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Forum Showcases Technology Designed to Help Persons with Disabilities

Recent breakthroughs in technology have been a godsend for the persons with disabilities, who now have an array of computerized aids to make everyday living easier. In Los Angeles, VOA's Mike O'Sullivan attended a forum on technology and the disabled to speak with the makers of some of the high tech instruments.

The devices talk, and some, with the aid of voice-recognition technology, almost seem to understand.

Jodi Johnson is associate director of the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge. The center sponsors the annual conference on technology for the disabled, from robotic arms to super-fast encoders that convert written text to Braille. That reading system based on touch is widely used by the blind, and Ms. Johnson says, today, it is supplemented with other high tech systems.

"There are lots of new things here, in terms of access for blind and low-vision," she notes.

A Korean company called A.D. Information and Communications produces a text reader called Voiceye, which operates in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

Michael Park, the company's chief executive and president, explains that printed information can be reduced to a small image, something like a bar code used in supermarkets. The system converts information to audio, using voice recognition software.

"It is composed of Voice Eye camera and recorder and software, Voice Eye Maker," says Mr. Park.

Mr. Park's assistant, Halen Jeong demonstrates the software, as the device reads information that has been encoded in the corner of a sample driver's license. She places the camera on the data symbol, a block of dots 1.5 centimeters square.

"It captures the image," she explains.

A computer reads the information.

COMPUTER: "License number BO91101. Class, C-M One. Male, Hair Brown, Height. Six feet Two inches. Expires, March 10, 2005."

Further along in the exhibition hall, a woman demonstrates a high-tech device called the Ultracane. Jane Fowler of the British company, Sound Foresight, says the cane, developed for the blind at Leeds University, uses SONAR, in which reflected sound waves pinpoint the location of objects.

"It's using echo location in the way that dolphins and bats would,” she says. “So, it's looking in two directions. It's looking in front of you, where your foot falls, but it's looking upwards also, for anything that could strike you at shoulder and head height."

The cane offers the user feedback through two vibrating buttons on the handle. The intensity of the vibrations tells the user how close or far away an obstacle is.

Tomasina Perry of the catalogue company LS&S, which stands for learning, sight and sound, sells products that help people with sight or hearing impairments.

"We have low vision watches,” she notes. “We have talking watches, which are very popular. We also have talking clocks, talking calculators."

While many new devices are based on technical innovations, other aids for the disabled are still low-tech. Ms. Perry says popular items include magnifying glasses and large-print dictionaries.

"We have many simple-solution items for people that need them," she adds.

More than 4000 people attend this annual conference. Jodi Johnson of the Center on Disabilities says it gives the disabled a chance to try the latest technology, and offers manufacturers a chance to meet customers, and learn what devices they hope to see developed in the future.