The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Cool tools make better lives


One of the round tables at the Seward Senior Center was covered with gadgets designed to help people see or hear more clearly, or even get a better grip on their paint brush. Maggie Cisco, a representative from Assistive Technology of Alaska, or ATLA, the state's only comprehensive assistive technology resource center, visited from Anchorage Monday afternoon to speak with anyone who might find the tools helpful, and to help them determine whether they could qualify loans available to pay for them.

With tremors, loss of hearing or eyesight, or any of the other physical issues that can result from aging, disease or injury, activities that other people may take for granted, such as the ability to talk on the phone or to understand conversations can be frustrating. Assistive technology devices like the ones Cisco showcased can be extremely helpful to living more satisfying, independent and productive lives.

The examples displayed included amplified phones with large, easy-to-see buttons for those with vision problems, and for those suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia a phone with buttons that displays photos of the person they wish to call, so they don't have to remember their number. There were digital, high-definition magnifiers that look like cell phones to help people read small print, or magnifiers as simple as a glass dome to move over a newspaper to enlarge it. There was a small device that shakes the floor beneath the bed to awaken someone who can't hear their alarm go off. An alert system flashes specific lights, informing the person that someone is at one of their doors, or calling their phone.

Cisco introduced SensAbility, a new grant program funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority that supports assistive technology for people with vision or hearing loss. The grant provides long-term loans to those eligible of any age for assistance obtaining the devices at no charge. The equipment is simply returned when the person no longer uses them.

Melinda Maddox, the advocate with the Independent Living Center in Seward invited Cisco to share her expertise about the various types of assistive technologies available. ATLA works closely with the ILC and many other different groups Alaska to assist them in helping their clients, she said. They visit if there are enough people in town wanting to speak with them, and are thinking about visiting Seward quarterly. Only six or seven people showed up at the senior center for the visit Monday, and a few were seeking information on behalf of friends or family.

For those interested in exploring the technology, a good place to start looking is the Community Closet and demonstration site housed in the Independent Living Center, at the rear of the Orca Building on Third Avenue. Maddox will discuss the needs of each person who visits and will demonstrate the devices they have available. If what they need isn't there, or if anyone has more specific questions on equipment that she can't answer, she will help them can get in touch with the experts at ATLA.

With the population aging, tools that help one see or hear better are particularly popular, she said. A pocket-talker that Maddox is impressed with reads out labels describing the contents of a jar or can, or even the type of medication contained inside. Clients and their family members also appreciate the available personal listening devices such as an amplifier that turns up the TV sound for the person needing to hear it better, but not for their spouse or the rest of the household.

A lot of these can be rented out at a low cost. In fact, "Try before you buy" is ATLA's motto. The ILC in Seward can lend equipment to clients for two weeks, which can be extended to six weeks, to see if they really work for them. ATLA also lends out higher-end assistive technologies such as iPads or mouth-operated joy sticks that allow a person to operate their own wheelchair, or type words and commands out on a computer. One client of hers, a quadriplegic who rented this device, used it to fill out her own grant application for the equipment, Cisco said.

In the past decade, the variety of assistive devices has probably quadrupled, to the point that it's challenging for any one person to keep up on everything available, Cisco said. ATLA staff regularly browse the new brochures, or attend seminars and Webinars on the newest gadgets, and each staff member tends to gravitate toward personal areas of interest. As a former special-education teacher, Cisco's are the tools that help support those with cognitive brain impairment, or needing memory-support.

A trend she sees is that the devives are becoming smaller and more natural, as well as more sophisticated, and often there's a 99-cent app for phones or computers that will do the same thing. An example is an app for the blind or visually impaired that can scan paper money and read out the bill's denomination so they don't get taken advantage of at the restaurant or grocery store. Other simple assistive technologies, like the fork grip, have been around forever, and are as useful today as they always were. Some are in such high demand these days that they're mass produced and sold commercially.

For information call the ILC in Seward at 224-8711, or ATLA at 907 563-2599.


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