Technology improves independence for people with disability

Posted 10 months ago by Nicole Pope

Vision Australia’s Access Technology Advisor David Woodbridge has been using Soundscape with his assistance dog [Source: Vision Australia]
Vision Australia’s Access Technology Advisor David Woodbridge has been using Soundscape with his assistance dog [Source: Vision Australia]

Technology has yet again proved its value within the disability sector with the introduction of both a new navigation app to help the blind or vision impaired and a virtual reality training program that is set to teach people with intellectual disabilities road safety and other life skills.

The new Soundscape app, recently launched by Microsoft Australia and Vision Australia, will empower people who are blind or have low vision to explore their environment through 3D and audio awareness.

The app works by providing users with information about their surroundings through the set up of a chosen destination or familiar landmark.

By using Soundscape while wearing a stereo headset, people will be able to build an image of what’s around them, with the app able to call out roads, intersections and landmarks as the person passes them.

Vision Australia’s Access Technology Advisor David Woodbridge says the app allows him to feel confident and less stressed when he’s out and about.

“Soundscape gives me confidence in an outside environment by helping me understand what’s around me - whether it’s a restaurant, cafe, railway station, walking/bike track, park, business or even a street name,” he explains.

“Rather than dictate what I should do, it allows me to make my own decisions based on the information it is providing, meaning I am always in control.”

“The app is easy to use and I have my own personal markers set for different locations.”

Mr Woodbridge says he frequents his local coffee shop with the help of the ‘coffee shop’ Soundscape marker.

Corporate Affairs Director and Accessibility Lead at Microsoft Australia, David Masters, says “sound is incredibly important” in helping people with low or no vision participate in their communities.

“They already use sound to help them build a mental map of the world around them and what Soundscape does is it adds to that. So it allows someone to really create that richer perspective of what’s going around them.”

Mr Masters says Microsoft is thrilled to partner with Vision Australia and hopes the relationship will deliver valuable tools to the vision impaired community.

“It’s a really exciting time for accessible products and accessibility in general and we see technologies like artificial intelligence as incredibly powerful,” he says.

“Technology is an incredibly empowering experience for people with disabilities and we want to push the boundaries of that further.”

Mr Masters also says Microsoft Australia has announced a $25 million five year program called AI for Accessibility which will stimulate ideas within the community of how to use artificial intelligence to empower people with disabilities.

Managing Director of Microsoft, Steven Worrall hopes the organisation will gain a further understanding of the challenges people with vision impairments experience.

“We know that Vision Australia’s clients have seen huge benefits from the use of other Microsoft technologies and have contributed to making our tools more accessible.”

“It’s our mission to continue to partner with organisations like Vision Australia to make technology more accessible to the four million Australians who live with disabilities every day and specifically to the 384,000 Australians who are blind or have no [low] vision.”

Virtual reality (VR) is also proving powerful for disability support, thanks to its multifaceted ability to improve the quality of life of the elderly or people with disability.

The Endeavour Foundation recently launched 15 training programs, which will allow people with intellectual disabilities to learn a whole host of skills including road safety, obtaining cash from an automated teller machine (ATM) or barista training.

The same technology will also help people with intellectual disabilities learn to drive.

A spokesperson from Endeavour Foundation says the program helps increase the independence of people with intellectual disabilities, something that is often mentioned in their customer’s NDIS plans.

The realistic program has mapped streets their customers would encounter every day, with the course allowing the ‘driver’ to pull out of the driveway and travel along the main road near one of Endeavour’s offices before pulling into a McDonalds drive through.

“Independence without a car in Australia – especially in country towns – is all but impossible,” the spokesperson says.

“This is something that a lot of people with intellectual disability – as well as their families and support workers – believe is impossible to achieve.”

Dale Harvey, a customer of the Foundation’s Townsville Learning service says the program has helped him become more independent.

“I’m learning how to be smart with money and I’m learning how to cook,” he says.

“I thought the train VR program was the most helpful because it showed you how to get a ticket and that you had to wait for the train.”

Implementation Specialist at Endeavour Foundation, Stewart Koplick says the VR’s driving program is expected to be ready for release at the end of this year.

With the world of technology ever changing, its use within the disability sector sure presents exciting times for those requiring support.

You can read more about a recently announced project by disability service provider, House with No Steps Group where they are utilising VR to help educate support staff on how to manage ‘risky’ situations involving those they care for.

For more information on disability support and services, please visit DisabilitySupportGuide.com.au

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