Special assistive devices for people with disabilities. Rehabilitation, which requires people to work hard to become able to do what they cannot already. IT has come to permeate our everyday lives. What new means of support can be offered to people with disabilities to better experience their own individuality? Iwabuchi Laboratory has developed a world-class assistive technology without using cutting-edge technology.
■ No need to hesitate regarding using technology
he camera on a tablet computer is used to display a textbook page. The section to be read is tapped by the user's finger, and the passage is read aloud. Handwritten notes can be added, and audio notes can be attached. In November 2015 Iwabuchi Laboratory released "Touch & Read," a reading and writing support app for children with learning disabilities. "2.4% of children in regular elementary and junior high school classes have reading and writing disabilities despite having normal intellectual capacities.* Reading takes them a long time, but they can understand what they hear. Using Touch & Read dramatically improves their comprehension. Some children went from scoring 15 points to 90 points on tests," explains Associate Professor Iwabuchi. "The conventional approach to rehabilitation has been to gain an ability through hard work. However, disability springs from the inability to keep up with training. Children cannot close the gap despite continuously practicing, and instead just struggle with their shortcomings." This, he says, affects them in various ways, such as contributing to absenteeism. "However, this app helps many children comprehend things smoothly. Some even understand things faster than their peers. Support offered by other people is effective, but there are also situations where technology is a better fit, or where technology is essential. There is no need to hesitate regarding using technology."
Iwabuchi Laboratory does not use the ultra-cutting-edge technologies engineers strive to create. Instead, it uses the existing technology that surrounds us to create, as Associate Professor Iwabuchi puts it, "field solutions." "Children choose smartphones over special assistive devices. Smartphones are cool, and some children feel reluctant to use special assistive devices because they mark their users as also being special. We hope that the potential opened up through the use of assistive technology will change the way society looks at disabilities." Ordinary devices are starting to have more and more functions which make them easy to use for people with disabilities. With existing, mainstream technology, users can obtain software online, install it on existing hardware, and always use the latest version. "If a special device breaks, it takes a week to repair. For speech assistive devices, that means the user loses their voice for a week. What's important is that these apps be easily available on Amazon or the App Store." According to Associate Professor Iwabuchi, there is a growing trend in the world's assistive product market to develop products using existing technology, with its short development times and low development costs.
* Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: Results of "Study of Children with Possible Developmental Disorders Enrolled in Regular Classes Who Require Special Educational Support" (2012)
Touch & Read, reading and writing support app for children with learning disabilities. Tapping a passage causes it to be read aloud.
Touch & Read - Iwabuchi Lab HP (in Japanese）
Associate Professor Iwabuchi gives an explanation to high school students from India. Visitors show a strong interest in RCAST’s barrier-free research.
■ There’s nothing wrong with being a "hybridian"
Using assistive technology can provide capabilities which exceed those of people who do not use technological assistance. When children who have difficulty reading or writing use assistive technology, they are instantly freed from frustration. But when that happens, do they want to become authors? "No, they say they want to play soccer, or to create art. Their horizons and prospects change. They go from being stuck in place, hindered by their inability to read or write, to being able to work towards doing what they want to do. Society tends to highly evaluate those who have an overall high level of performance, but people's abilities are intrinsically uneven. I think that being able to use ones prominent strengths in society is a much better approach." Nakamura Laboratory (Assistive Technology), which coordinates with Iwabuchi Laboratory, calls people who fuse these high-tech functions with their own physical functions "hybridians." In that sense, the majority of people in today’s world could be considered hybridians.
However, introducing assistive technology into the educational arena is not an easy task." The more educators see their role as enabling children to be independent, without relying on machines, the greater their resistance to the use of support technology. However, technology will be in even greater use 10 or 20 years from now, when they enter society. The use of existing technology isn't cheating, it's the same as a person with poor vision wearing glasses." There are legal processes in the U.S. that take into consideration the use of assistive technology devices, but in Japan, as Associate Professor Iwabuchi explains, "You're just lucky if you get a teacher who is understanding. Children can't wait. They grow so quickly. That's why we will, without fail, turn what we develop into products. As researchers publishing papers is important, but I think we should serve a more direct role in the support field. We go out into the field, so I think our primary work is to show what, specifically, can be achieved, despite using existing technology."
■ Not "what I can do on my own," but "what I want to do"
Software is the greatest strength of the existing technology approach, which uses common hardware. OAK, an observation support tool which uses gaming device and tablet cameras to provide support for children with severe disabilities, has a motion history function which can be used to visualize the history of which parts of the user’s body have moved a great deal. "Basically, it just measures movement. However, what family members and caregivers really want to know is about the child’s awareness -- how much does this child understand? It is extremely difficult to make determinations based on the slight responses of children with multiple serious disabilities. But if a brain wave monitor were to be used, who would manage it? It can’t be managed by the people out in the field. Daily life is hard enough as it is, there’s no leeway for the introduction of advanced technology. When you play music, perhaps their head moves slightly. When you put strawberry jam on their tongue, perhaps their mouth moves an imperceptible amount. If you match up the stimuli provided with these changes, you can determine actual conditions, including their awareness.” This technology is not new to cutting-edge engineering researchers. "Our strength is in applying ideas to create solutions using existing technologies. The solutions that can be used in the field are always simple ones.”
People focus on clothing, eating, and housing self-reliance when they think of support. However, "For the actual user, what’s important is not so much whether they can autonomously perform actions such as feeding themselves or changing their clothes, but what they want to eat, and what they want to wear. Emotional independence is more important than physical independence. I think that individuality comes out not in ‘what I can do on my own’ but ‘what I want to do.’” Every time they go into the field, they discover new issues, providing these as feedback to the development process. The field is always waiting for solutions from the existing technology researchers.
OAK Cam, observation support tool for children with severe disabilities. Parts of the body which move a great deal are shown in red.
OAK Cam product information (in Japanese)
The global mainstream trend in assistive technology is existing technology "ARUTEKU"
90% of people with disabilities live in developing countries. Future support technologies will be developed for global use.
Associate Professor Mamoru Iwabuchi
Iwabuchi Laboratory HP