Assistive Technology

Electric Imp

I’ve been reading about this service (and devices) for a few months now and it sounds fascinating to me. Electric Imp is a cloud-based service and a wifi-enabled SD card and a standard that allows devices using the card to be monitored and controlled from anywhere (else) in the world.

In this video Myriam Joire from Endgadget interviews Hugo Fiennes, the CEO of Electric Imp at Maker Faire. It’s worth watching to hear how the service works and see the possibilities. Here’s Myriam’s post.

One of the most successful of the early attempts to do home automation with devices was the X10 wireless technology standard. X10 controllers are used to operate lights and locks remotely and for home security, among many other things. However, as far as I know, they don’t use the internet, they work on a local network. The Electric Imp technology is an attempt to build a standard for communication and control and have OEMs build the card slot into their devices so that consumers can control those devices from afar.

What you’re seeing here is the early stages of a technology that might be built into consumer devices a number of years out, or not. Sometimes even the best technologies don’t catch on for seemingly small stumbles in naming, branding, or not being at the right place at the right time. Maybe a devilish imp isn’t the right brand for something like this, or maybe its perfect. No way to tell just yet.

I wonder if the disabilities-technology community even knows about this technology? It seems like it would be a great fit.


Apple’s AssistiveTouch Helps the Disabled Use a Smartphone

David Pogue is pretty worked up over AssistiveTouch and I can see why. After reading his piece I just played around with it and it’s quite fantastic. Settings/General/Accessibility/AssistiveTouch.

Try it (iOS 5), it’s quite interesting.

I’m most interested to see if it might make the iPad more accessible to my 96 year old mother. I don’t think so but it would be great if Apple worked on making iOS devices more accessible to the elderly.


Great stuff. Glen creates hacked Kindle for his sister who has cerebral palsy.

This reminds me so much of the early days of what is now called assistive technology: Hacked Apple IIs, HyperCard running X10 controllers, big switches, and the Closing the Gap conference where we all shared this stuff. This was my life for close to twenty years.

For a more elegant solution for iPad, see Assistiveware.

[via Endgadget]

Current state of the art of disabilities and technology

Miles O’Brien of the PBS NewsHour did an outstanding job of putting together one of the best overviews I’ve seen yet of how technology is being used to help people with various kinds of disabilities. We saw this on air last night and it blew my mind and I’ve been involved in this area for many years. Very well produced and a spectacular collection of ideas in various stages of development.

Here’s the overview at the NewHour site: Minds, Machines Merge to Offer New Hope for Overcoming Impairments.

Tools for People With Writing Problems


© 1982 Richard Wanderman

I had a hard time with writing. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing it because it was such an unpleasant activity for me. Of course, it’s no wonder that I had a hard time with it, I didn’t write enough to get comfortable with it. My handwriting is so poor I can hardly read it, and my spelling used to be so far off that people who read my writing didn’t know what I was talking about, if they could read my handwriting.

I’m thirty years old (as I write this in 1982) and I have a language disability. As many other people like me know, these language problems undermine our ability to express ourselves in writing and by doing that, undermine our sense of confidence. Exposing these problems – which seem childlike – to other people can be incredibly humiliating.

Appropriate tools can help us compensate for these problems. Personal computers are the most powerful of these tools for people with language disabilities. Writing with a computer changes the writing process radically, making it much more accessible and enjoyable for people like me.

The Problem
I read a line and as I get to the end of it I start to lose the beginning. I go back and re-read the beginning and lose the end. This is assuming that what I’m seeing is what’s on the page. I may be transposing letters within words, changing their meaning or transposing words within sentences, changing their meaning. It can be a real mess.

I type a first draft on a typewriter, then go back and proofread it marking the mistakes. I type a second draft to correct the mistakes. Not only are there new typographical mistakes that anyone might make, but there are words misspelled that I spelled correctly in the first draft. When my writing problem is combined with my reading problem, I wonder how I can function at all in this language-oriented world.

Appropriate Tools
If a person can’t write, what difference does it make whether they use a pencil or a computer? It makes a big difference because writing isn’t only the physical act of putting marks on paper (with pencil or computer printer), it’s an act of thinking and composing. Writing is also about the interaction between the brain of the writer and the particular capabilities or limitations of the writing tool.

We have to learn to separate capabilities or limitations of tools from people’s abilities or disabilities. Let me explain. I had a hard time learning how to read clocks and tell time. It was humiliating not to be able to give the right time when asked and to rely on others to tell me the time. Had digital clocks and watches been available, I might have been able to avoid the humiliation without necessarily understanding how an analog clock is read, and what it represents. Digital clocks might have prevented the emotional scars that made telling time hard to learn and unpleasant for me. Yes, understanding the analog was important, but not as important as my emotional health and my growing (and fragile) image of myself as a learner. If I needed crutches, so be it. The object was to be able to use time as a means of getting along in the world. As it was, I eventually learned to tell time, pre-digital watch. But the deeper understanding of the analog came much later when I was ready for it.

The Learning Has to be Hard Fallacy
Had digital clocks been available when I was growing up, their remedial use might have been questioned as an easy way around the problem, a crutch. Is there an underlying cultural assumption that learning has to be hard and unpleasant to be effective: no pain no gain? If there is a connection between the brain and muscle, it falls apart in the case of the person with a language disability. Repetition and hard work doesn’t consistently make learning happen. There are other factors in play here. I was confused. I worked hard yet couldn’t tell time. I had no way of differentiating between my disability-caused difficulty and the possibility that I wasn’t working hard enough. I felt stupid. I couldn’t separate the problems in my head from the limitations and appropriateness of the tools (analog clocks) I was using. There was too much negative feedback associated with learning to tell time to keep me actively engaged in it.

A New Writing Process
Typewriters helped me read my own writing and allowed me to share it with others for the first time without quite the humiliation that I felt when I shared my handwritten writing. Writing with a computer goes further. A computer-aided writing process separates composition from printing. I can edit freely without committing anything to paper. I can move words around, change the order of sentences, insert new ideas, check spelling and proofread to my heart’s content, before anything is printed on paper. I can work and re-work a single page of writing for days, yet the finished printed piece has no white-out on it, and I’ve only produced one draft.

All of this allows me, the writer, to concentrate on what’s really important: what I am trying to say. And now that I’ve been writing for a while, I am beginning to believe that I have important things to say and that people find my writing easy to read. I now have an image of myself as a writer. This is why computers are so important to me.

Being a Dyslexic Adult
I can remember being measured and typecast by my relative ability to use language. It was frustrating, upsetting, and humiliating because I knew that there was intelligence inside; I just couldn’t share it in a way that other people understood and accepted. There is an assumption that the sophistication of one’s written language is a window on one’s intelligence, and that people, especially adults, who have problems expressing themselves in writing are lacking in their ability to think. Before I got a computer, I struggled with writing to convince people of the fallacy of this idea, but I ran into a brick wall – my writing wasn’t clear enough to be convincing, and no one could read it anyway. Finally being able to write about my disability has been an incredibly significant event in my life. Now I can attempt to explain what I was struggling with for so many years. Yes, just like the blind person who gets vision, I now have a voice, a means of expression that I lacked when I was growing up.

Many people know me as “the computer teacher.” I’m not a “computer teacher” like other computer teachers. I’ve never taken a computer course in my life. Never. My interest in computers comes from their significance in my life. Yes, I get enjoyment out of controlling machines and things technical, but that’s not what got me started. And that’s not what keeps me going. What keeps me going is what I’m doing now, writing – something I cannot do without a computer.

Digital Independence

What is it? What does it mean? What does it look like?

© 2002 Richard Wanderman, David Clark, and Monika Koethnig

Note: This was first written and posted in 2002 to support a presentation that David and I did at the Closing the Gap assistive technology conference. I was a popular presenter at this conference and generally had standing room only only crowds at my sessions. This session was far enough ahead of its time that it had light attendance which shocked us because we were sure we were on to something, and now we know in retrospect that we were. The sad truth is that most of the assistive tech community still does not get the significance of these ideas and this is one of the many reasons I gave up a twenty year career consulting in the AT area.

Please be gentle on feedback on the nine year old links in this article. I’ll be glad to update them as we find problems. Thanks.

What is it?
Imagine sitting in a Starbucks with your portable computer in your lap, not plugged into anything, and being able to communicate with friends all over the world, pay your bills, move money from your money market account into your IRA, book travel, shop, read the day’s news and weather, and of course, listen to any music from your entire music collection. This image is real and what makes it possible are just a few powerful and readily available technologies: a high speed connection to the internet, a wireless local area network, a portable computer, a small collection of applications, and digital money.

Using “plastic” to pay is not just about floating a balance or shopping online, it’s also about the elimination of handling money, something some people with physical disabilities don’t do well. Using a Mobil SpeedPass or paying for groceries with a credit card are no longer considered cutting edge; we take these tools and processes for granted but if you can’t handle money the digitization of these processes is more than just convenience; it’s access.

Having a music collection digitized and stored on a computer eliminates the need to handle media and allows random access to any of thousands of songs sorted by album, artist, and genre in one place. Digital music players like iTunes or Media JukeBox can organize and play entire music collections (many thousands of songs and albums). Portable digital music players allow you to carry your entire music collection with you without a computer. Music is just one example of digital sound: the era of books on tape will slowly change to books on CD, then audible digital downloadable books, then books streamed over the internet.

This move from analog (money, CDs) to digital (credit card, digital music) will soon be viewed as the most significant inclusive curb cut in history.

Atoms to bits

Nicholas Negroponte, the Director of the MIT Media Lab has been saying for years that atoms are different from bits. When he first started saying this in his WIRED Magazine editorials many thought he was being arrogant and too “ivory tower.” Now we know better. Dealing with atoms – newspapers, money, CDs, paper plane tickets is different from dealing with bits – electronic representations of text on a computer, credit cards, mp3s, and e-tickets. Making processes digital (reducing them to bits) can, and many times does, make those processes more accessible for everyone but particularly accessible to people with a range of disabilities that affect their access to the analog processes.

Digitizing content is just the start

Long before Negroponte started rubbing our noses in atoms and bits the computer scientist and futurist Alan Kay was commenting on the then new technology of burning large amounts of information onto CDs. He said that the minute you put a dictionary on a CD it’s out of date; the dictionary company will update the information but you (with your new CD) will not have it. So you buy a new, upgraded CD. This goes on forever. He thought (long before the internet explosion) it would be better to be connected directly to the dictionary company so you always have the latest content and never need to buy a new CD. Now, 20 years after he made those remarks, we see that even though the CD may contain a digital version of the dictionary, the CD itself is still made of atoms and consequently, comes with some of the same limitations as a book dictionary; it goes out of date and you have to handle it to use it.

The network and the computer = access
As Kay was saying this, Sun Microsystems was just starting to make the then outrageous advertising statement, “the network is the computer.” Most of us didn’t get it because our connections were modems using regular telephone lines. In fact, Sun predicted that bigger pipes like cable internet, DSL, and ISDN would be widely available and positioned themselves to be key players in the then fledgling move toward the internet.

The AOL model
No one can dispute that America Online (AOL) has brought more people online than almost any other single force. But AOL has not gracefully changed its paradigm since it started. A large AOL server in Dulles, Virginia, holds a huge amount of content and everyone dials in to use it. The more content providers they can sign up the more all of us will want to join AOL to get access to it. And, unlike the internet which is unfiltered, AOL can filter and edit its content, which it does.

However, their model as a single publisher of information doesn’t allow for the parallel growth that can take place when many people, all over the world, become publishers of information.

The internet
Almost all, if not all of AOL’s content providers now have their own web sites as well as spaces in the AOL content area. You can get your weather information from the Weather Channel on television (and watch a lot of commercials), from (the Weather Channel’s web site), from their space on AOL, or through applications other than a web browser that tap into the National Weather Service’s data pool which is open to all. In short, you now have choices.

What’s different about the internet model is that it’s a distributed model. The information is all over the place (world), and just like investment strategists have been telling us for years; diversification means strength and more probable innovation.

The internet as a sharing medium
When AT&T developed Unix in 1969 they gave the source code away by putting it out on the then baby internet (Darpanet) and lo and behold, computer scientists at UC Berkeley and elsewhere improved on it. (David did not work on this project while he was at Berkeley, he only dreamed about it.)

In 1991 Linus Torvalds, then a grad student in Finland sent email to fellow OS writers telling them that he was working on a “hobby” OS project and asked them if he might share it with them. It was called Linux.

To contribute to Linux or Unix or to any open source project, all you need is a computer, a connection, and a willingness to share. You do not have to go through the interview process to get a job at Microsoft; you just have to earn the trust and respect of your net-peers, most of whom you will never meet face to face.

Doesn’t matter where you are
We have a friend who lives in Central California (near Yosemite Park and we’re jealous). He’s a rare gem importer. He spends six months a year in California and six months in Bangkok, Thailand. When we get email from him we have no idea where he is. In terms of email, he is digitally independent. He has a cable modem and network at home in California, and a high-speed network in his apartment in Thailand. He routinely emails us one day from California and the next day from Thailand. Same conversation continued from a different place.

This kind of digital independence taken further can allow anyone who makes a living on the internet to live anywhere. Our friend chose Thailand because that’s where gems are; but if you design web sites, write, or do a kind of work that does not rely on geography, you’re free. You could choose Thailand because you like it there yet still contribute to a project in Boston or Paris or both.

Home on the cell
In many developing countries the infrastructure for physical telephone lines is minimal and antiquated at best. However, inexpensive and widespread cell phone use allows many developing countries to skip building a physical telephone infrastructure and focus on the ultimate goal, spreading telephone access to everyone. This paradigm shift means that homeless people have access to communication even if they don’t have access to a home. Is this a case of having the curb cut before the curb?

Image filtering
This past summer Richard rebuilt the entire LD Resources web site with the help of two friends, David Clark and Monika Koethnig. Richard lives in Connecticut, David in Massachusetts, and Monika in Aabenraa, Denmark.

The most significant technology we used is chat. Chat made and continues to make working together possible without numerous trans-atlantic phone calls. Each morning (afternoon for Monika) we all spent and continue to spend an hour chatting, showing each other progress on projects and discussing issues.

The operating systems and chat programs we use are different but each keeps a log of the chat so we can refer back to it without having to wade through email and it’s real time so we get answers to questions immediately.

All of us are serious computer users, and each of us uses lots of technology to build and support hundreds of web pages, yet chat is one of the key digital technologies that we depend on. Chat is an inclusive technology.

David and Richard have never met Monika face to face yet they’ve all worked together for over a year now. Monika had never heard David’s voice until one month ago. So, Monika has been able to form an image of David without the “baggage” of visual and auditory stereotyping.

In a perfect world, stereotyping is a non-issue, but we don’t live in a perfect world. It took Richard years to have David’s physical disability fall into the background in his relationship with him. Monika already considers David a close friend without having to work at that.

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

This is the caption to a now infamous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner showing a dog sitting at a computer talking with another dog (sitting on the floor) about the experience. Map this idea into the disability world and it’s more than a joke. The internet can be a great filter for aspects of a person which might preclude close relationships if they were seen up front. In short, filtering out immediate visual categorization of people can allow their intelligence to shine through before visual stereotyping undermines it.

The Sociology of digital independence
Many people have thought and written about these ideas although with less disability focus and more general societal focus.

Marshall McLuhan was thinking about “digital independence” pretty early in the game. “The medium is the message” has a very different meaning when applied to the above filtering effect the internet has on visual images. He also used the term “global village” long before we had a sense of what it would be like to have full time access to the internet, cell phones, and GPS systems.

Sherry Turkle at MIT has done extensive research and writing on what it’s like to spend a significant amount of one’s time online and how the internet can be a filter. Her latest book is “Life on the Screen”.

What does it mean?
The effects of these changes are profound yet most people haven’t fully considered the implications for people with a variety of learning and physical access needs.

Think about how widespread credit card use is (maybe too widespread). Credit cards change the way we deal with money. A credit card is an access tool.

Think about how widespread cell phone use is. Cell phones change the way we communicate by allowing us to do it independent of land lines. Cell phones are access tools.

It is true that full-time, fast internet access hasn’t reached everyone and that not everyone can afford it. However, this kind of internet access will be as common as cell phones soon and when it is, we think it’s important to consider what it will mean. A computer on a fast, wired or wireless internet connection is a significant access tool.

Finally, these changes are not being driven by disability law or advocacy groups, they are being driven by convenience for everyone. That simple fact makes this the most inclusive and so the most important curb cut in history.

What does it look like? Travelog: Warren, CT to Boston, MA

Below is a travelog with numerous examples of digital processes. The details of hardware, software, or web sites are not what is important. Rather, we are focusing on the philosophy and process of being digitally independent and the potential it has for people with disabilities.

  1. Richard has $40 in his wallet.
  2. Richard logs into ldresources admin chat with iChat. Finds David and Monika (Germany) chatting. Tells David he’ll be leaving in an hour for Boston so David had better get some food in the house.
  3. David goes to PeaPod to order groceries (his fridge is usually empty) and looks at the weather with Weather Watcher.
  4. Richard uses OS X Address Book to get map to David’s house (Boston is a bear in a car).
  5. David realizes that it is going to be a working dinner, and needs to finally make his Panasonic Toughbook wireless.
  6. Richard told David weeks ago to order a wireless card from CDW, and the package was on his desk waiting for David to install.
  7. Murphy’s law: While David is trying to install his new Orinoco card, he realizes that he neods to download new drivers, but now hisi Xircom card is not working.
  8. Richard suggests the idea of burning a CD of the drivers on the iMac, and then using the CD in the toughbook.
  9. Meanwhile, Richard uses Sherlock to get better driving directions.
  10. David gets his favorite playlist of mp3s playing while he works using Media JukeBox to play music through his stereo from his computer.
  11. Richard gets Boston weather so he knows what to pack.
  12. David runs into a problem with “affect” and “effect” in his writing. He uses Confusing Words (an internet-based reference tool coming soon to this web site) to figure it out.
  13. Richard gets traffic advisory on Mass Pike as well as Boston traffic advisory.
  14. David sends Richard’s wife Anne a birthday gift from her wish list.
  15. Richard looks up the NPR stations along the route using the NPR Station Directory.
  16. Richard backs up PowerBook on .mac account
  17. Richard puts PowerBook to sleep, then puts it in backpack for trip.
  18. Richard gets gas with Mobile SpeedPass. Pays tolls on Mass Pike with FastLane card.
  19. While in the car Richard uses his digital recorder to record ideas for the CTG Digital Independence presentation he and David are doing. Wishes he had a GPS receiver hooked up to his Palm or PowerBook to make it easier to find David’s house.
  20. Richard arrives in Boston, parks in garage, gets ticket.
  21. Before going up to David’s, Richard opens PowerBook in lobby, gets on David’s wireless AirPort network which uses his iMac as a base station.
  22. Richard gets email from friend at Macalaster College. She’s writing a paper on the play M Butterfly and forgets who wrote it. She asks for the author’s name. Richard quickly looks up the play at Google and just to make sure at Amazon too. Sends her email back with answer in 1 minute.
  23. Richard carries PowerBook upstairs to David’s apartment, still online.
  24. Richard notices David’s new Land’s End jacket. Prices it. Skips it.
  25. David looks for a restaurant close by so they can eat.
  26. There is a friend that David wants Richard to meet. David looks his number up on and invites him to dinner.
  27. They walk to dinner with their computers.
  28. They arive at restaurant.
  29. They order drinks and dinner.
  30. While they wait they might as well be productive.
  31. Richard opens his computer and notices he can tap into nearby Starbucks WiFi network.
  32. Richard tells David he just read the most amazing New Yorker column but he forgot the magazine to give David. He goes to Faith, Hope, and Clarity, and sends David the url.
  33. That leads to more talk about New Yorker writers and on to Malcolm Gladwell. Richard tells David he must read the article Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.
  34. Which leads to conversation about movies and Richard’s fifty year old brain draws a blank about who the heavy-set supporting actor is in the movie The Waterdance. He uses All to find out while we talk.
  35. Monika in Denmark sends David an instant message in chat. She tells him to go to their “chat room” and bring Richard.
  36. Monika has been updating the UK AlphaSmart web site and wants them to tell her how it looks. She sends them the url in chat.
  37. Richard sends the url for the web page documenting David, Steve, and Richard’s recent trip to Alaska to Monika in chat. The page was created with Steve’s program WebPics.
  38. David mentions that there are more pictures at Doug Geeting’s site and sends the url.
  39. Which leads David to play Richard a song from Geeting’s CD The Alaska Mile which he has digitized on his computer.
  40. The people at the table right behind David are speaking German. Richard uses Sherlock to look up some of the words they’re using. Sends the words to Monika in chat to verify.
  41. They are wondering if there is an internet cafe nearby to send a note
    home. Richard offers them his AlphaSmart to write an email on. He asks them to put the email address they want the note sent to in the note.
  42. While they are gawking at the AlphaSmart Richard pulls out his Canon S30 digital camera and takes a picture of them.
  43. The Germans finish the email, hand Richard the AlphaSmart, and he sends their text from the AlphaSmart into his email client. He removes the Lexar compact flash card from his camera, sticks it in the PCMCIA CF reader in his computer, and copies their picture onto his computer. He scales the picture down and gets rid of red-eye with iPhoto, attaches it to the email and sends it to them.
  44. The German couple are impressed with the AlphaSmart and David tells them that there is an AlphaSmart localized for Germany and a German AlphaSmart web site to support it. David sends the url to their email address.
  45. Someone at another table has been watching all of this and asks for Richard’s email address. He has a Palm OS device so Richard pulls out his Palm and beams them his business card. David, not wanting to be left out asks Richard to beam his address too.
  46. Richard and David think they might want to go to the movies after dinner and need to know what’s playing nearby. Richard runs Sherlock to search with David’s zip code.
  47. David uses his credit card to pay for dinner.
  48. They walk back to David’s house.
  49. Richard hates David’s musical taste and he’s brought a new Nickel Creek CD he wants David to listen to. David puts the CD into his computer, and while Richard isn’t looking rips it into mp3, getting all the CD track info from
  50. Meanwhile, Richard checks registrations at Resources Discussion.
  51. David sends his goddaughter Catie an eCard for her birthday.
  52. David and Richard submit a proposal to CTG for their Digital Independence session.
  53. They book a room at Sofitel hotel.
  54. They each register for CTG conference.
  55. Richard buys his plane ticket to Minneapolis at Northwest and forwards David the email flight itinerary.
  56. David buys his plane ticket to Minneapolis at, then forwards the email flight itinerary to Richard.
  57. Richard uses Watson to look for a picture of Marshall Mcluhan to add to Digital Independence web page and handout.
  58. After Richard goes to sleep (old man, can’t keep up with “yout”). David replies to some mail, and checks in on a few online communities he
    phpbuilder, AlphaSmart, Sourceforge, Half the Planet, LD Resources, and
  59. Realizing they’re not even close to having the presentation done,
    David books Amtrak to New Haven so they can continue work in Warren.
  60. Richard wakes up, makes coffee, notices David is running out of coffee so orders some from Starbucks.
  61. Richard puts his PowerBook to sleep and in backpack, says goodbye to David and walks to car.
  62. Richard pays for parking with credit card (sheesh, Boston is expensive).
  63. Richard gets gas with credit card.
  64. Richard pays toll on Mass Pike with FastLane card
  65. Richard arrives home, opens computer and it finds his AirPort network automatically.
  66. Richard has the same $40 still in his wallet (his credit card, however, is charred and smoking).

How to do it: atoms to bits
Below is a list of things many of us do every day and the tools we use to do them.

Buy something

  • Go to store, use cash
  • Write check
  • Use debit card
  • Use credit card
  • Use credit card at
  • Use one-click at

Buy something for Anne

  • Go to store, buy wrong thing
  • Buy wrong thing online
  • Buy something that Anne wants with wish list

Get gas

Find a friend’s phone number

Get the weather

Buy plane ticket

Convert currency

Find out how to get to B & H Photo in New York

Find a movie playing nearby

  • Call all the theaters
  • Use Sherlock to find out what’s playing

Pay traffic tolls on Mass Pike

Give someone your name and address

  • Talk while they write it down on a napkin
  • Give them a business card
  • Give them an address label
  • Give them a business card, they scan it in
  • Beam it to them with your PDA
  • Send it written out in email
  • Send them a vcard in email

Send or receive faxes

  • Deal with equipment, paper, and separate phone line
  • Get an Efax account

Send a card

  • Go to local pharmacy, buy card, address envelope, stuff, and send
  • Pick card from and send

Get reminded of something

Take a picture, send it to someone

  • Take a picture with a film camera, have film processed, send someone a print in the mail
  • Take a picture with a digital camera, transfer picture to computer, send it to someone as an attachment to email

Share pictures

  • Make duplicate prints, send them out in the mail
  • Send images as attachments to email
  • Use to make prints
  • Use WebPics to make web page of images
  • Share Alaska trip done with WebPics

Reserve a room at Hotel Sofitel

Print your handouts for Closing the Gap

  • Print 100 on your printer, carry handouts on plane
  • Print 1 on your printer, photocopy locally (Kinkos or anywhere), carry handouts on plane
  • Print 1 on your printer, carry to Minneapolis on plane, photocopy at Kinkos or anywhere, carry back to hotel
  • Make a PDF on your computer, give Kinkos the order online, fly to Minneapolis with no handouts, have them delivered to hotel

Submit proposal for Closing the Gap

  • write proposal, print it, stuff envelope, send via mail
  • Submit a CTG web site

Register for Closing the Gap

  • Fill out form, write check, send or fax
  • Register at CTG web site

Chat with someone

Work collaboratively

  • Everyone fly to Minneapolis, meet at CTG
  • Telephone calls
  • Conference calls
  • Group email
  • Use Chat instead of conference calls
  • Use threaded discussion with group edits of single posts
  • Multiple people working on a single online project: Confusing Words

Learn php

  • Take a class
  • Buy a book
  • Read documentation online at php network
  • Read and ask questions in a discussion forum like phpbuilder
  • Find a buddy online to share ideas with

at a meeting

Participate in community

Make the next killer application

  • Apply for and get job at Microsoft or Apple
  • Attend meeting, listen to “water cooler stories”
  • Deal with daily commute and respectability of your wardrobe (rather than your ideas)
  • Work from home in your sweatpants, communicate and collaborate electronically with email, chat, message boards

Find your high school classmates

  • Send a letter to one you remember
  • Wait until 30th reunion
  • Register at

Publish your ideas: write an essay…

  • staple it to a telephone pole
  • photocopy it, staple it to many telephone poles
  • mail it to someone
  • photocopy it, mail it to many
  • fax it to someone
  • fax it to many
  • email it to someone
  • email it to many (careful of being a “spammer”)
  • join a listserve, send to the list
  • get someone to put it on his web site (if it’s about LD, go here)
  • put up your own web site

Pay your bills

Read a magazine

Send a magazine article to a friend

Have a magazine article read to you

  • Ask someone to read it to you
  • Scan article, have it read by computer
  • Find article online have computer read it

Get the news

Find a picture of Marshall McLuhan

  • Find a book in the libary to scan
  • Use Google to search for “Marshall McLunan”
  • Use Google Image Search to search for “Marshall McLuhan”
  • Use Watson to search for “Marshall McLuhan”

Find a wireless access point

Listen to the radio

Translate language

Look something up in the dictionary

  • Get the book off the shelf
  • Go to the library to use the OED
  • Put a CD ROM in your computer
  • Sherlock (Mac OSX)
  • Watson (Mac OSX)

Send something to someone

  • Take it to the post office
  • Use FedEx to generate label, call for pickup, track package, confirm delivery

Buy groceries

  • Go to store, pick things out, pay, carry home
  • Order groceries from
  • Order dinner from local restaurant

Rent a movie

Buy a movie

Sell a DVD you don’t want anymore

  • Put a for sale sign at the general store
  • Put an ad in Bargain News
  • Have a garage (“tag” on the East Coast) sale
  • Go to a flea market
  • Go to local video store and see if they’ll buy it
  • Sell or auction it on eBay
  • Sell or auction it on

Research a movie

Listen to music

Cook a meal

  • Cook grandma’s recipe from memory
  • Use a cookbook to find a recipe
  • Get recipe from

Upgrade your system software

  • Go to store, buy CD
  • Go to web site, buy CD
  • Go to, download upgrade
  • Go to Apple Support, download upgrade
  • Use Software Update System Preference to check for updates (Mac OSX)

Upgrade an application

  • Get version number of application
  • Go to web site, check lastest version, download upgrade
  • Have application check for updates

Backup your computer

  • Copy files to ZIP disk
  • Copy files to CD, burn
  • Use backup application to copy to ZIP or CD
  • Use Backup to backup to .mac account (Mac OSX)
  • Use Xdrive to backup to internet (Windows)

Prepare for college

And this is just a start…

Tools and Dyslexia: Issues and Ideas

© 2003 Richard Wanderman

This article first appeared in the Fall, 2003 issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the International Dyslexia Association.

My use of tools, from simple Hi-Liter pens to computers and more has changed my experience of being dyslexic and dysgraphic. Tools allow me to compensate (some might say over-compensate) for my dyslexia-caused writing and organizational problems so well that aside from the few times when people see my handwriting, my dyslexia and dysgraphia is not evident in my daily life. And, I’ve been lucky enough to actually build a career out of talking about this with audiences all over the world.

So, the very tools that I talk about are the tools that allow me to get to the talk, organize, and present it.

My experience, however, is not as common among dyslexics as I’d like. Many parents, students, teachers, and other professionals attempt to use tools with their children, students, or clients and various things happen to get in the way of success.

Rather than focus on the tools themselves I’m focussing on the context surrounding the tools’ use. Consider these issues and talk about them with teachers, students, and anyone who struggles with the use of tools to solve problems associated with dyslexia.

Branding and Stigma
In the context of disabilities and special education various kinds of tools are sometimes labeled “assistive technology.” I have a number of problems with this label.

  1. The label “assistive technology” is redundant: all technology is assistive.
  2. If you are dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s “assistive technology” but if you’re not dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s not? Huh?
  3. The assistive technology categorization has more to do with funding (where the money comes from in K-12 special education) than it does with actual use.
  4. The branding of a tool as “assistive technology” vs. “regular old technology” can, for some students, get in the way of using the tool enough to make it useful.

I’ve seen #4 happen with Franklin hand-held reference tools and AlphaSmart keyboards, among others. Franklin reference tools are not marketed as special education tools yet, when special education buys them, they are branded. AlphaSmarts sell 8 or 9 to 1 regular over special education yet if they are seen in a special education context, people think that’s their category. For what it’s worth, the playwright Arthur Miller uses an AlphaSmart as do thousands of other professional writers (of course, Mr. Miller does not use an AlphaSmart in school, where people might tease him).

Categorization and stereotyping is powerful and can lead to non-use because of stigma.

Tool as Lever or Crutch
Tools can be used as levers – to extend what we can do, but they can also be used to end-run problems we have with underlying understanding. Too much of the latter and we call them “crutches” which, when your leg is broken are useful but get in the way when your leg is healed and you want to walk fast.

Using a modern cash register to make change does not get me any closer to understanding why someone might give me $1.01 for a .66 charge. I ring up .66. I ring up $1.01 and the register says to give the customer back .35. The difference between that transaction and one where I get $1.00 even is pennies (or, the fact that the customer doesn’t want 4 more of them). The modern register takes the cashier out of the equation by telling him what to give back to the customer. In the stone age (when I ran a register) the cashier had to use his mental abacus to do this transaction.

This is not as cut and dry as it might seem so let’s discuss it further. I had a hard time using my mental abacus under the pressure of cashiering so I didn’t last as a cashier. But, I could hold that job today because the tool would allow me to end-run my weakness.

Is this good? Depends on what you want out of it. If you want to make your abacus stronger (like we do in school) then too much use of the tool may not be good because it’s doing the work for you (this is an assumption, it may not be true in all cases). If you want the job to make money then the tool is great in that it allows weak counters to hold higher paying jobs than box boy.

Don’t give someone a calculator to take an arithmetic test with. Don’t give someone a tool with a spelling checker to take a spelling test on. But, people who do math use calculators all the time. People who write use computers with spelling checkers.

The issue is, does the use of the tool get in the way of getting the underlying understanding? Or, can you get the underlying understanding through the use of the tool?

If the use of the tool keeps me in the game: keeps me doing arithmetic, keeps me working at the store, keeps me writing, then it is possible that I might later go back and take care of (clean up) my underlying weakness in spelling or math that the tool is helping me deal with. I know, you’re thinking few do but I have to disagree.

In fact, in my own experience, this is exactly what happened: the more I wrote with a computer, the better my spelling became. The use of a spelling checker kept me in the game and kept me writing and so, spelling.

Is it possible that for some people the use of a spelling checker gets in the way of learning how to spell independently? Absolutely. But, we have to be careful not to generalize that because some of us have had the opposite experience.

If You Don’t Use it, Nothing Happens
You would be amazed at how many people buy an expensive tool and think that the purchase alone is the solution to the problem. It is not. In fact, it can lead to more and different problems and sometimes does. The tool itself is a part of the solution; the regular use of the tool over time is another part of it; getting an assignment done with it is another part; and a changing attitude about learning and self is another part.

Without practice the tool is useless. Without a task to do practice is meaningless. If, after using the tool to good effect over time you don’t have a feeling of accomplishment there’s something wrong with the entire situation.

There are many reasons tools don’t get used, some of them come from the tool; some come from the user.

  1. The tool is poorly designed and too hard to use (although as I will discuss later, this is hard to sort out if you aren’t confident about what your abilities are)
  2. The user doesn’t know where the needed hard work to learn to use the tool ends and problems associated with dyslexia begin
  3. Power and control issues: “you said to use it, therefore I won’t,” or, “I just bought you this expensive gizmo, your grades better go up.”
  4. The tool comes with a stigma: being seen using the tool “outs” you as “learning disabled”
  5. There is a poor fit between learning style or maturity of user and tool: the tool ought not overwhelm the user, no matter how profound its effect
  6. Attitudes about disability get in the way: “you’re broken and the use of this tool will fix you”
  7. Confusion about getting a job done vs. underlying understanding: electronic cash registers help you make change but they don’t give you the underlying understanding of why a shopper just gave you $1.01 for a .66 cent bill.

It’s the process of using a tool to get work done and learning about the tool and yourself from that experience that’s most important, not the tool itself.

Practice Makes Better
The way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing. One might call this practice or repetition or work, the result is the same: do a lot of something and it gets easier.

Some tools can make doing a lot of something easier because they fundamentally change the process of doing it.

A computer makes it easier to practice writing because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can fix them without a complete rewrite, and so, you may write more. A digital camera makes it easier to practice taking pictures because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can throw them out without printing them, and so, you may take more pictures.

Once enough practice takes place the tool starts to fall into the background and what the user wants to do with the tool starts to come into the foreground. In the end, the tool ought to be almost taken for granted and the focus completely on the application or better yet, the topic. However, this can’t happen without practice: a lot of use of the tool so that it’s intimately familiar.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to help people with dyslexia sort out difficulties in learning caused by the newness of the tool from difficulties caused by dyslexia. It may be hard to get enough practice in without sorting this issue out.

Mistake Tolerance
How many of you have a flashing 12:00 on your VCR and have to bargain with your teenage child to set the time because you don’t know how? Here’s a tip: duct tape.

Many adults have a notion that they were born in the mechanical age and that younger people, born in the electronics age are just better at this stuff by nature.

Here’s my theory:

Watch a teenager use a remote control. What looks to you like knowledge and facile motion is actually very fast trial and error work with the thumb. In other words, they make mistakes and correct them so fast you have no idea what just happened, which is just what they want.

Most adults, on the other hand, are scared of “blowing it up” or permanently tuning in The Playboy Channel so you hand off the remote rather than look stupid. Of course, in doing this you’re avoiding the possibility of making mistakes and from them, learning.

Learning happens when you make a mistake, form a theory on how to correct it, test the theory, and move on or go back and try again. Mistakes are an essential part of learning.

By the way, I’m over 50 which means I was born in the mechanical age, yet, I know how to program a VCR, set the stations on a car radio, and do all of the things that some of you think are impossible for folks my age. How did I transcend my age group? I made a load of mistakes early on and generalized that making them was important. To be honest, I did not think like this until my mid-20s by which time I’d sorted out intelligence – dyslexia issues for myself.

Many adults, dyslexic or not, don’t know if it’s the tool or them when they struggle. How do I know if the operating system of the VCR is just counter-intuitive to use or I’m throwing the towel in too early from fear of making mistakes? This is just like the dyslexic person not knowing where “normal” hard work struggling to do a task ends and difficulty associated with dyslexia begins. Given the fact that I’m pretty sure some people reading this think the CD tray on their computer is a coffee cup holder, you know where I think the problem usually lies. However it is and will remain true that some tools are just poorly designed. Tool-phobic adults, however, are not allowed to use this excuse.

Some tools and processes however, are more forgiving of mistakes than others. Here is a simple and yet, not-so-simple example:

Using a Hi-Liter pen as an aid in reading and studying can be quite effective. A typical highlighting job is to pick out the important ideas on a page so that later, in reviewing, you will be able to scan more easily and focus just on those important ideas.

This can be problematic if you don’t read well because in order to pick out the important ideas you have to hold enough ideas together in your head to compare them. If your decoding is too slow to get decent comprehension or you are distractible enough so that your brain is resetting before you get enough ideas to compare this is a hard task and can lead to the infamous yellow page (highlighting too much).

Here are two issues to consider:

  1. Underlying reading problems make it hard to do this task in the “traditional” way
  2. Hi-Liters are permanent and correcting mistakes is impossible (well, you can buy a new book). The consequences of making a mistake while highlighting are a negative influence on doing enough highlighting to learn how to highlight from experience.

I call the underlying issue in #2 “mistake-intolerance” and I find it fascinating to look at all tools and learning experiences with this issue in mind.

My first experience with mistake-intolerance was in an introductory studio art class in college. We were given two media to explore: a large piece of stone and a large mound of water-based clay, kept under plastic to keep wet and pliable.

We were advised to start on the stone as it would take longer and was harder to work with. We donned goggles, picked up hammer and chisel and started chipping away. Two weeks later almost all of us ended up with a BB (a small chunk of stone).

What had we learned? Stone is a mistake-intolerant medium: you can chip away at it but there’s no going back and correcting a chip that wasn’t meant to come off.

Sculpting clay was a very different experience: I could take some away and put some back and as long as I kept it wet I could do this for quite some time (not forever but long enough to get things worked out). Clay turned out to be a much more mistake-tolerant medium.

I have an MFA in ceramics and now you know why.

I like writing with a computer better than ink on paper; I use highlighter tape and an erasable highlighter instead of a Hi-Liter pen; I use a digital instead of a film camera…

Simple is Better if You Want to Focus on Work
The simpler the tool, the more it will get used. The more it gets used, the faster it will fall into the background and real work will get done.

I’m not making this point because I think that people with dyslexia are not smart enough to use complex tools, we are and we do. But, for example, when choosing an electronic writing tool to practice writing, one may be better off with a small battery-powered keyboard (AlphaSmart) than a desktop computer. Why? Less time spent messing with the tool, more time spent writing.

Let’s check this out in more detail.

Computer: turn it on, find the writing program and open it, start writing, spend an hour playing with fonts and formatting, save and name the file, quit from the program, shut down the computer (turn it off), return to writing later repeating these steps and hoping that you can remember where you saved and what you called it.

AlphaSmart: turn it on, start writing, turn it off (AlphaSmarts save every keystroke automatically into flash memory), return to writing later by turning it back on, you are right back where you left off.

What’s the difference? Steps. Reading the screen. Navigation. Choices. In other words, dealing with the various layers of using a computer: the operating system and the writing software.

AlphaSmart takes a different tack: let writing be the primary thing and take care of as much of the background stuff as possible so it doesn’t get in the way.

Note: There are many simple electronic keyboards like the AlphaSmart. The reason I chose it and not, say, the QuickPad or Laser PC or DreamWriter is because each of the others has more steps in the process of using the tool to do a simple writing chore. The AlphaSmart has the fewest steps and so, is a good contrast to a computer.

If you need more support with your writing: word prediction, speech to text, text to speech then a computer is a better choice and it will be worthwhile dealing with the added complexity, but many people think they need the extra support when in fact they don’t, they just need more practice. The simpler tool, if it offers enough support, will allow more practice because there’s less cognitive overhead to deal with in using it.

The simple-is-better formula works with almost all tools:

Remote controls, digital voice recorders, calculators, car dashboards, kitchen appliances… you name it, simpler is better.

And, the more the tool gets used the more work you get done and the less you think about the tool in doing that work.

Solve One Problem, Cause Another
Here are two examples of side effects of using tools that you might not consider.

You’re in high school or college. You’re dysgraphic and find it hard to take notes by hand. You decide to use your laptop or an AlphaSmart or a Palm PDA and folding keyboard to take notes in class.

You find a seat, get all setup and the lecture begins. You start typing. The person sitting next to you glares at you. You have no idea why. She then whispers, “can you type more softly?”

So, you’ve solved your handwriting problem but caused another person to be distracted because of noise.

You take another tack: instead of typing, you bring a tape recorder to tape the lecture only to find out that the teacher doesn’t like being taped (this could become an ADA issue but let’s not go there).

The important thing to consider here is that in a classroom full of kids or a meeting full of other people, some tools may be intrusive enough to be a problem for others.

What to do?

Ideal: re-engineer how teaching is done so that there is less listening and writing going on simultaneously.

Real: find a place to sit in a lecture hall that affects the fewest people (if you plan to pound a keyboard) and even then, acknowledge to your neighbors that you know you might be distracting them and will do your best to keep it down.

Means – Ends Issues
You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive to the store to get milk. In other words, there’s a difference between driving and car repair and car repair is not a prerequisite for driving.

If we had to prove our knowledge of cars by rebuilding an engine before we could drive, few of us would be driving.

Yet, many computer courses deal more with the tool than with its application, and this is a problem in that the application of the tool is where work gets done, unless you’re studying computer science or to be a computer technician.

The tool itself is means to another end, not an end in itself, and achieving that end, often, is what makes tools so meaningful for those of us who are dyslexic.

My Personal Toolkit
I’m over 50, dyslexic and dysgraphic. I touch type. I read. I make a living talking and writing about technology. We live in a two story saltbox house in rural Connecticut. We have cable internet although no cell phone coverage (go figure).

In the years that I’ve been interested in technology I’ve found two overlapping methods for choosing tools for my personal toolkit:

  1. Research online, ask friends, discuss the tool category and all options, join discussion groups, use loaners.
  2. Buy, try, either keep, return, trickle down, donate or throw out.

I tend to use #2 more than #1 (I’m impulsive) but I do a fair amount of research as well.

For example, if you were interested in buying a digital voice recorder here are some things to consider:

  1. Usability: what are the various features of voice recorders and which ones do I think I need? Will I be able to learn to use all of those features?
  2. Brand: are some brands better than others (with respect to #1 and just generally?). Sony better or worse than Panasonic or Olympus?
  3. Process of buying: Do I need to get my hands on it to feel it, see if the buttons are too small for my eyes and fingers? If so, I have to go to a store that carries a variety of these things. Can I buy it in such a way that I can return it if I don’t like it? Is the place I’m using to buy it useful (salespeople answer questions) or am I just using this place for low price?
  4. Price.

Notice price is last. Why? Because, if you don’t use it, it doesn’t matter that it was cheaper than another brand or if your buying experience is terrible it would have been worth it to pay more at another place to have a better experience. Price is important, but only after you’ve chosen what you want because it fits your needs and the way you want to buy it.

We use Macintosh computers and have since 1984 (the beginning of the Mac world). My wife uses a 12″ iBook and I use a 15″ PowerBook (TiBook or titanium PowerBook). These are our only computers. Both computers have AirPort cards in them (802.11b or WiFi) and we have two AirPort Extreme wireless base stations, one connected to the cable modem, the other wirelessly connected to and extending the range of the first.

With portable computers and WiFi we can move anywhere in the house and pretty far into the backyard (in summer) and remain on the internet. My wife usually carries her iBook into the living room to read and respond to email and visit with me (simultaneously!).

With this computer I can do online work anywhere on earth I have a high speed connection to the internet, which these days includes most Starbucks’, Bryant Park in New York, and thousands of other places including many hotels.

We live pretty far from shopping so we do almost all of our non-food shopping online: Amazon, Lands End, and more.

I co-wrote an article called Digital Independence on the impact of living and working like this and you can find it here: Digital Indepdence

I run OS X on my computer and I am writing this article with a simple text editing program that comes with OS X called TextEdit. It’s all I need to do most of the writing I do. I use its built-in spelling checker (not a great one but fine for me) and if I needed it (I don’t) it could easily have it read this text back to me out of the box, with no additional software necessary.

I use the program Sherlock for many things but mostly for its built in dictionary and thesaurus which is a good one. The Sherlock dictionary is actually a non-web front end for which I could also use but Sherlock is better.

Sherlock also has other tools for language translation, yellow pages and more that seamlessly use various online databases to find information.

I’m working on a program called Confusing Words which is a collection of over 3000 words that people have problems with, like affect and effect and there, their, and they’re. It’s a web-based reference tool that anyone in the world can use.

I use a Dymo Thermal LabelWriter printer to print labels for envelopes. It works like a charm and I’ve used various versions of this printer for many years to avoid having to handwrite envelopes.

We have an HP LaserJet 1012 that is connected to one of our AirPort base stations via a USB cable. We can print on this printer from anywhere in the house, wirelessly. It is our only printer (aside from the Dymo); we do not own an ink-jet or color printer of any kind.

I use iChatAV for daily work-related chat with two coworkers: one in Boston and one in Denmark who run the AlphaSmart Community Center with me.

I use OS X’s included Address Book as well as the iCal calendar program.

I use iTunes (a digital music-related program) not only to digitize CDs but to digitize radio programs like NPR’s This American Life and Fresh Air which I can then listen to on my iPod. I also buy single songs from Apple’s new online music store saving me from buying whole albums.

I have a new, 15 gigabyte iPod that I use to listen to music as well as to hold my address book and calendar. iSync synchronizes the iPod with my computer simply (much simpler than a Palm PDA syncs with a computer I might add). I also have my entire joke collection on my iPod (over 1000 jokes) because my memory is failing.

I use an electronic outliner called Omni Outliner which I could have used to write this article. I keep a single file called “Organizer” that holds detail that I don’t keep in iCal: detailed travel information for trips, serial numbers, passwords, magazine subscriptions, orders and invoices, notes, and more. This categorized list is at the center of my organizational life.

I have a Canon G3 digital camera and I use iPhoto to catalog and crop images. I use Apple’s (actually Kodak’s) online printing facility to make prints which are delivered two days after I buy them.

I use a Panasonic RRQR 100 digital voice recorder for notes on the road, for quick and dirty recordings of drumming practices, and for any recording I don’t plan to keep.

I use a Sony BM 575 micro-cassette recorder for all other voice and some music lesson recording. I had a mini disc recorder but while the digital technology made for excellent recordings, the small size and complexity of the tool made it hard to use.

We have a Franklin Bookman Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary reference tool on our coffee table in the living room. Sherlock’s dictionary has supplanted it but we still use it from time to time. My wife uses a talking Franklin reference product with her students at school.

I use an AlphaSmart 3000 keyboard to write at the beach on the lake down the road and in my kayak. I would never take this computer out in the kayak and with an AlphaSmart around there’s no need. We take the AlphaSmart on car trips and I carry it on planes and use it much more than this computer on almost all flights. When I’m lucky enough to upgrade to business or first class and the plane is new and has a power source in the seat I have the special power cord necessary to use it and use this computer more.

Being dysgraphic, I’m very particular about the pens I use. I like the Sanford Unable Gel Impact RT as well as the Pentel Energel. Both are smooth and a ton of ink comes out, perfect for masking my unsteady handwriting. I’d write all the time with a Sanford Sharpie but alas, it’s a marker, not a pen and it (literally) stinks.

I have a number of rolls of Lee Products’ Highlighter tape which I prefer to Crayola erasable highlighters and I still have and use a variety of colors of Avery Hi-Liters (just not on anything important or where the consequences of a mistake are harsh).

I’m left-handed and I have and use Fiskars Softouch scissors instead of traditional left handed scissors. I like the way they solve the handedness problem better: more inclusive, less exclusive.

I rarely shut my computer down, preferring instead simply to close it putting it to sleep. In the morning, after feeding the cat and making coffee for my wife and me, when I open it, email pours in (spam too although it’s routed to the trash) and sometimes my partner in Denmark (who has been working for 7 hours already) pops up opening a chat that we usually leave open all day.

I scan the headlines in Google News and look at the front page of Salon (of which I am a “premium” subscriber), see what’s up in the AlphaSmart Community Center as well as the Discussion area and the Warren, Connecticut Community area (my town).

By this time I’m finished with my one, large tumbler of coffee (Starbucks mail order which I buy from the web and they’ve just discontinued, rats!), my wife has left for school and the shower is free, my chat partner in Denmark is making dinner so I hop in the shower.

No, I do not bring any of this equipment into the shower with me, nor did I buy a Sharper Image CD player for the shower. One does need time to think, sans-tools, and hot water alone does the trick.