School rolls out new tech application for disabled students
by Chase Collum
Jun 30, 2014 | 1269 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In many schools, the only computers equipped for use by students with physical disabilities are found in separate labs from where most students congregate, surf the net and study.

PS811Q in Queens is trying to bridge that gap by providing a new app developed by Toronto-based Essential Accessibility to their students.

“We are extremely proud to be the first school in the country to provide this groundbreaking app on our website,” said PS811Q Penny Ryan. “By offering this app, we are able to better reach and involve all members of the PS 811Q community and empower them to become active participants in providing the brightest possible future for all students.”

EA Director Spiro Papathanasakis demonstrated the app to this paper from his Toronto office in a video teleconference. He showed that it is able to scroll and select based on where the user’s head is oriented and how long they’ve hovered there, and it can also read out loud blocks of text if necessary.

For those who are unable to use a traditional mouse or direct their facial orientation to control their computer, the app has a function that divides the screen into a grid similar to that of Battleship or a Bingo board, allowing the user to tell the computer they want to select something in sector G7, for example. And those are just a few of its functions.

“When a student is trying to access info online, if they have a disability such as a dexterity impairment, they’ll need assisted technology,” Papathanasakis said. “Our software allows folks to overcome the need to use a mouse or a keyboard.”

The app is available for free on the EA website, and PS811Q has made the link available on their website. Once the app is downloaded onto a computer, it is run on a completely client-side program that the user can keep forever.

"We are truly thankful to Essential Accessibility for making this remarkable technology available to our students, our parents, teachers and the entire community,” said Anthony Caponera, parent association treasurer and member of the School Leadership Team. “We have incorporated and adopted a novel approach to a global situation, and hope it becomes a standard feature to bridge web access with varying abilities.”

EA’s Managing Director Simon Dermer explained that he and Papathanasakis are both veterans of the healthcare field, where they often worked with people who have physical limitations. From those roots, the two came together to create the app because most assistive technology is prohibitively expensive.

“We became initially involved with a company in Switzerland on the type of platform that everyone from Stephen Hawking on down could take advantage of, but it was very expensive,” Derner said. “That’s where we came up with a model instead of several thousand dollars for a license. Let’s streamline the efficiency to put it out there [and find a way to] get the cost to be born by other beneficiaries.”

And that’s exactly what they did, finding favor with philanthropist organizations including the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funded the development of the program, allowing the company to offer it to anyone who needs it free of charge.

The application currently functions natively on Windows computers and through a boot camp utility on Macs, though an Apple version of the program is currently under development.

Now that they’ve broken into the U.S., they hope more schools and private organizations will also begin to share the link and the software.

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