UMaine faculty talk about assistive tech on national podcast

autonomous transporterUniversity of Maine researchers and faculty members, Nicholas Giudice and Richard Corey were recent guests on Assistive Technology Update, “a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs.” The host of the show, Josh Anderson, is with the INDATA project at Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Giudice and Corey are co-founders of the  Virtual Environments and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory (VEMI Lab) at the University of Maine and recently were awarded a $300,000 grant from US Department of Transportation.  VEMI plans to develop a smartphone app that will provide the navigational assistance needed for people with disabilities and seniors to enjoy ride-sharing and ride-hailing, collectively termed mobility-as-a-service. The app, known as the Autonomous Vehicle Assistant (AVA), can also be used for standard vehicles operated by human drivers and enjoyed by everyone.

On the podcast, broadcast on March 26, 2021, Giudice and Corey discuss the grant competition and how the AVA app could  allow people with disabilities and seniors to achieve greater independent in transportation. Some of the challenges of the autonomous vehicle technology are also discussed.

 

FEMA Provides Vaccine Resources and Information for People with Disabilities

Tablet showing the definition of the word "access"The Biden Administration has tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with managing set-up and operations for Community Vaccination Centers across the country. With other federal agencies, FEMA established a Civil Rights Advisory Group that developed a Civil Rights Checklist – PDF and Best Practice Information – PDF resource to provide states, territories, and tribes a list of civil rights considerations and resources to ensure equitable vaccine access.

“It is essential that people with disabilities have equitable vaccine access,” U.S. Access Board Executive Director Sachin Dev Pavithran remarked. “This means ensuring that strategies are developed and implemented with the integration of the needs of people with disabilities into the design of accessibility to the vaccine. I commend FEMA for making the necessary efforts in continuing to make the vaccine more accessible for people with disabilities.”

FEMA provides live on-demand American Sign Language interpreters at all federally supported community vaccination centers during each center’s hours of operation. FEMA also has civil rights and disability integration advisors in each of its 10 regions to advise state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and other partners, ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are integrated in all facets of vaccination center operations.  For further details on your region’s Disability Integration Specialist, contact FEMA at FEMA-Disability-Integration-Coordination@fema.dhs.gov

More information about vaccine supportequitable vaccine access, and ASL videos can be found on FEMA’s website. Find vaccine updates in your community and more information from your local health department. You can also find a list of places where adults can get a vaccine.

Maine Partners with T-Mobile to Provide Increased Internet Access to Maine Students

From the Maine Department of Education

HelpThe Maine Department of Education has partnered with T-Mobile to expand efforts to provide internet access and devices to Maine students through their Project 10Million initiative. If they choose to participate, the program provides mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices directly to school districts for student use.

“We are thrilled to partner with T-Mobile to continue providing opportunities that allow Maine students to stay connected to their teachers, peers, and school communities,” said Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin. “The partnership helps to expand our own Connect Kids Now! initiative which supports Maine schools by providing internet connectivity through the pandemic.”

The Connect Kids Now! initiative began in the spring of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic when it became abundantly clear that technology resources were critical in closing the equity of access gap for continued learning for Maine students. In line with this these efforts, T-Mobile’s Project 10Million initiative provides the opportunity for districts in Maine to participate by signing up and choosing from three tiers of service which they can pass on to students at no cost: up to 100GB per year per device for free, or low-cost options for 100GB per month or unlimited data. Part of the commitment of the partnership will be to provide additional devices from T-Mobile over the next five years. T-Mobile will distribute these devices directly to districts and all student households with at least one student participating in the National School Lunch Program are eligible for the program. The Maine DOE will look to include districts based on economic factors such as Title 1 schools, National School Lunch Program eligibility rates, and distressed county designations. Districts can complete an online interest form to participate in the program.

“Partnering with the Maine DOE helps us identify districts and students that will benefit most from Project 10Million and get them the devices and connectivity required to fully participate in school,” said Mike Katz, executive vice president of T-Mobile for Business. “We are grateful to be a part of the solution that Commissioner Makin and her team have put in place to make sure ALL students can access the resources they need to succeed.”

 

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Available to Eligible Families in April

From the Maine Department of Education

Neon sign with the words Hi Speed InternetThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently adopted a “Report and Order” that established the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, a $3.2 billion federal initiative to help lower the cost of high-speed internet for eligible households during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

Benefits of the program include:

  • Up to $50/month discount for broadband services;
  • Up to $75/month discount for broadband services for households on Tribal lands; and
  • A one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet purchased through a participating provider.
  • The Emergency Broadband Benefit is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per eligible household.

A household is eligible if one member of the household:

  • Qualifies for the Lifeline program, including those who are on Medicaid or receive SNAP benefits;
  • Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, or did so in the 2019- 2020 school year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

The FCC expects the Emergency Broadband Benefit program to be open to eligible households before the end of April, 2021. Please check the FCC’s website regularly for the latest information. Once up and running, eligible households will be able to enroll through participating broadband providers or directly with the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).

Many types of broadband providers can qualify to provide service in this program. The FCC is currently setting up the systems needed for providers to participate. Contact information for the providers participating in the program will be posted on USAC’s website.

For more information, the Report and Order along with the rules governing this program can be found at this link…

Making gaming accessible to visually impaired gamers

From Cool Blind Tech...

What is the software called and how does it work?

This new software is called Mars Vision (currently in beta) and it offers a technological solution to let all players who have low-vision or are visually impaired enjoy computer games. The application monitors gameplay in real-time and assists the player in navigating the game’s environment and menus. Using a neural network, Mars Vision doesn’t change the gameplay present in a game; rather, it translates gameplay so that the player has the information they need to immerse themselves fully in the world. The technology has been developed in partnership with visually impaired end users to ensure that pain points that are present in similar software are not experienced with Mars Vision.”

When is Mars Vision available?

Mars Vision is currently in closed beta and players who are interested in taking part can sign up here…

Read the whole blog entry – Super.com announces partnership to make gaming accessible to visually impaired gamers

Affordable computer equipment program in Maine

Android TabletsAccording to a news release, the National Digital Equity Center (NDEC) wants to help close Maine’s digital divide. In an effort to do so, the center is offering eligible Mainers free tablets for a year.

In addition to the tablets, free one-on-one tutoring to help users connect to the internet, and interactive online classes will be available to folks who want them. Classes range in topics from devices, internet safety, and using Google-based tools.

According to their website, the National Digital Equity Center has an Affordable Equipment Program that provides no cost or low cost devices to Maine Residents 18 years of age and older who are of low to moderate income. The “Maine Digital Inclusion Initiative” program promotes and advocates for Digital Inclusion. Included is the expansion of digital literacy services to traditionally underserved populations to provide job training/employment-related education as well as technology training to older adults. The program has engaged and trained digital literacy instructors to provide computer skills/digital literacy instruction to adult learners throughout Maine.

Program participants receive personalized support along a scaffolded learning path that leads to life-long learning and the skills and resources to continue growth along their individual trajectories. They also experience far-reaching meaningful impacts through use of internet resources.

Some areas of impact are education, financial stability, improved health, reduced isolation and increased communication, improved access to information, and increased civic participation. In addition to gaining digital literacy, formerly socially isolated participants often develop relationships with other peers they can rely on for assistance. Among older adults, this reduces the occurrence of depression, and negative health affects over time.

Through digital literacy efforts, communities benefit from a more highly skilled workforce that help grow the local economy and perpetuate creation of economic opportunity. Innovation and technology throughout the state will be leveraged to significantly improve the lives of Mainers. The project is one of the first statewide Digital Inclusion programs in the country.

Visit the National Digital Equity Center’s website for more information and to request an Affordable Device. The website also has information about Affordable Broadband Internet

 

FCC announces new program to help households struggling during the pandemic

The Emergency Broadband Benefit

Neon sign with the words Hi Speed InternetThe Emergency Broadband Benefit is an FCC program to help households struggling to pay for internet service during the pandemic. This new benefit will connect eligible households to jobs, critical healthcare services, and virtual classrooms.

About the Emergency Broadband Benefit

The Emergency Broadband Benefit will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.

Who Is Eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program?

A household is eligible if one member of the household:

  • Qualifies for the Lifeline program;
  • Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, or did so in the 2019-2020 school year;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

When Can I Sign Up for the Benefit?

More Information for Broadband Providers

The program is open to all broadband providers, not just those currently offering Lifeline services.  Participating providers will receive reimbursement from the program for delivering qualifying broadband services or devices to eligible households. Broadband providers can find more information about how to participate here.

Use this link to go to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit page for more information…

Captioned Telephone Service Study

FCC logoThe following announcement come from the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA):

Many members of HLAA use a captioned telephone service, also known as Internet Protocol (IP)-based Captioned Telephone Services (IP-CTS). The Rochester Institute of Technology and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID) is seeking participants for an important study to assess current IP-CTS Telephone Services applications. This study is sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

IP-CTS allows a person with hearing loss to speak and listen to another party while simultaneously reading captions of what the other party is saying. The study will provide information to help determine the requirements for future captioned phone services. This study will assess the captioned phone services from the user’s perspective. Data collected will include captioned service performance and usability feedback from users. Participation in this study will be online.

QUALIFICATIONS:

To qualify for participation, one must meet all of the following requirements:

  • Be 18 years old or older
  • Be able to read English fluently
  • Have a hearing loss and use a hearing aid or cochlear implant
  • Have a computer with a web camera and an Internet connection
  • Are familiar with Zoom technology

AND

  • Use a standard telephone or a cell phone

OR

  • Have used a captioned telephone.

COMPENSATION:

$50 Amazon eGift Card sent by email

CONTACT:

If you are interested in participating or have questions about the study, please contact: Donna Easton: dlencr@rit.edu by email and add “Phone Captioning” in the email subject line.

 

New Maine CITE Program Director Arrives

Jessi WrightJessi Wright, MBA, ATP has been named the new Director for the Maine CITE Program, the Assistive Technology (AT) program for the state of Maine. Jessi began her duties on February 1, 2021.

Jessi was previously the Director of the West Virginia State Assistive Technology Program located at the West Virginia University Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

Jessi has worked in the disability field for over 15 years, ten years of which were with state assistive technology programs. She has extensive experience in disability services program management and is recognized as a national leader in the assistive technology field with knowledge of AT services, training, data management, funding, and grant writing.

Personally, Jessi grew up with an aunt with Down Syndrome and has provided caregiving support to friends and family with varying disabilities. She also identifies as a person with a disability. As a user of AT, she fully understands the potential life changing benefits of AT and has dedicated her career to educating and helping others achieve independence and an increased quality of life through the use of AT.

As a photography, nature and travel enthusiast, Jessi is looking forward to exploring all the adventures Maine has to offer. She plans to spend her down time camping, hiking and kayaking in the beautiful state of Maine. Jessi is also looking forward to trying out winter recreation activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing as well. You may also find her checking out a local hockey game or live music event around the state.

The Maine CITE Program, located at the University of Maine Augusta, is the statewide AT program, administered by the Maine Department of Education and funded by the federal Administration for Community Living. Maine CITE provides information, training, and services about AT, manages the statewide device demo, loan, and reuse programs, and provides technical assistance to organizations and individuals. Maine CITE’s online searchable AT inventory, AT4Maine, has more than 1000 devices available for demo and loan that can be accessed at the website, AT4Maine.org.

Maine CITE also administers the Maine Accessible Educational Materials Program (Maine AEM) which provides information, training, and technical assistance to educators to ensure educational content and communications are accessible to all.

Please feel free to contact Jessi at jwright@mainecite.org

 

App developed in Maine will help people with disabilities

From the VEMI Lab at the University of Maine Orono

App from VEMI Lab group will help people with visual impairments, seniors enjoy ride-sharing with self-driving cars

University of Maine logoORONO, Maine, January 29, 2021 – Self-driving cars will offer access to ride-sharing and ride-hailing with their suite of modern conveniences. However, many people with visual impairments who use these services rely on a human driver to safely locate their vehicle.

A research group led by the Virtual Environments and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory (VEMI Lab) at the University of Maine is developing a smartphone app that provides the navigational assistance needed for people with disabilities and seniors to enjoy ride-sharing and ride-hailing, collectively termed mobility-as-a-service, with the latest in automotive technology. The app, known as the Autonomous Vehicle Assistant (AVA), can also be used for standard vehicles operated by human drivers and enjoyed by everyone.

AVA will help users request, find and enter a vehicle using a multisensory interface that provides guidance through audio and haptic feedback and high-contrast visual cues. The Autonomous Vehicle Research Group (AVRG), a cross institutional collective led by VEMI lab with researchers from Northeastern University and Colby College, will leverage GPS technology, real-time computer vision via the smartphone camera and artificial intelligence to support the functions offered through the app.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $300,000 to AVRG for the AVA project through its Inclusive Design Challenge. The initiative sought proposals for design solutions that would help people with disabilities use autonomous vehicles for employment and essential services. AVRG was one of the semifinalists.

“This design challenge was exciting to us as it falls so squarely in our wheelhouse” says Nicholas Giudice, a professor of spatial Computing at UMaine. “We have worked in the areas of multimodal information access and navigation for visually impaired people and older adults for years, and have recently started a research program investigating human-vehicle collaborations for increasing the trustworthiness and accessibility of autonomous vehicles. This development project connects the dots by allowing us to bridge several areas of expertise to ensure that the technology of the future is ‘accessible for all.’”

Users will create a profile in AVA that reflects their needs and existing methods of navigation. The app will use the information from their profiles to find a suitable vehicle for transport, then determine whether one is available.

When the vehicle arrives, AVA will guide the user to it using the camera and augmented reality (AR), which provides an overlay of the environment using the smartphone by superimposing high-contrast lines over the image to highlight the path and verbal guidance, such as compass directions, street names, addresses and nearby landmarks. The app also will pinpoint environmental hazards, such as low-contrast curbs, by emphasizing them with contrasting lines and vibrating when users approach them. It will then help users find the door handle to enter the vehicle awaiting them.

“This is the first project of its kind in the country, and in combination with our other work in this area, we are addressing an end-to-end solution for AVs (autonomous vehicles) that will improve their accessibility for all,” says Giudice, chief research scientist at VEMI Lab and lead on the AVA project. “Most work in this area only deals with sighted passengers, yet the under-represented driving populations we are supporting stand to benefit most from this technology and are one of the fastest growing demographics in the country.”

AVRG studies how autonomous vehicles can meet various accessibility needs. VEMI lab itself has explored tactics for improving consumer trust in this emerging technology.

AVA advances both groups’ endeavors by not only providing another means for people with visual impairments and other disabilities and seniors to access self-driving vehicles, but also increases their trust in them. The project also builds on a seed grant-funded, joint effort between UMaine and Northeastern University to improve accessibility, safety and situational awareness within the self-driving vehicle. Researchers from both universities aim to develop a new model of human-AI vehicle interaction to ensure people with visual impairments and seniors understand what the autonomous vehicle is doing and that it can sense, interpret and communicate with the passenger.

The app will offer modules that train users how to order and locate rides, particularly through mock pickup scenarios. Offering hands-on learning provides users confidence in themselves and the technology, according to researchers. It also gathers data AVRG can use during its iterative, ongoing development for AVA and its integration into autonomous vehicles.

“We are very excited about this opportunity to create accessible technology which will help the transition to fully autonomous vehicles for all. The freedom and independence of all travelers is imperative as we move forward,” says VEMI lab director Richard Corey.

VEMI Lab, co-founded by Corey and Giudice in 2008, explores different solutions for solving unmet challenges with technology. Prime areas of research and development pertain to self-driving vehicles, the design of bio-inspired tools to improve human-machine interaction and functionality, and new technology to improve environmental awareness, spatial learning and navigational wayfinding.

FMI Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207-581-3721; marcus.wolf@maine.edu

See also article on Cool Blind Tech blog…