Technological advances making life easier for people with physical and mental challenges

DENVER, CO - Screen displays that deliver the written word to people who are sight-impaired, the latest ear implants for those who are deaf, and tools for individuals with mental challenges are on the cusp of a major technological revolution, paralleled by a growing aging population.

Developing and testing new devices for people with disabilities in real-world environments should enhance lab research, but sense-heightening technologies cannot replace the development of reading and writing skills, which are essential for understanding language and math, according to scientists at the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

Missing the ability to see does not have to preclude a person from pursuing a career of one's choice, however, if new technology heedlessly tips people who are blind away from studying Braille reading, it can do more harm than good, said Kent Cullers, the inspiration and real-life man behind the blind physicist character in the 1997 movie, Contact.

"A whole generation of blind people is being imperiled by the use of cheap speech 'displays' in preference to more expensive Braille," said Cullers, who is Director of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Research and Development in Mountain View, California.

Although the evolution of computers and other technological devices helps power the "extension of the senses," Braille is still needed in order to understand language and math, explained Cullers, who has been blind since birth. "Like everyone who produces careful work, blind people must read and write!"

Among the totally blind, about 75 percent are unemployed. However, almost 9 out of 10 of the totally blind who are employed read Braille. Therefore, Cullens said, it is plausible that Braille reading, as with reading in general, imbues workers with the skills needed for competent performance.

Still, much professional material is not easily availa


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