Saturday, March 24, 2012

Showed some students something Real yesterday

It's been a while since I've had fodder for a full-length blog post. Most of my life recently has been revolving about working, working, and more working. Which is good, since oddly enough, the only way to create anything that resembles a savings is to earn the money in the first place. But the side effect of having three part-time jobs is that sometimes, you spend a LOT of time working.

But yesterday definitely provided blog-post fodder. No doubt about it.

My deaf-blind friend JEJ has got multiple different disabilities, all due to a gene mutation which was only discovered fairly recently. (Meaning, both that the mutated gene was discovered within the past couple years in him, AND medical science is only recently aware of just what a mutation of said gene can cause.) Along with causing loss of vision and hearing, this gene issue also causes a laundry list of other issues which my friend has been experiencing one by one. Loss of balance and mobility. Muscle control issues. Chronic pain. And, unfortunately, a level of neuropathy that has rendered him unable to read braille -- an especially cruel loss, because JEJ has been an avid reader all his life.

Losing the ability to read braille meant being unable to read books, letters, and the computer displays that allowed him to make TTY calls and exchange emails with numerous friends. And those were his main connections to the outside world that lay beyond the reach of arm's length. I'm wracking my brain trying to think of an equivalent loss in the sighted/hearing world, but I can't. We have so many outlets that we don't even realize exist, because we take them for granted. But imagine having no TV, no radio, no computer, no phone, no snail mail, no contact with anyone who's not in the same room as you, and no "outlet" anymore for being able to go into that mental place where recreational reading takes us. If you can clearly fix this image in your mind, then you'll understand what a loss this neuropathy caused over the past few years.

Fast-forward to last September. There is currently a group of people in PA who are trying to re-establish a deaf-blind social group in the state. At an event over Labor Day weekend, JEJ met up with a local deaf-blind engineer who happened to create a device while he was in college called a Tacticom. This device is one giant refreshable braille cell, with cotter pins that move up-and-down to simulate one braille letter at a time, and it can be connected to a computer to allow the blind person to read the screen. It's designed for people who can't feel standard-sized braille. They can rest their whole hand on the giant braille cell, and feel the letters come up that way. Or, if they can't feel the braille in their hand, they can rest their forearm on the device, or place the device against their side, their leg, or any other region that DOES have enough remaining sensation to perceive the braille letters appearing.

Scott, the engineer, thought of that device he'd made immediately, when he was talking to JEJ. However, there would have to be some significant updates made to the device before it would be rendered usable for JEJ. Firat of all, the software for the device was designed for DOS computers and parallel/serial ports, not with Windows and USB ports. Second of all, the only existing devices were prototypes, not ones that were designed for the rigors of use in real life.

To make a long story less long, for the past few months, Scott, his former instructor, and a current engineering student have been working on creating a Tacticom for JEJ to use. Scott supplied the software and the design for the device; the instructor and the student actually built the device and rewrote the software to create an interface for Windows computer.

Well, yesterday was the demo. We all headed up to the university's engineering lab so JEJ could try out the preliminary version of the device. When we got to the lab, there were 8 or 10 other engineering students working on other projects. One by one, they ALL stopped what they were doing, to come over and watch the demonstration of this braille device. Scott's former instructor, perceiving a major teachable moment was in progress, impressed on them not just the mechanics of the Tacticom, but the IMPACT of how engineering is going to completely change a person's life for the better. And I think every one of them Got It. I *really* think they Got It. Maybe some of those young'uns will start to ponder whether they can use their abilities to design assistive tech, whereas they might not have thought of that kind of application of their skills otherwise.

The student who worked on the Tacticom said, flat-out, that he found working on the Tacticom at least as exciting as some work he'd done for NASA. And that feeling was reinforced yesterday when he saw the demo and understood how important the device is for changing a life for the better.

The device isn't quite ready for prime time yet. It still has some temporary wires coming out of it that will eventually be enclosed in one large cable. But we're close to seeing the day when the Tacticom is installed in JEJ's house, allowing him to read text on his computer.

What's more, I believe that this deployment of a Tacticom (short for Tactile Communication) is only the beginning. Someone who is aware of this project happened to mention it in passing on a Deaf-Blind Techies mailing list that I subscribe to, and the list absolutely blew up with questions from other members. The other members misunderstood, and thought that this device was already finalized and being manufactured by some company, and they all wanted more info because they knew of people who couldn't feel regular braille well enough to read it.

So, while JEJ is going to be the first person who uses a current-generation Tacticom in real life, I suspect he won't be the last. Once the device is completely ready, I think that if word spreads that such a device exists, demand for it is going to run rampant. So MORE lives are going to be changing. I'm thinking that the design specs of the device can be made open source, so that anyone who wants to build one will be able to do so. This is really huge. Or it will be, once it exists in the real world and word starts to get out.

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