.

My parents were alive during the Great Depression, as I'm sure many of yours were. They learned, the hard way, that at some point it's no longer "every man for himself" but rather, "we're all in this together." That's how one survives hard times, and I hope it's a lesson our Congress learns soon. The boat has a hole in it, Congressmen, and the time for blaming each other for the rising water is long past. If we all don't start bailing, we'd better hope we all know how to swim. Those sharks look hungry.

But I said this wasn't going turn political, didn't I? Sorry.

So what lessons can we learn from the Great Depression? For one, such things can be survived. Our parents did it, and so can we. As many social service agencies are now joining forces to share resources, so can we. Start conserving everything. Consolidate trips. Shop smarter. Use coupons. Buy in bulk if that's feasible for you. Wear a sweater. Network with each other. Odds are good that you're already doing many of these things, but think hard and act harder. Don't be afraid to get creative. This too shall pass, but until it does we have to do everything we can to help ourselves. The Government will get around to us eventually...

Oh dang it. I give up. So it's turned political after all. Wanna do something to help? Call your representatives in Congress. Tell them your story. Don't whine, and don't scream... just tell them your story. Then tell them that sooner or later, elections will roll around again. Remind them, gently, that hungry voters tend to not be quite so pleasant at the polls. Tell them to shut up, and start bailing. The "stimulus bill" may not be perfect, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

The Crisis is here. It's time to act.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Invisible Disabilities

Things aren't always quite as they seem.

About two weeks ago I published a Blog entry on the issue of those who knowingly misuse handicapped parking placards. At that time I mentioned an (unofficial) research project where several students at a local college were "busted" for using the placard of a deceased relative to obtain closer parking spots on campus. Shame on them.

I'm sure we've all witnessed this familiar spectacle. You're waiting for a "handicapped permit required" space to open up at your favorite grocery or appliance store when suddenly, another car appears from nowhere and swings merrily into "your" spot.


Then you notice the handicapped parking plate (or placard) and you force yourself to take a deep breath. After all, perhaps they need it more than you do. You sigh to your trusty wheelchair in resignation, and prepare to circle the parking lot one more time.

But wait -- suddenly, two people emerge from the vehicle, and seemingly (to you) skip happily away and into the store. No wheelchair. No crutches. Not so much as a tell-tail limp.

You briefly consider ramming the rear end of their car, wondering if your insurance company will buy "I was acting as an agent of karma" as an excuse. Then you sigh again (your wheelchair says nothing, being used to this by now) and you make another circuit around the parking lot, wondering if there is a special Hell waiting for people like these.

Perhaps not.

I am reminded, often it seems, that not all disabilities are visible ones. Usually the reminders are subtle, but sometimes they are rather blatant.

I recall one incident sometime last summer when my wife and I paid a visit to our local drug store for a refill of a medication I needed. I wasn't feeling my best that day, so I remained with the car while my wife made the trip inside for me. We parked in one of several vacant handicapped parking spaces. Because I was staying with the car I didn't think to display my placard, instead opting to complete the more vital task (to me) of finding something decent to listen to on the radio. Then came a soft rapping sound on my window.

"Hello? Young man?"

I looked up, and smiled reflexively. The woman peering in at me was probably closer to my own age than not, but I do look younger than my true age, so I'm used to the mistake. I rolled down the window.

"Yes?" I replied with a bigger smile. "Can I help you?"

What came next was about thirty seconds of a very polite, but firm, chastisement over my having (apparently) been unaware of what a handicapped space was for, complete with genuine concern (I could tell) that I might get a parking ticket. She didn't want a pound of my flesh... she just wanted me to move. A valid request, under other circumstances. But I can't drive. I was even sitting on the passenger side. She had no way of knowing that I was handicapped.

I smiled again, and produced my placard, which I promptly hooked over the rear view mirror so it could be seen by any other interested parties, or police, that happened by. She looked terribly embarrassed.

What followed next was a five minute conversation about people who use (or misuse) handicapped parking privileges. I thanked her, in no uncertain terms, for having the guts to speak out to a complete stranger in a public parking lot. It was something I had never done, in all my years as a handicapped person, and here she was bravely doing what I had not... she was standing up for my rights.

It humbled me. It made me feel just a little bit ashamed too.

We parted ways moments before my wife returned with my medicine, and I told her of my encounter. The seed had been planted, but it took until now for that seed to take root in the form of this Blog, and the Toledo Access Guide.

The point is, her mistake, and one most of us make, is that many disabilities are completely invisible to the average observer. Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, internal injuries, and cancer are only a few examples of a disability which could be completely invisible, and yet require one to seek a closer parking space. So as a word to the wise, be careful when confronting anyone who "looks fine" but may very well not be as fine as they look. While not every "disability" should automatically qualify one for special parking consideration, having an "invisible disability" shouldn't automatically disqualify one either. This is why we need strict guidelines, and tighter controls.

So the next time you see someone without a cane exiting a parked car in a "handicapped" spot, take two deep breaths. They may actually have a right to it after all, and insurance rates are high enough as it is.

Note: I recommend visiting the My Invisible Disabilities online community if you have an "invisible" disability, or know someone who does. Friendly people, tons of useful information, and plenty of support. I rate them Five Stars!