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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 5

Book Review

Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments (2nd ed.), by Joseph J. Lazzaro

Washington, DC: American Library Association.web site: <www.ala.org>. $48 print, $35 CD-ROM.

This book offers readers a comprehensive overview of the myriad assistive technologies (ATs) that are available to persons with sensory, physical, and cognitive impairments. The book, which is available in print or on CD-ROM, is easy to read and understand, even for the most inexperienced user. The CD-ROM version uses a weblike design that is straightforward and logical. Hyperlinks in the text let readers move quickly from one chapter to the next, jump to an associated appendix, or return to the contents. Although the text is sometimes marred by sloppy proofreading, broken links and mislabeled headings, most readers will find the CD-ROM highly accessible.

The book begins, in Chapter 1, with a clear and concise description of the standard components of computer hardware. Readers learn, in simple terms, about processors, clock speed, memory, and disk storage capacity. While technically savvy readers may find some of the chapter's simplified language misleading (e.g., the author's definitions of kilobytes and megabytes are, by his own admission, not entirely accurate, and his discussion of "scan-and-read" technology leaves much to be desired), Lazzaro directs the experienced computer user to bypass Chapter 1 altogether. Still, this chapter gives readers a solid foundation for comprehending the rest of the book.

Although an introductory disclaimer states that the book focuses primarily on Microsoft Windows as today's dominant operating system, Chapter 1 includes an overview of the Apple Macintosh and Unix. In addition, the author provides readers with some equally useful (if now only narrowly applicable) information related to DOS.

In the section, "Selecting a Personal Computer," Lazzaro gives readers with disabilities some excellent advice: First determine (with or without the aid of an AT specialist) which adaptive devices you will use and the specific system requirements for those devices. He could have added a caveat that manufacturers' guidelines are sometimes less than fully accurate; as experienced users know, often the minimum recommended specifications are barely sufficient to the AT user's needs. Generally speaking, the latter sections of Chapter 1 are replete with useful advice for the user with disabilities who is preparing to buy his or her first computer; for example, purchasing all your equipment from a local dealer who has expertise in AT installation can be especially helpful if you don't have (or do not wish to acquire) high-level technical configuration skills. Similarly, Lazzaro urges new users to seek informal consultation, technical guidance, and support from disabled peers and to experiment with demonstration versions of popular products whenever possible. He returns to and even underscores some of these important points later in the book in discussing the role of an AT evaluation, specialized training, and technical support.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to a thorough exploration of input systems, with particular emphasis on keyboard access. Again focusing primarily on Microsoft Windows, Lazzaro describes standard keyboard commands and cross-application consistency. Readers learn how to navigate the Graphical User Interface and identify and interact with common screen objects, such as menus and dialogue box controls. Concepts and keystrokes related to multitasking and selecting text are also presented. Because Lazzaro describes keyboard access as a kind of built-in accessibility option, it is fitting that Chapter 2 also includes an overview of the Windows Control Panel and accessibility utilities, like Sticky Keys, High-Contrast Settings, Narrator, and Magnifier. As is the case with most of the book, the Apple Macintosh and Unix get little more than an "honorable mention" here.

Chapters 3–7 describe systems and software that may be particularly helpful to users with vision, hearing, motor, speech, and learning impairments, respectively. Perhaps some of the book's most insightful comments are found in the discussions of products that, while designed for use by one group of disabled users, may be equally applicable to another. The chapter on learning disabilities is especially illustrative of this fact, in that Lazzaro explains, for example, that screen readers and optical character recognition systems, originally developed for blind users, are of great use to users with learning disabilities as well. Similarly, word prediction and abbreviation expansion software may be widely applicable to users with vision, motor, or learning disabilities. There is, however, a glaring omission: users with multiple sensory, physical, and/or cognitive impairments. Because Lazzaro's book attempts at least to touch on all the ATs used by disabled persons, it is unfortunate that the author, like so many others in the field, avoids the topic of multiple impairments. Lazzaro flirts with the idea of multiple impairment and accommodation by cautioning users against purchasing any software or add-ons without first testing them with a third-party AT, but, again, a more complete discussion of the technical compatibility and usability issues surrounding the use of complex, multimodal AT configurations would have represented an important and unique contribution to the field. One can only hope that the topic may find its way into the third edition of this otherwise seminal work.

The last three chapters of the book (8, 9, and 10) do not deal with technology per se, but, rather, focus on AT evaluation, specialized training, technical support, and funding options. Chapter 8, "Foundations for Assistive Technology," stresses the importance of having a qualified AT specialist conduct a task-specific evaluation before you purchase a system configuration.

In Chapter 9, Lazzaro examines the Internet as a rich source of training materials, peer support, and technical assistance. He explains that users with disabilities can and should look to various online resources for ongoing support, even after the appropriate AT systems have been deployed. Unfortunately, neither Chapters 8 nor 9 link to appendices of relevant resources, as do virtually all the preceding chapters. Nevertheless, the astute reader will be able to locate qualified AT evaluators and appropriate training venues by carefully reading through the lists of national resources catalogued in appendices H–M.

Chapter 10 deals with potential funding sources to which individuals can look for assistance with the acquisition of, training in, and technical support for equipment. Although Lazzaro spends a fair bit of time discussing personal loans and revolving credit, the chapter includes some useful tips for users who do not wish to or are unable to avail themselves of the options offered by commercial lending institutions. Indeed, he might have remembered the critical role that the AT specialist can play in making cost-effective recommendations. Instead, he offers advice that is sometimes severely oversimplified (e.g., since hardware-based ATs are generally more costly than software solutions, it is best to select software solutions, whenever possible). Again, users would be well advised to heed Lazzaro's earlier suggestion by properly investing in an individualized, task-specific AT evaluation when they select a system configuration. Efforts to reduce cost can and should be guided by an AT specialist, whose knowledge and expertise will help the new user determine which devices are essential and which are not. As Lazzaro indicates, users must learn to distinguish between their "dream" systems and those components that are of primary importance. By using this book and the multitude of resources cited throughout the text and in the appendices, even the most inexperienced computer user will be able to start making those determinations independently.

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