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The rapid growth of the information technology sector worldwide, with the accompanying rise and spread of the internet denotes the intensity of the challenge of meeting the special needs of persons who cannot use the standard versions of tools and equipment available for accessing information technology services. Computer access stands as the standard measure of participation in the information age.
Researchers continue to investigate possible solutions by making unique adaptations to equipment to address the limitations caused by a wide range of impairments that impede access and service delivery, through information technology equipment, to individuals with special needs. The mouse and the key board are the two basic input devices necessary for the operation of a computer. Various adaptations of these two primary input devices are available to serve the needs of persons with special requirements.
Types of Special Needs
Special needs take various forms. Physical impairment, caused by injury or disease, makes it difficult and in some cases, impossible for individuals to interact with information technology equipment, usually by rendering parts of their bodies unresponsive. Mental retardation on the other hand interferes with the process of control such that an individual, who may not have any physical impairment, does not have the necessary degree of mental control to interact sufficiently with information technology infrastructure.
The third type physical impairment that interferes with interaction with information technology infrastructure is perceptual disorders. Blindness or unreliable vision limits reception of visual information, and the operation of controls requiring visual feedback. Most information technology equipment use a screen to display information and as the interface for receiving commands.
Design Considerations for Professor Hawking’s Special Needs
Professor Hawking has limited motor control. The key design considerations to put into focus when providing Professor Hawking with a solution to enable him control his computer include the nature of impairment and the degree of control he has over his body. These considerations will influence the choice of possible input devices. It is also imperative to know his technical ability. This refers to the degree of training he possesses in the use of a computer and the training he may require to operate the computer effectively.
The third consideration will be the peripherals he will require for his operations in his line of work, such as a printer and a scanner. The other class of consideration is summarized by Seba, Hew and Huang (2004) who noted that, “in many important applications such as computer aided tutoring and learning, it is highly desirable (even mandatory) that response of the computer takes into account the emotional and cognitive state of the human user”.
One of the main issues relating to the nature of Professor Hawkins impairment required for the design of an effective human computer interface is the nature and degree of his impairment. From the picture provided, it is evident that he has a degree of motor impairment since he sits on what appears to be a wheelchair, which has a head motion restraint. It is important to verify the degree of this impairment to determine whether he has any form of control over his limbs, and the degree of dexterity available with such control. It is crucial to determine whether he can move his head and how well he can move his eyes. We can safely assume that his cognitive abilities are not seriously impaired since this would have impeded his work as a professor.
The second class of issues to determine is Professor Hawking’s technical ability. This includes the degree of training and experience the professor has in operating a computer. This will inform the design of a training program for him when he starts using the computer. The third category of issues to determine refer to the Professors’ actual needs.
As a professor, there is a wide range of applications for which he may need a computer. These include teaching, research, and the production of modules and conference papers. Over and above the primary uses, the Professor may have other personal uses for which he requires a computer, such as playing music and storing and viewing photos. Additionally, there is need to consider the peripherals that the professor will require to effectively use this computer. All these needs require documentation in order to design an appropriate solution for him.
Types of Solutions Available
There are a number of solutions available for the professor. As Weber, Zimmermann, and Zink (1995) mentioned, “limited capabilities can be replaced by soft and hardware tools”. These solutions depend on the degree of control he has over his body. Basic control over a computer requires the use of a keyboard and a mouse. The range of solutions available includes an eye-gaze system, foot-control mouse, head-control mouse, joysticks, and mouse-keys. Other mouse alternatives include switch-adapted mouse, track balls, touch pads, and touch screens. Some of the keyboard options available for persons with special needs like the professor include an expanded keyboard, which is larger than normal for persons with low motor control. Others are an eye-gaze system, one hand keyboards, and onscreen key boards.
The recommendation for Professor Hawking is a solution that features an eye-gaze system. Through this, he will be able to perform input functions using his eyes only. From the picture provided, it is highly likely that he has advanced motor impairment, which rules out the use of any motor-based devices. The two eye-motion based technologies available are eye tracking systems and eye gaze systems. Drewes, Luca and Schmidt (2007) stated that eye trackers “are used for computer input in the field of accessibility providing means for input for motor impaired people.
The technologies have some limitations. Drewes and Schmidt (2007) pointed out that the systems are, “cumbersome to operate and less efficient compared to the classical way of interaction with keyboard and mouse.” This setback must not discourage the seeking of a solution for Professor Hawking. While it will not normalize his interactive experience, it will greatly enhance it. Weber et al (1995) said that through enabling technologies, “the user gains from having more independence and greater opportunity to create an individual life”
In conclusion, there is adequate opportunity to design a system suitable for professor Hawking to enable him to control his computer. The technology chosen must take into account the degree of control he has over his body and it should take advantage of any control he has over his eyes. This way, there will be an enhancement of Professor Hawking’s participation in the information technology experience, making him more productive as a professor.
Drewes, H., Luca, A. D., & Schmidt, A., (2007). Eye gaze interaction for mobile phones. Proceeding of the 4th Conference on Mobile Technology, Applications, and Systems, and the 1st International Symposium on Computer Human Interaction in Mobile Technology, 366-370.
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Drewes, H., Schmidt, A., (2007). Interacting with the computer using gaze gestures. The 11th international conference on Human –Computer Interaction, INTERACT 2007, 2.
Seba, N., Lew, M. S., &Huang, T. S. (2004).The State of the art in computer human interactions. Computer Vision in Human-Computer Interaction. ECCV 2004 Workshop on HCI Prague, Czech Republic, May 2004 proceedings. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Weber, H., Zimmermann, G., & Zink, K., (1995). Computer access for people with special needs. In, Rafetty, J., Steyaert, J., & Colombi D., (Eds). Human Services in the Information Age. New York: The Harworth Press, Inc.