Technology and Differently Abled People

Arne Svensk

Sliding Scales
Other Common Denominators
Common Sense

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 disabled.

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.

Looking at it from Stig's point of view, his indignation is, of course, motivated. As 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".

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 hour, 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 function.

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.

Sliding Scales

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 defined. 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 about.

Other Common Denominators

When talking with colleagues and relatives of people with intellectual disabilities, I 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 language. 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 needs. If 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.

Common Sense

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
1. Introduction
2. Natural Intelligence
3. Artificial Intelligence
4. Isaac