Newswise — It's a subtle reverberation that gradually builds up momentum until it finally reaches its frustrating crescendo. The muffled noise being heard across America is not an ill-tuned piano or a hoarse opera singer. It's the sound of a whole segment of society being left behind in this fast-moving electronic age.
Pointing and clicking, scrolling and other standard steps that are necessary to navigate a computer and the World Wide Web are not as easy as a click of the mouse for older Americans and people with special needs. The end result is a feeling of isolation and an inability to fully take advantage of new methods of communication, and how health care and rehabilitation are delivered in this modern age.
The Misericordia University Assistive Technology Research Institute (ATRI) has spent the last year researching and developing the Elder Interface for computer users that have special needs. In the near future, the new program will be available in newly purchased computers for people that need changes in the way the screen, mouse and keyboard behave. The simplified interface includes larger icons, fonts and other special features.
ATRI and Denis Anson, director of research and development, are participating in a new Microsoft campaign that was launched in Miami, Fla. The campaign encourages the underserved population to use computers and participate in the electronic age through training and education exercises.
Microsoft's "SeniorPC'' initiative builds on the eSeniors project, which kicked off in Miami last October. Miami's seniors are eligible to receive up to four training sessions on computers and Web basics, and up to $200 in credit that can be applied to the overall cost of a new computer. The program also offers low-cost refurbished computers to program participants.
As part of the contract between Microsoft and ATRI, Anson will monitor the training that is provided to elders participating in the program as well as other similar programs around the country, and refine training methods to meet the special needs of elders.
"For younger learners, offering multiple ways to perform any task allows the student to find the way that works best for them,'' Anson explains. "With elders, multiple approaches can increase confusion. The new training materials we are developing will provide one way to do any task. It may not be the fastest, but it is one that you can count on.''
The new SeniorPC training materials will also be customized to meet the needs of older learners. "Some actions are more difficult to do with 70-year-old hands,'' Anson says. "We try to avoid those as much as possible. The other programs we've evaluated show a good understanding of computer functioning, but a weaker understanding of the needs of elders.''
The new training is being developed as part of Microsoft's SeniorPC program. Once the training has been tested, Microsoft plans to launch it nationally, according to Anson.
Microsoft is also partnering with Hewlett Packard and Dell to provide special computer systems through Microsoft Marketplace as the second component of the SeniorPC project. The packages will include computer systems with the most commonly needed software for e-mail, Web browsing and writing. It will also offer adaptations that tailor the computer to elders' needs, including specialized interface devices. One of the options featured on the computers will be the Elder Interface.
"It's important to make the interface adaptations before an older person asks for help,'' Anson says. "If you wait for elders to say that the computer needs to change, they are more likely to say that they don't want to use it.''
The objective of the SeniorPC project is to narrow the digital divide between younger and older Americans. But it could also have far-reaching effects in helping to address at least one issue in the national health care crisis. National health care professionals have already identified telemedicine as a way to reduce the overall cost of health care. By utilizing computer technology like Web cameras, blogs and e-mails, patients can seek timely medical consultations with a physician or a member of their medical staff, thus saving time, money and lives.
This new delivery model is hampered, however, by the lack of computers and computer skills among older Americans. A 2003 report by the U.S. Census Bureau clearly delineates the digital divide. Less than 35 percent of Americans 65 and older had computers in their homes when the report was compiled. Conversely, almost 74 percent of Americans aged 35-44 owned computers.
ATRI was established at Misericordia University in 2004 with the assistance of a $190,000 grant from the federal Administration on Aging. Under the guidance of Anson, the institute modifies new and enhances existing assistive technology devices to allow people with limited function to participate in their personal lives and communities to the greatest extent possible.
It is also a regional resource for information and education in the application of assistive technology. Misericordia faculty and students majoring in the health sciences, including speech-language pathology, nursing, medical imaging and physical and occupational therapy, conduct studies and work closely with technology and manufacturing firms as well as government entities on the local, state and federal levels to develop real-world data that helps this segment of society live full and productive lives.
The institute is currently engaged in a research project with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) that evaluates the accessibility of education for students and teachers, alike. ATRI and UWM are developing assessment tools that allow students to report how engaged they are in the educational process and to identify the barriers they experience in accessing educational services.
ATRI and the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Institute are conducting a study to determine if augmentative communication devices improve the quality of life for people who use the technology and whether communication fluency corresponds with improved quality of life. The Assistive Technology Efficacy Tool (ATET) is being developed and marketed in conjunction with Software Engineering Associates in an effort to lower the cost of assistive technology devices for consumers, developers and health insurance providers.
ATET is computer software that measures the functional independence of a person before they acquire the device and periodically afterward. Since assistive technology is designed to increase function for people, the best way to measure its effectiveness is to see if using the device makes a person more or less functional.
For more information about the Misericordia University Assistive Technology Research Institute, please call (570) 674- 6413 or log on to http://atri.misericordia.edu/.