Technology and Differently Abled People
Other Common Denominators
During 18 of my 20 years of work in the care of people with mental retardation, I never
really thought that the use of technology could be a means of improving their quality of
life. When we on the staff wanted to improve the quality of a programme, we tried to
increase personnel density, education and supervision. The idea of using technological
aids never came up in our discussions.
One of many possible explanations can be that I worked with young people with mental
difficulties who often were in need of their own personal attendants. In addition, most of
the activities were carried out in groups, both at school and in the residential
facilities. The staff, consciously or unconsciously, guided the pupils around
difficulties. They often simply solved the problem for their pupils.
After 18 years of work with children and young people, I got a job as a director of
group homes for mildly mentally retarded adults. Problems suddenly arose that I had
never been confronted with before. How would the residents be fed on the weekends when the
staff was free? What about the coffee maker that was never turned off or the resident who
put on summer clothes in the winter? This had never happened at the school residential
facilities because staff members were always present to prepare food, turn off the coffee
maker and, in effect, act as reminders. In the group homes, on the other hand, the
residents were expected to make it on their own two or three days a week. Their activities
were not in groups - they got around on their own in the community. Their jobs were not at
day centres and sheltered workshops but could be in industry. They got themselves there
and back by train and bus instead of by the special transport taxi service for the
This was a new problem for me. These mildly retarded adults lived much more
independently than the young people in residential facilities where there always was a
care provider who eliminated difficulties. Now, if a problem arose, the adult had to solve
it himself or get help from a fellow resident. Things went well for the most part, but
sometimes, in certain situations, the intellectual disability was a real stumbling block.
The following example serves as an illustration.
Because I knew that this person could tell time, I assumed that it was due to a
misunderstanding. I didn't look into it any further. But one morning a very upset man by
the name of Stig came up to my office. He demanded that I fire the night staff member in
his flat because she had overslept. He wanted me to scold the staff at his day centre as
well because they hadn't come to work on time.
After talking with the staff at the group home and the day centre, I realised exactly
what had happened.
When Stig wakes up he can see that it is 4.00 am. He knows that the bus leaves at 7.30 am. What he is unable to do is figure out that it is three and a half hours until the bus goes and that he can fall back to sleep during that period of time. It appears to be a rather simple, ordinary math problem. In reality it places great demands on the thought processes of the intellectually disabled. Stig gets up when he wakes because he is very conscientious and wants to get to work on time. He eats breakfast and gets himself ready and is at the bus stop at 5.00, waiting for the six o'clock bus. He arrives at the day centre at 6.30 but because it is closed he takes the next bus home again and furiously comes up to me, demanding that I put my foot down.
Looking at it from Stig's point of view, his indignation is, of course,
he sees it, the night staff is still sleeping when he gets up. And when he arrives
at work there is nobody there. They have overslept too.
What Stig needs to realize is where in the night he is when he wakes. He needs
something other than an hour clock. Time is a concept that is too abstract for him (this
will be discussed further on in the book). I initially contacted CERTEC to talk about time
and its measurement.
Shortly after, CERTEC designed and developed a clock based on a comparison of time to
length (see picture below).
A model drawing of the clock can be seen on the left, while a photo of part of the actual clock can be seen on the right.
Every quarter of an hour is represented by a light diode (in the model drawing we
have marked off every half-hour instead due to lack of space). At 7.00 am all the diodes
are lit. For every quarter of an hour that passes, a light switches off.
This means that when Stig wakes up at 4.00 am he should be able see where he
is in the night and realize that he can go back to sleep.
I started to think about time in general after CERTEC had developed the clock. What
expressions of time do people with mental retardation have difficulties managing? Can this
problem be solved with CERTEC's clock or are other aids needed? How should one deal with
such indefinite time expressions as "soon, just a moment, in a minute, a
while, shortly, before long, later, tonight," etc.? You probably think that these are
well-defined expressions, but when does "evening" really begin and how many
"moments" make a "minute"?
I have spoken with many mildly retarded people who interpret "morning" as
just that point in time when one takes a morning coffee break, and "tomorrow
morning" is taken to mean only "morning". An expression such as "we'll
do that tomorrow morning" is both contradictory and inconceivable.
CERTEC has received requests for a simpler, portable version of this type of CERTEC
clock. It can be carried in a handbag and work as a kind of "time ruler".
The time ruler consists of a row of lights. When you
push the red marker at the top, they all light up. They turn off one by one every three
minutes. The idea behind the time ruler is to keep the user from being forced without
warning to suddenly stop an activity. It will also let them to know how long an activity
they are involved in will last. If the colour markings on the clock (red for an
yellow for three-quarters of an hour, green for a half and blue for a quarter) were
consistently used to mark off the activities, the time ruler could gradually help to
establish a certain inner sense of time. Until then, the time ruler serves this
Look on the time ruler as an example of how one cannot always decide in advance what
function an aid will fulfill: if it will be a device that assists the learning process or
a compensation for a disability. The time ruler works both ways; different people can have
it for different needs. It can also change functions for the same individual. What was
initially a compensation for an impaired understanding of "how long?" can
gradually become an aid in the learning process.
I have gradually discovered that most of the everyday problems people with mental
retardation have can be reduced to a few common denominators. I call one of these
"sliding scales". People with intellectual disabilities have difficulties
dealing with equipment, activities, expressions of time, etc, that are diffusely
What CERTEC achieved with their clock was to simply decide that the evening started
at 4.00 pm and was over at 10.00 pm. When night and day began and ended were defined
in a similar manner.
The significance of this was a true "aha!" experience. I started to see
sliding scales in all kinds of possible and impossible contexts. When I had once
discovered them, I knew that something could be done about them. It was simply a matter of
replacing the sliding scale with clearly defined points that one could hold on to or talk
CERTEC in co-operation with the bakery developed a baking thermometer that replaced the sliding thermometer scale with three distinct temperature areas: one for "hot", one for "lukewarm" and one for "cold". This made it possible for the woman to carry out the whole baking process on her own, which strengthened her self-confidence immensely.
Other Common Denominators
When talking with colleagues and relatives of people with intellectual
have discovered that there is an intuitive feeling for both the problem with the sliding
scales and for other common problems. Many, though, lack the words and concepts to
describe these to each other.
One thing this book attempts to do is describe, through examples, what kinds of
difficulties people with mental retardation have in everyday life. By analysing different
situations I will try to show that there are common factors that are valid in many areas.
It is possible to discern both concepts and theories (relation).
Technical solutions cannot and should not be seen as something tricky, complicated and
involving a lot of extra effort and work. They have to be an integrated part of the job
and must be based on the same concepts and theories as the rest of the programme.
Technology, though, demands that one is clear and concise. Vagueness in thought is
unmercifully revealed; one has to know exactly what the problem is and what one wants to
accomplish. The clarity that technology in this way forces upon us can - if we pay
attention to it - be of help in all other aspects of the programme.
The focus of CERTEC's research efforts isto try to utilise technology as a
To use technological solution as a means of understanding the needs. Engineers are often
accused of trying to find solutions for problems that they have not taken the time to
understand. This criticism may well be justified, but the procedures can actually be used
as a key method of describing in a more concrete way than ever the underlying
after much hard work you succeed in coming up with a technical solution that people deem
positive, that solution becomes a product, ie, something concrete. Whether it is made of
nuts and bolts or of computer technology's zeros and ones, it is so concrete that we do
not misunderstand one another or feel uncertain. Technology as a method and language can
contribute with the precision and clarity of the natural sciences while maintaining the
affirmative and many-faceted variety of the social sciences.
Through common sense and goal-directed research methodology one can find fundamental,
guiding principles. Then it is relatively easy to come up with the technology that can
compensate for the mental retardation. In other words one can often be satisfied with what
could be called "natural intelligence".
But there are areas in which it is very difficult to compensate for the mental retardation. This concerns certain judgements, decisions and planning in which artificial intelligence could be a partial solution. A branch of artificial intelligence is called expert systems. In the chapter "The Svarne Expert System" I will tell about one. But first a little natural intelligence.
Table of Contents
2. Natural Intelligence
3. Artificial Intelligence