On Disabilities

A Ride in a Cab That's Optimized for the Blind

By Cristina Quinn   |   Friday, June 29, 2012
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July 2, 2012

jim denham

Jim Denham tests out the taxi technology in action. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

BOSTON — Everyone knows what happens once you’re inside a taxi. You might gaze out the window, check your phone or watch what’s on the little television screen. Every now and then, you lean over to take a peek at the meter to get an idea of what the tally is.

Now think about that taxi ride experience as a blind passenger.

In God we trust; all others pay fare

Jim Denham described the problem: Finding a cab that knows the route, trusting a cab driver ... You have to really trust them because you can’t read that meter."

Denham is blind. He is also the director of assistive technology at the Perkins School for the Blind. He’s got all sorts of smartphone apps and gadgets that help him get around. But even with all those apps and gadgets, he still needs to rely entirely on the cab driver to know what his fare is.

Making sure that they are taking you the same route that you think you should take, that they’re not going to drive around the block just to run up their meter a bit — it’s just something to be cautious about," Denham said.

The bigger benefit is that it’s a step closer to independence. Even something as simple as knowing your fare is empowering. And soon, in the City of Boston, blind passengers will get some help. Thanks to new technology, that television screen in the back of the cab will soon be talking to the visually impaired.

The technological solution

CMT taxi card
A CMT card for blind taxi passengers. (Danielle Dreilinger/WGBH)

“We said let’s take the existing technology and see if we can extend it and come up with a solution for the visually impaired," said Jesse Davis, CEO of Creative Mobile Technologies, a New York–based company that makes those TVs that are in the backseats of taxis in major cities all over the country.

“When you hear the frustration out of the community about something as simple as going to the ATM or how intimidating it can be if you are in a cab to make sure that you really are paying the proper amount — I mean, it’s an extremely unnerving position to be in," said Davis.

In collaboration with advocacy group Lighthouse International, CMT devised a way to turn those televisions into touch screens with audio capability for the blind. Here’s how it works: Lighthouse International issues cards that look like credit cards, with a magnetic strip. Inside the cab, the passenger swipes the card through the credit card slot. That activates the TV screen, turning it into a touch screen, and the audio prompt greets the passenger and tells the rider how to operate the device.

I asked Denham to go for a ride to test out this new technology.
The system in action

Once we step inside the cab, Denham feels around and immediately finds the credit card machine. He swipes the card through, and the TV screen suddenly greets us with a wobbly automated voice: “Welcome. You’ve entered Cab B0321.” On the screen, four large squares replace the weather forecast and stock market figures. The voice prompt instructs us on how to control volume settings by tapping certain sections of the screen.

So far, Denham is pleased.

I like how they’re using the corner of the screen to quickly identify things. And it makes it easy to find the different pieces of information, but the speech is a little difficult to understand. They could use a better speech synthesizer. But still, it’s not horrible. It’s nice getting the fare — it’s nice to be able to quickly identify that," Denham says.

I think the automated voice sounds British, but Denham disagrees, contending, "I don’t know if that’s a British voice. I think that’s just one of the synthesizers that’s out there."

The screen after a passenger has swiped the CMT card
The screen after a passenger has swiped the CMT card. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

While Denham and I politely avoid a debate over the dialect of the software, he feels his way around the screen.

I’m surprised there’s not a headphone jack. But it’s really nice that when I swiped the card, it immediately started talking. That’s a really nice feature. I mean just to know, ‘Hey, the system is working,’" says Denham.

The screen is connected to the meter so as our ride continues, the voice states the fare increases. When we pull into the parking lot at Perkins, it tells us how much we owe and the prompt allows Denham to decide how much he wants to tip and guides us through the payment process.

CMT’s software gets an overall thumbs-up from Denham: That was some neat technology. I think it is a great thing. It fosters independence. Minor improvements could be made; I think the speech could be a little clearer. But I think it’s a great system, and I’m really happy that it’s going into more cabs.”

With the technology down, the logistics

But the next part is pretty tricky: how to distribute all those cards out to the blind community. This is something Kim Charlson, first vice president of the American Council of the Blind, is concerned about.

“It is a challenge to reach people blind or visually impaired because they don’t use the traditional newspapers and mail and things like that," said Charlson. At her office inside the Talking Book Library at Perkins, her guide dog German Shepherd Dolly rests at her feet, under her desk.

We have to use alternative ways to communicate — through agencies and organizations of the blind, including information in newsletters, audio, Braille, large print so that we can get the word out to people," Charlson said.

The technology is already up and running in New York City and San Francisco. Currently there are 1200 cabs in the city with CMT technology. It will be a few months before it’s launched full-scale in Boston: City officials here want to work out the kinks. When they do, it’ll be a major step toward greater independence for the blind community and a life with fewer boundaries.

Rotenberg Center Defends Use of Electric Shock

By WGBH News   |   Wednesday, May 16, 2012
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May 16, 2012

BOSTON — Representatives from the Judge Rotenberg Center are defending the center against criticism over its use of shock treatment in the classroom.

Cheryl McCollins sued the center for medical malpractice after her son Andre was given electric shocks in 2002. A video depicting the scene went viral, leading to uproar. On May 9, supporters gave lawmakers a petition with over 200,000 signatures demanding the end of the practice. That night, she appeared on Greater Boston, saying, "They abuse disabled children."

But Rotenberg attorney Michael Flammia defended the use of electric shock aversion therapy. "It's a treatment that helps hundreds of people, that's helped thousands of people, and there's no alternative for some people that have these kinds of severe behavior disorders," he said.
Furthermore, Flammia said the scene captured on video was very unusual. Andre McCollins "was having an extremely difficult day that day and the staff were doing their very best to try to maintain the treatment. That's not the way the treatment normally works," he said, emphasizing, "It is not what JRC expects to happen."
Marie Washington is the mother of a man who's been at the center since 1989. Before he went to the center, "My son was totally out of control," she said. "We went to about five different facilities … no one could handle him."
Washington tested out the shock herself and said it felt like a bee sting. "I would rather for him to have a bee sting to control his behaviors — those uncontrollable, psychotic tantrums that these kind of people have — than to have the psychotropic drugs," she said. "I am very happy and pleased with the treatment."

Cheryl McCollins and the center have reached a settlement.


An Innovative Approach to Help Troubled Teens

By WGBH News   |   Monday, April 30, 2012
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April 30, 2012
BOSTON — The conversation about education reform these days often centers on No Child Left Behind or "teaching to the test." But an innovative technique is playing out about 30 miles north of the Massachusetts border, at Somersworth High School in New Hampshire.

The school has adopted a one-on-one approach between teachers and student to develop education plans and provide counseling and life advice. The results: more kids are staying in school and grades are going up.
Filmmaker Dan Habib documented Somersworth High in his new film, "Who Cares About Kelsey," a profile of a struggling student who went from failing classes and selling drugs to a dramatic turnaround.
One reason for the success of Kelsey and other students at Somersworth High is that the school recognized the need for treatment, not punishment.
"Disproportionately, disciplinary issues do come from kids who, often, have emotional disabilities or are at risk of dropping out," Habib said. "Sometimes acting out, having challenging behavior, is a very effective way of getting attention." Over the 4 years of the program, the school reduced disciplinary issues by 60 percent.
True, it takes a lot of work to change the way a school system operates, but Habib thinks it's worth it. Within a school, programs like Somersworth's improve the climate for all students and give teachers more room to teach — without having to spend time disciplining unruly students.
But more than that, school disengagement is a societal problem, Habib said. In his research, he found that dropouts in the Class of 2008 alone cost the country "$319 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetime." Another study showed that increasing the rate of graduation for male students by 5 percent "we'd save over $8 billion a year in crime-related costs."
So when you change the education system, "As a country and as a community and as a state, you find it yields much more success in terms of human capital," Habib said.

How Work Is Messing Up Your Sleep

By Nancy Shute   |   Sunday, April 29, 2012
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Dr. Gary Small: Preventing Alzheimer's Disease

Friday, March 2, 2012
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March 2, 2012

BOSTON — Alzheimer’s disease currently afflicts 5 million Americans; one American is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 70 seconds. There is no known cure, and the suggestion that Alzheimer's can be prevented is deeply debated within the scientific community — can doing crossword puzzles, for example, really help stave off the degenerative effects of the disease? Dr. Gary Small, UCLA neuroscientist argues that there are in fact steps we can take to at least delay the symptoms of mental decline. Here, he offers tips for keeping the brain healthy through exercise, diet, and stress management that may at least result in better quality of life. View the full lecture on WGBH's Forum Network.

Connectome: How the Brain's Writing Makes Us Who We Are

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
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March 1, 2012

BOSTON — Neuroscience has long focused on the functionality of the different regions of the brain. But two neuroscientists, Sebastian Seung of MIT, and Jeff Lichtman of Harvard University, are arguing for a revolution, stating that this approach does not provide enough information to truly understand the complex functioning of the human brain. They believe that the key to the brain's activity lies in the connections between brain cells. Seung and a dedicated group of researchers are leading the effort to map these connections, neuron by neuron, synapse by synapse -- a development previously unobtainable due to the incredible computing power needed. The result would be a map of the brain's activity referred to as the "connectome", analogous to the genome.

If they succeed, they hope to reveal a more complete understanding of the brain's workings, uncovering the basis of personality, identity, intelligence, memory, and perhaps disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Here, Seung and Lichtman give an overview of the importance of mapping the connections of the brain, and the new technologies they are employing in their endeavor. View the full lecture on WGBH's Forum Network.

About the Authors
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 


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