By Paul Nyhan and Aimee Riordan | July 01, 2014
In the morning, Tyler Schrenk checks his email, looks at the weather, reads “The Seattle Times” online and maybe looks in to see what’s next in his Netflix queue.
These are typical habits of a modern digital citizen. But after Schrenk, 29, was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident two years ago, these daily activities became a lot more challenging. Without the use of his hands, it often took Schrenk 10 minutes to open an e-book and five minutes to read an email.
The quick connections many take for granted – email, online news websites, Facebook and other social media – slowed dramatically for Schrenk because it was hard to adapt technology to his new circumstances.
Then Schrenk met Microsoft software engineer Jose Blakeley last year through church. Together, they began to improve those technological connections. Initially, Schrenk simply asked Blakeley for help reading more books – a new interest he’d cultivated following his injury.
Blakeley discovered Windows 8’s speech recognition system and brought Schrenk a light-weight Surface Pro loaded with Windows 8, the speech recognition software, a voice-operated mouse and other accessibility features. Schrenk mastered the reading system in a couple of sessions.
He also got some of his freedom back.
“I can do a lot more of the things that I used to do before,” he says. “I can handle more of my own stuff.”
Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Rob Sinclair calls innovations like eye-gaze tracking and speech synthesizers “technology bridges” for a person with a disability – bridges that enable them to use a mainstream computer. “These technologies provide a valuable function as an extension of an existing application that allows someone to interact with technology in a unique way,” he says.
Windows 8 was designed with features that make it easier for Schrenk to accomplish his daily activities. These features include live tiles – which automatically update with new information as it becomes available – and the ability to pin those tiles to a Start screen, making his devices more personal and reactive to his needs.
After using the Surface Pro, which Schrenk affixes to his wheelchair and projects to a large flat screen in the distance, he realized he could do a lot more than read books. Using his voice, Schrenk operates a variety of Microsoft products and services – Internet Explorer, Bing,Outlook, Word and Excel. Now, he uses his tablet for a growing number of tasks: an Excel spreadsheet to track his caloric intake; Outlook to send email; and Internet Explorer to keep track of his fantasy football league, and follow his favorite teams: the Seattle Seahawks and University of Washington Huskies.
It took some tinkering to make it all work. Background noise from a respirator, pump and air conditioner in Schrenk’s room threatened to interfere with voice commands. However, after Schrenk and Blakeley added a Koss CS100 microphone to the Surface Pro, it all came together.
“If nothing else, the Surface opened my eyes … and I realized the possibility of doing much more than just occasionally checking my email,” Schrenk says. “I am much more motivated to read because it is much easier.”
Schrenk also has an Xbox One connected to his flat screen and uses its voice command capability to watch television and movies. “It’s cool,” he says. “I was able to use it out-of-the-box, without any upgrades.”
Sinclair explains that in the future, technology like Kinect has the potential to be transformative for people with disabilities because of its responsiveness, from creating a natural form of interaction for children with autism who might otherwise withdraw, to a Kinect-enabled American Sign Language translator that produces a text interpretation of gestures and vice versa.
While none of these outcomes are a core design goal of Kinect, the attributes inherent in the technology create a range of possibilities to improve the communication and quality of life for people with disabilities, he adds.
Technology is playing a growing role in Schrenk’s future. He’s enrolled in computer science classes at a local community college and hopes one day to find employment in programming.
“I just don’t want to have my injury stop me from achieving my dreams and aspirations, and technology is giving me a way to continue on with my life,” he writes in an email.
Watch for more stories in the coming months about technology transforming the lives of people with disabilities, in unexpected ways, around the world.
“The power of technology to transform the way we interact,” Sinclair says, “is bounded only by our imagination.”