Thursday Jun 02, 2022

Accessible, Assistive Technology: A Chat With Keegan Newberry Asst. Director at DDA

May 29th to June 4th is National Accessibility Week in Canada. We sat down with Keegan Newberry, DDA's Assistant Director of Assistive Technology, to discuss what's happening in the community and business world to help facilitate accessibility for people with developmental disabilities.



Evan Kelly  0:05  
So welcome to Developmental Disabilities Association's Encouraging Abilities podcast, of course, we're here to tell stories and chat with members of our neurodiverse community I'm your host, Evan Kelly, the Communications Manager here at DDA. Today we are chatting with our very own Keegan Newberry. She is our Assistant Director of Assistive Technology here at DDA, which means she uses a bunch of different things or applications or adapt devices, adaptive devices, rather, to really help our clients communicate, have fun and learn. And one of the reasons she's here today is because it is national accessibility week in Canada. So we're doing a couple of podcasts just based on that. So right off the top Keegan, maybe you could just tell me a little bit about what you do here at DDA.

Keegan Newberry  0:51  
Sure. Thanks for the lovely intro. So what I basically do at DDA is I allow our clients to be as independent as possible. And I do that by looking at what they want in their day to day activities, trying to give them the best sort of lived experience by removing barriers. And that often means introducing different technologies to help overcome barriers that we have for them to access the community or to interact with friends.

Evan Kelly  1:24  
So what got you interested in this line of work?

Keegan Newberry  1:27  
I came from the high school system of years ago as a high school teacher. And I was working with a primary, primarily ESL demographic group. And while I was teaching a social studies class, and writing my exams, like a high school teacher usually does, I came to the realization that with my exam, am I actually testing for their social studies knowledge? Or am I testing for their ability to read English? And that really kind of made me look at what barriers are present in our everyday lives that we don't even consider. And so after finishing my year at teaching, I decided to go into special education. And so I could help individuals with developmental disabilities to sort of specifically target those barriers that are kind of hidden in a lot of things that we do. 

Evan Kelly  2:23  
So did you, in terms of your high school teaching, you then launched yourself into, in within a high school, helping people with neurodiversities maybe or?

Keegan Newberry  2:34  
I went actually to the elementary system, specifically, because I wanted to work with individuals who had complex needs, I think a lot of the resources that we have available tend to be for people at either ends of the ability spectrum. So for individuals who have complex needs, such as multiple diagnoses, or developmental disability plus a motor impairment or speech impairment, they're... the tools needed for them to overcome these barriers are much more complex; it involves a lot more creative problem solving to get around it. And that's where I really saw my, what I was doing, having a direct impact on the clients I was supporting, and for me, that was the most rewarding,

Evan Kelly  3:26  
Fabulous. We're in a, you know, a digital age, of course, and technologies, you know, is getting, you know, making a lot of our lifestyle easier in a lot of ways. And you know, and I see you're working around here at DDA, you know, you're reviewing apps and a whole bunch of other things. How is technology, is it making your job sort of easier, or more creative, or how's that working for you?

Keegan Newberry  3:47  
Technology has become more accessible. And because of that, it's being embedded into phones and iPads and other devices as base features, which allows for a lot of the tech that we've been using to be more compatible sort of across the board. That has sort of resulted in lowering costs, which is huge, for some of the accessibility tools that we have out there are thousands of dollars. And those costs have dropped dramatically in the last couple years. I think 10 years ago, eye tracking software was the biggest newest thing. And you'll be talking seven to $10,000 to have it set up for one individual. And now I can go on to the app store and download eye tracking software for free. It's just there. 

Evan Kelly  4:44  
It's just a huge leap, isn't it? It's amazing that you can go from this sort of this big concept to, here, it's ready readily available. No problem. 

Keegan Newberry  4:52  
And cost is a huge barrier when you're talking thousands of dollars. So I think that's been the biggest change with technology, is being able to work with clients, work with families and say, here's an app, it's not even 99 cents, you can go download it right now.

Evan Kelly  5:09  
Yeah, that's amazing. I saw I saw a video just yesterday, you know, it was again talking about accessibility week. And it was this young, young man, or a boy rather who, you know, obviously had had motor skills and or issues and couldn't move his arms or his legs. And they had this eye tracking software, which helped him select musical notes. And he was like playing along with this thing. And, you know, I'm a musician, I know you're a musician. And it's, to see something like that and see that sort of level of inclusivity, where someone who doesn't have the use of their arms and can contribute creatively, it was just absolutely mind blowing. And like you said, like, 99 cents, we can make these things happen. It's unbelievable. 

Keegan Newberry  5:52  
It's come even further than that, you have to come out and check out the music section in the AT lab, we had all sorts of fun stuff like that.

Evan Kelly  5:59  
That's awesome. Well, we'll get the video on there as well. So the with the technology do I mean, do you find it easier to find solutions to problems or that you might be trying to solve with respect to a client?

Keegan Newberry  6:11  
I like to describe the demographic we're supporting as being square pegs in a round hole world. There's not a one size fits all. And unfortunately, a lot of the supports that are out there have been developed with that idea of well we'll create one thing and will work for everyone. If anything, the diversity of new technologies have come out have just sort of made more sizes out there for us to choose from.

Evan Kelly  6:39  
And so the next question, I guess, with advances in tech, can you give me an example of where you've seen something like more of a profound impact on a client or a group of people?

Keegan Newberry  6:50  
I think, not necessarily an advancement of technology, but an awareness of how assistive tools can help. Not just people with disabilities, but everyone seeing things like fidget tools becoming very normalized. I hate using that word, but very popular in the media. It makes it easier for individuals to access that technology. And because it's not just this really small demographic, who's now using accessibility features on their iPads or needs a fidget device while they're sitting in a classroom. There's more choice out there, and it's easier to get to.

Evan Kelly  7:35  
Yeah, that's a good thing. Just hop onto Amazon, if you need something. Now, this, you know, I think you mentioned a little bit about this. But does the tech typically cater to a broad category of disabilities or there's more specific designs that suit specific conditions?

Keegan Newberry  7:50  
The tech that's out there right now, there tends to be a lot on either end of the spectrum, there is a ton of technology for individuals, especially on the autism spectrum, who are independent or semi independent in community. There's also a ton of technology for individuals who require significant assistance with their activities of daily living, significant sensory supports for them. The biggest challenge, and that's kind of where I come in with AT, is finding that halfway in between that is, they have a tool that's developmentally appropriate for their needs, but that's also age appropriate for their needs. And we're really lacking that middle ground. And often that means finding things that need to be repurposed or redesigned. Which involves a lot of creativity on my part to find the right modifications to make it right for that client.

Evan Kelly  8:50  
Right, you've kind of got to be a bit of an engineer at the same time, I guess. Now, pardon me. COVID, I know like that, that is hurt a lot of technologies and people with their ability to get things like microchips and supply chains have all been cut off. How has that affected your office at this point, in the last couple of years?

Keegan Newberry  9:10  
We've lost a ton of our vendors, which has been a lot of the tech that we get in is coming from small companies. And I would say about 50% of our vendors went under with COVID, which is terrible. Some of these, I remember looking for the specific sensory bracelets a couple of weeks ago, and they're not made in Canada anymore. I had to order them in from the UK to get them here. So that's been a huge challenge and some things we can't get in at all. So we end up having to buy things in pieces, and then sort of recreate the different tech kits or tools that we've used in the past in our own lab.

Evan Kelly  9:58  
Ironic, it's a bit of a step backward to try and move forward, I guess. But in terms of those small sort of businesses where you're, you know, you're finding specific things, are you finding there's real growth in that area, there's a lot more businesses coming? I think there's a lot more awareness in terms of, certainly in terms of autism, and, you know, other developmental disabilities and people are, you know, inclusion of course is a driving force for DDA, it's a driving force for this community. Are you seeing a lot more small businesses and people coming up with ideas and people coming up with things and, and creating, you know, things that we can purchase to help? Is there, is that a real growth industry do you think?

Keegan Newberry  10:38  
There definitely is growth in that industry. I would say that about 60% of all of the tools that I currently have out, that clients are using, were not actually developed to be used for people with disabilities. They were assistive tools that were developed for neurotypical individuals that... I was on the internet one day sort of trolling around different websites, and looked at that and said, "Hmm, you think you've created this, but what you have actually created is this really cool assistive tool." And so we're often repurposing it.

Evan Kelly  11:19  
Yeah, I look at the like things like fidgets spinners, you know, that to me, they were very popular with with my kids, when they sort of first came out and popular with a lot of people. But it wasn't, I don't think they were necessarily designed with people with autism in mind. You know, even though that became something that people could focus on and sort of have fun with. So is, to me, that was a primary example of that.

Keegan Newberry  11:47  
Well you think about, they weren't, they were designed, yes, as a toy, or as a fidget. But the skills that are actually required to use a fidget spinner requires the fine motor control, to have that pinch point to hold the center, the gross motor control to be able to spin it, have an understanding of cause and effect. What happens if I hit my hand against this? And then, because it's a toy, it has this built in reward system. So really, it's a teaching tool for a lot of individuals that we can use. And that's where we're finding a lot of the different AT that we're actually using is people not realizing what they've created yet and how it can be used.

Evan Kelly  12:34  
Yeah, that's amazing that you, you've just, you just hit on like a few different points where, you know, from my office, I might not even think about it like that, to me, it's this funky thing that spins, it feels like sort of gyroscopic and, you know, slightly entertaining, because I'm a very fidgety person I can sit in with a fidget spinner while I do something else. But then to look at it as this learning tool and this cause and effect thing is really quite fascinating. What about upcoming technologies that you're eager to get your hands on anything on the horizon that looks cool?

Keegan Newberry  13:05  
Brain computer interface, 100%. In the last couple of years, there has been some really incredible things that have been able to be done, especially they were originally designed to support people with Locked In syndrome. So we can process literally what their brains are doing, what different neurons are firing in their head, and convert that to text, convert that to speech through a computer. And there are a lot of different companies who are working on it in a very prototype sort of type level right now. But when we're thinking about, especially about assistive communication, a lot of our individuals have shown that if we give them the right tools, they might be technically nonverbal, but if we give them a way to communicate, whether it's through pointing at picture symbols using an iPad, using sign language, that they have the desire to communicate, which means that the more tools that we have, that basically removes the stress on the actual client to have to learn that tool, the more they'll be able to communicate with their friends, their family, their community, and the more independent they're going to be able to be.

Evan Kelly  14:26  
That would be amazing. I think it's, you know, people like Elon Musk are working on these kinds of interfaces. I don't know what any other companies that are doing it, you might know that but that to be able to communicate with people who are nonverbal or, I mean, it goes beyond developmental disabilities, people with injuries or brain injuries or who may be in a vegetative state, but could still communicate would be unbelievable, unlocking worlds. 

Keegan Newberry  14:49  
Exactly and that's where a lot of these technologies have been developed out of. And this is me, again, sitting on the internet being like, ooh, two years from now. I can totally use this.

Evan Kelly  15:02  
Exactly. So I mean, what are some of the bigger companies that are that are doing stuff? I mean, we're seeing a lot of companies, like I look at a lot of stories like the latest one from Reebok, you know, people bringing in assistive footwear or more accessible footwear for people, what are some of the bigger companies that you're seeing developing stuff when it comes to inclusion?

Keegan Newberry  15:28  
Apple has definitely been in there the last couple of years, not as much with their own development, but working towards making their devices more compatible with different assistive tools, which has been a huge change from even five years ago. We have Logitech in there, Microsoft, Microsoft released a really cool app actually called seeing AI a few months ago, I think it would have been now, that literally, you can take a picture of a room, and it'll process it and tell you what is probably in that picture. So people with visual impairments, they can have their environment described for themselves, just by using a free iPad app. There are smaller companies that are continuing to produce technology. Go Talk is sort of one of the big names that we see and have seen for over 10 years. And then Proloquo2go TouchChat, they develop AC, so assistive communication apps, they're still there lingering in the background, and they still have great tools. But definitely seeing bigger things coming out of Microsoft and Apple in the last couple of years that have really shown promise and have really sort of taken that big step forward, especially in the mainstream.

Evan Kelly  16:55  
Yeah, it's really the digital realm that sort of really seems to be pushing this envelope. But what areas of disability care would you like to see more development of tech? I mean, it's, it's one thing to get the apps and it really helps with communication, but is there something else, there's another area of disability that we need to, would like to see more focus on?

Keegan Newberry  17:17  
Community access tools, I think a lot of people don't realize how many barriers that can be. When I used to teach about barriers in community I used to have my students walk through a building and see if they could find all the different barriers, things like round doorknobs, if you have a gross motor impairment, they're extremely hard to turn. You might have a ramp, which is fantastic, almost all of our buildings are accessible now with ramps. But if you're a wheelchair user, and that is a very steep ramp, it's really challenging to push yourself up some of them, like I get winded walking up some of these ramps. Even other things like having communication systems, there's some amazing communication systems they're developing, where video can read American Sign Language, which is, there's such a big community that uses ASL to communicate. But it's so closed off for a certain aspect. So finding tools that you could walk into a coffee shop and be able to sign on a camera and it would translate for you would be incredible. So all of those like little barriers that really are big things that need to be overcome for a lot of our clients to be truly independent in community.

Evan Kelly  18:52  
Now, I've seen a couple of other things, I know some people in the disability community are developing apps themselves, like map apps, to map out what is, what parts of your community are accessible, what parks are really accessible. So I see that growing quite a bit. I've seen quite a few of those things, but it's one of those things like how do you, particularly here in Canada when we get snow and and the thing is when it comes to accessibility, people, even like myself, would take for granted that, you know, where there's a layer of snow that can be deadly for someone who's got limited mobility, because you can't see what's under it. Like if there was some way besides, you know, getting people to constantly clear their driveway. Is there some way to sort of, I don't know, find out what's underneath the snow and some sort of radar, who knows, but it's that, that to me was one of the biggest things I've noticed in the past year that a lot of people just don't seem to understand that even just a light layer of snow becomes a really impassable thing for people particularly in a wheelchair.

Keegan Newberry  19:53  
And that's the importance of community awareness, more than once I've been out and crushed gravel driveways that have not been packed down, I've definitely gotten a wheelchair stuck in those before. But the more awareness we can bring to those kinds of barriers, hopefully, the more people will do to reduce them in our community. It's not something that we can just put in a single law or bylaw in and they're all going to magically go away. This is something that needs to become common knowledge across members of our community. So they're each doing their part to make sure that their small little piece of their community is as accessible as possible. So the greater community can be accessed by people with disabilities.

Evan Kelly  20:42  
Now, is there some way that I mean, you sort of look at this stuff daily, of course, is there some way that people can stay up to date on the latest assistive technology? Or is there like a sort of a receptacle website with all different things updated? Or how do people find out about assistive technology in general?

Keegan Newberry  21:03  
Probably one of the best websites is RESNA. So that's the Rehabilitation Engineering and assistive technology Society of North America. Their website is fantastic with new updates, they have forums to chat about different assistive technology ideas. And that is sort of one of the ones that I use, that is truly dedicated to assistive technology. Other ones, they have some incredible stuff on there. But again, it's things that aren't traditionally assistive technology, that people just have not realized what they created. I'd say I've found a good number of stuff actually on Kickstarter. There's lots of really good ideas out there that just need someone to sort of look at them from a different perspective to realize how impactful they could possibly be on this demographic we're supporting.

Evan Kelly  21:59  
Exactly. Now, in terms of, you know, funding for things like Kickstarter, Kickstarter obviously, you're looking for sort of crowdsourcing. But is the government like of British Columbia, the federal government, even municipal governments, do they offer funding for projects such as these? Do you see, do you see them getting involved enough? Or are they, are they okay?

Keegan Newberry  22:19  
It's... the funding is extremely limited, unfortunately. When you look at it, it's just a very small fraction of our population, if you're just talking numbers. So the funding is going to the greatest good, unfortunately, a lot of the stuff that we're seeing, where tech is coming out of is out of universities who have been able to get funding for special research projects. In fact, that's where some of the really cool brain computer interface technology is coming out of. So we're looking more down the academic road, then really down the government funding road to see where that new tech is coming from.

Evan Kelly  23:05  
Right. Okay, um, do you have anything else to add to this? I mean, we've been covering a lot of things. Anything else you want to discuss in terms of assistive technology, what we're doing here at DDA, we've got, you can certainly come to our website, where Keegan puts together a lot of tech reviews, assistive tech reviews, it's on our Star newsletter and the like, on the website. 

Keegan Newberry  23:30  
I'd say the biggest misconception about assistive technology is everyone thinks it's all about the iPads. A very small fraction of what we do is about iPads. It's the really little things from finding a spoon that counter interacts tremors for someone who has Parkinson's, finding special grips that can go on doorknobs, to make them easier to open. There's a lot of really creative problem solving that happens on the small scale. And it's those things that are making the biggest difference beyond iPads and the sort of high tech stuff that we're seeing out there.

Evan Kelly  24:14  
So don't just rely on the digital realm. It's there's a lot more to it. Well, thank you very much, Keegan. This has been DDA's Encouraging Abilities podcast, our guest has been Keegan Newberry, our Assistant Director of Assistive Technology here at DDA. Thanks for joining us today. Alright, I'll see you all soon.


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