Canadian Technology Improving the Lives of the Mentally Challenged

Posted by Sarah McMahon-Sperber on 2012-04-26 12:30:00 PM

If apps and devices have the power to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, they also have the power to change people’s lives. Putting new technology to good use, the Société de Transport de Laval, which manages the city’s public transit system just North of Montreal, is working on an app aimed at travellers with mental disabilities and pervasive development disorders.

Using geo-location, simple interfaces and vivid visuals, the group has partnered up with a rehabilitation center for the mentally disabled, as well as the research chair in self-determination support technologies at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, to put together an accessible and navigable app for this unique demographic. Their efforts fall right in step with a slew of technological developments and research for the disabled. And their ability to harness the power of mobile technology is proving astounding.

In a quest for increased independence and constant learning, tech developers throughout the country have begun designing apps and technology for some of those who can use it the most – those with disabilities that make it hard for them to step out on their own. Beyond telling you the weather or what time the next bus is coming, apps can now tell you which shirt and pants you should wear in today’s weather; and show you a picture of the bus that’s going to take you where you need to go.

Though still rare, all of these apps have one common and initial challenge; usability and navigation. You can’t just hand them the same program you would an average, tech-savvy 21 year old. The interfaces of these specific devices and apps have to be understandable and easily modified by each of these unique users. User friendly to the max. It’s all about combining series of sophisticated and sometimes complex functions and packaging them in something simple and clean.

Here’s the second challenge, according to the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières’s SDST: the contrast between the speed at which technologies develop and change, and the slow integration rate and speed of the intended target. By the time users and supervisors have wrapped their minds and gotten comfortable with any given program or app, five new editions and a slew of new functionalities will have been developed.

According to the SDST’s research, new technology only has a five month shelf life. It is therefore extremely important that the apps be introduced in their early phases to supervisors, family and friends.

They are then more likely to feel comfortable teaching the user how to navigate the system as soon as it’s ready. And it is then to be introduced to the user at just the right time and with the proper technical support network, which has to be able and constantly available to help the guides with any issues or glitches. The introduction of these products into their markets can be quite complex.

Two other issues arise; resistance from those surrounding potential users (especially those who are not particularly familiar or comfortable with technology in such a context,) and the danger of users becoming dependant on the programs. Some have suggested taking the devices or programs away as soon as the user has understood the lesson, task or concept. Others still fear or misunderstand its use, or are nervous about the time necessary to fully teaching the user how to navigate the technology.

A few Canadian companies and groups are nonetheless paving the way by creating precedents. The Société de Transport de Laval and its team will not have to start from scratch.

Infologique Innovation, a tech-developing company from Trois-Rivières, released its MARTi application this January. Described as an “easy to use application that can support any person who needs assistance to perform the steps required to complete a task,” the app uses customizable images, videos and audio clips to take a user through every step of a wide range of tasks.

It divides every chore into steps and choices – say Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe tea – and then communicates the process through whatever medium is most suited to the user. Tasks can include vital check-ups and health matters; such as what pills to take at any given time, or how to take a glucose test.

“The first steps are always about getting data about things like the size of the buttons, the number of steps that we could integrate, universal visual hints for every task and then maybe, in the case of the STL app, GPS and tracking programs,” SDST researcher Dany Lussier-Desrochers tells me. Though certain aspects of the STL’s app are bound to be unique and innovative, another Canadian group has set the foundations with their own take on ‘doing good’ through technology.

In 2010, a group of researchers from Ryerson University (they call themselves the Flybits) launched their Mobile Travel Companion during their Digital Media Launch Zone event in Paris. It is now allowing users of the Paris Metro system to navigate seamlessly by “using context-aware self-adaptive computing to deliver live, customized data to passengers en route.”

As project leader Hossein Rahnama explained in the app’s official press release statement that his group wanted to focus “on passengers with special needs because those communities could really benefit from such applications, even though they are often not considered when developing apps.” The app’s technology uses different data and GPRS capabilities to let its users know what bus they need to take, when it will show up, what it will look like and when to get off.

If the user goes off track, it will ask him or her to confirm that the change in trajectory is intentional – if the user has crossed the street for a bite to eat, for example. If the user is in fact unintentionally off track, it will direct him or her in the right direction with the help of videos and images; and, if need be, the app will contact transit workers and family in order to rectify the situation.

It will also warn you not to get on the bus that has just arrived at your stop if it detects that a bus other than your own has arrived. Additionally, when consent is given by the user, the app will allow support workers and family to keep an eye on the user’s present location. The result is an easy-to-understand and intuitive transit system – especially for those who may initially find it intimidating.

It would therefore seem that Canadians are up-keeping their reputation as the “nice guys,” with considerable efforts and research going into creating important and life-altering technology for those who can truly benefit. Be it a USB key, a computer program, or a mobile application, small steps can often have impressive results.

In a touching series of adverts by the Quebec Federation of Rehabilitation Centers, we see a person going through life with another set of arms brushing their teeth, holding their utensils and navigating a computer mouse. By the end of the clip, their message is clear. Independence is vital in building a person’s self-esteem and in offering them a healthy quality of life.

Technology has the power to help in that process, and luckily, a few are determined to put that power to good use. No matter the challenges.

Reproduced from