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Accessing Assistive Technology

Purchasing assistive software and hardware can be an expensive shopping trip. Here are some tips to help you get what you need.

Purchasing technology can can crash your bank account but there are ways to cut the cost.

Let’s face it: Apple is cool. Apple is cool for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they are innovative. Five years ago, who would have thought that a blind person could use a touch screen phone? (Apple, apparently.)

I’m speaking of course of the iPhone 3GS, which has an assortment of accessibility features like VoiceOver and is probably the most easy to use voice activated software on the market. But the tech market is constantly being flooded with new hardware and software, most of which will cost a good chunk of your newly acquired pay cheque or your government funded education. Although far from universal, accessibility options on commercial software and hardware is certainly a step in the right direction when it comes to raising the minimum level of access.

Uh, Where’s the Start Button?

“The problem with going and buying something off the shelf,” says Ryan Vernon, faculty member and librarian at B.C. College and Institute Library Services, Langara College, “ is that it’s really expensive and if doesn’t work out for you, you’ve probably made a huge capital investment that can’t be recouped.” Vernon spends much of his time formatting print sources into alternative formats for disabled students. He recommends looking for programs that are free and programs that have trials, like Kurzweil, which offers free runs of some of their software. A Kurzweil license, however, can run close to two thousand dollars. Yikes.

But with the recent popularity of open source software and a general push towards offering more free programs and information online, the time is ripe to start picking from the proverbial tech tree. Pack a lunch and spend a little time online. Adaptech (www.adaptech.dawsoncollege.qc.ca) has an extensive list of free and inexpensive software and the recently re-vamped NEADS website has links to all kinds of technology related sites.

“You can also go to different places where they have these things installed,” Vernon says, “so if you are a college student, it’s highly likely that your institute will have an adaptive lab you can get access to and a try some of the technology and have someone sit down with you and walk you through it.”

Many companies, like TD, have labs where employees with disabilities can test drive new hardware and programs. The employee will work with an expert, find out what works best, and then that particular piece of hardware or software will be ordered.

“I think we’re going to see this with all big companies who do business in the states,” Vernon says. A law in the U.S., Section 508, requires that companies that do business with the federal government have certain accessibility standards built in, he says. “So for a company like Xerox who sell a lot of copiers to the government it’s a necessity to them.”


For students, much of the funding is done at the provincial level, through various grants and loans. You have to be eligible for a student loan, have to have persons with a disability status in addition to other requirements. If you don’t meet those requirements, chances are you won’t get hardware support. There are also numerous organizations that provide assistance. Check with your local disability services to see what’s out there. Your school may even have a research lab that specializes in assistive technology as much of the research going into this field is done at the academic level.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that hardware can be re-purposed. Those old PC’s still have some miles left, so ask around. You may be able to find decent hardware that your friends, family and local businesses don’t need. And again, there are plenty of free software programs available that are just as good as the commercial ones.

What is the Matrix?

It’s important to ask questions, says Vernon of anybody who is a neophyte. “For someone who is new to this, you have to go into it with the realization that it’s difficult but not insurmountable.” There will be a new vocabulary that will take time to learn. Vernon says that the most important thing is a sense of self-reliance and that idea that you are going to help yourself. So talk to your techminded friends, check with your local librarian and don’t be scared of the learning curve. There will be a new vocabulary that will take time to learn. “That’s part of self-reliance,” says Vernon, “asking for help when you need it and talking to different organizations that have expertise and have been there before and can help you out.”