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ATU565 – AbleLink Smart Living Technologies with Dan Davies

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest:

Dan Davies – Founder and President – AbleLink Smart Living Technologies

Website: www.ablelinktech.com

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—– Transcript Starts Here——

Dan Davies:
Hi, this is Dan Davies. I’m the Founder and President of disabilities Smart Living Technologies and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello and welcome to your 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. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 565 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on March 25th, 2022. On today’s show, we’re super excited to have Dan Davies from AbleLink Smart Living Technologies on. And you know what? The interview ran a little long, so let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
Listeners over the last, oh, couple of months, we’ve been lucky enough to have some of the participants in the Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge on. And today, we’re super excited to have Dan Davies from AbleLink Smart Living Technologies on to talk about the company and the exciting things that they’re doing, as well as their participation in the Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge. Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan Davies:
Hi, thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, I am excited to talk about, well, a lot of different things. But Dan, before we do that, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Dan Davies:
Sure. I started AbleLink back in 1997, so I’ve been doing this for a few years. The focus of AbleLink is on the development of cognitive technology for individuals with various different cognitive disabilities. What got me into this field is primarily my oldest brother, John lived with severe intellectual disabilities. He passed away a number of years ago, but that definitely set the trajectory for my area of work by getting into seeing how technology might be useful for folks like my brother who live with the challenges that come with cognitive disabilities.

Josh Anderson:
Now, let’s kind of just start, and we’re going to get into some of the other great things that AbleLink Smart Living Technologies can do, but let’s start with the Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge. Tell us a little bit about your project for this challenge.

Dan Davies:
Sure. Well, when the Inclusive Design Challenge opportunity came about, the focus from the Department of Transportation was on looking at access to automated vehicles for individuals with various disabilities. Our area of expertise is in the cognitive area. And as is often the case, the cognitive area doesn’t nearly get the attention that some of the other areas have gotten over the years, sensory and physical access, which, which are terrific that those areas are getting attention, but the area of cognitive is oftentimes overlooked. That was our focus was to submit a project that focus on accessibility of automated vehicles for folks with cognitive disabilities and others with similar special needs.

Josh Anderson:
Awesome. And what is your actual project for the challenge?

Dan Davies:
Sure. Our project’s called WayFinder Ride, or WayFinder ADS, Enabling Independent Use of Autonomous Vehicles by Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities and Others with Special Needs. We’ve been working for quite a number of years in the area of transportation and accessible transportation for folks with cognitive disabilities and have developed a whole suite of tools and technologies around that. Our WayFinder ecosystem is focused on helping folks with cognitive disabilities utilize the bus and be able to walk areas independently with GPS provided instructional support along the way. It was a natural extension of our Wayfinder technologies to look at automated vehicles and accessibility of those. As I mentioned, oftentimes folks with cognitive disabilities are not considered in the design of the mainstream applications or the apps that are used to access those types of services and our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen here.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, for sure. And you’re right. Going back to one of your earlier points, yeah, it does seem like the cognitive impairments seem to be the ones that do kind of fall by the wayside. I think sometimes maybe you don’t see them as much. They’re not always as visible. But yeah, you’re right. A lot of times it does kind of fall by the wayside.

Dan Davies:
What’s interesting about that is while that, what you just said, is exactly the case, the fact is on the cognitive areas, everyone is on the cognitive spectrum somewhere. So when you develop technologies for folks with cognitive disabilities, you’re really developing technologies that are easier to use and can benefit individuals with and without disability because everybody shares the fact that we’re on the same cognitive spectrum somewhere and where we are on that changes as our life goes on.

Josh Anderson:
Most definitely. So talking about Wayfinder, kind of tell me the differences between it and maybe just kind of your standard GPS app that you would open to get somewhere. How does this differ from it in order to help individuals with cognitive impairments?

Dan Davies:
Sure. Yeah. Well, many applications for transportation support or mapping technologies and apps for that assume various things. They assume people have literacy skills. They assume people can use dropdown menus where you’re selecting things from a menu. They assume individuals may be able to navigate mapping interfaces to identify a destination or something like that. All of those things oftentimes are challenging for folks with cognitive disabilities. So with our applications, we focus on providing an accessible interface using multiple modes of information, pictures, audio, haptic feedback and text for folks that have the ability to utilize that as well, and combine those different prompts and supports to enable the individual to request a ride or go down and take the bus on their own, know when it’s time to pull the cord to tell the driver they want to get off the bus, things like that.

Dan Davies:
But one of the things that’s unique in addition to the user interface is in the midst of the travel instructions, there also can be behavioral support instructions that just provide the individual’s additional confidence, feedback that they’re on the right track. If they look out the window and they see a landmark that’s common and they see a picture on their device that can identify that for them, it helps them to orient to the trip and to know that they’re in the right place and going the right direction. We also have pretty strong safety mechanisms in place to allow a family member or another caregiver to be able to monitor the individual and connect with the individual while they’re they’re traveling. So the traveler, if they so choose, can have a party that helps them with their travel needs follow them along and be able to see that virtually on a mapping interface that the caregiver or the family member can see where the individual is and if they leave the travel route or get Lost. That becomes an alert that shows up for the individual.

Dan Davies:
Those are just some examples of some of the components around safety that are critical for folks with cognitive disabilities. They’re, and so many times, having the opportunity to travel independently for the time.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, and I’m sure that being able to have that kind of information come to a caretaker, family member or something probably helps with the anxiety level of that family member or caretaker as well.

Dan Davies:
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. We’ve seen that in several of our projects where participants had not had the opportunity to even attempt to ride the bus because of the fears there were from their family members, but having that technology that allows the realtime support and realtime location information in the fingertips of the parent, that’s given them that comfort to feel and peace of mind to say, “Hey, let’s see if my son or daughter can take the bus into Bentley. That would be a great thing for them.”

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. I mean, it gives you kind of a starting point. If they get on the bus and they don’t make it to the right destination, if you know where that disconnect is, it’s a much easier, I guess, way to learn, a much easier way to teach them that, no, they’re just getting off one stop early, or they’re getting off two stops early or there’s something that looks right like this stop at that other place and that’s the problem. So yeah, just for training and for learning. And I really like, and I didn’t want to glaze over, where you said that you can have different learning tools on there. Things that can pop up for them to kind of remind them or calm them down and do all that, so you have that full multimodal kind of way of learning so they’re not just… They’re using the technology to be able to do it, but also learning some independence and being able to do it on their own and having those tools available to them the whole ride is a great thing.

Dan Davies:
One of the other things I’ll mention that kind of makes the WayFinder ecosystem unique is it goes beyond just the day of travel support to the area of training and preparation. We have developed a number of accessible transportation training modules for folks with cognitive disabilities to be able to go through in a self-paced manner to learn about traveling in the community. It addresses issues like how to get help if you need assistance, what to do in various situations that you come upon with people in the community. And in addition, there’s accessible assessments using our ATLAS system, which is an accessible testing system. Folks with cognitive disabilities can go through these assessments before they head out the door to travel to help a travel trainer or a caregiver kind of know where they’re at and what areas where they need particular assistance.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Dan, could you dig a little bit deeper? Tell me a little bit more about ATLAS just because I did want to talk about some of the other things besides just WayFinder and I know you mentioned it a little bit, but can you dig in and just tell us a little bit more about that?

Dan Davies:
Yeah, absolutely. ATLAS really comes out of the need that exists for folks with cognitive disabilities to be able to speak for themselves with respect to their satisfaction with services or various things like that. Many organizations that provide services to people with cognitive disabilities are mandated to assess the services that they’re providing and part of that is getting feedback directly from the individuals that they’re serving. Historically, that’s been done by verbal interviews where staff are asking questions about how happy are they with the various staff, with the various locations that they’re living, but they’re really not having the opportunity to respond in a way that’s not potentially influenced by the presence of that other individual, so ATLAS is an accessible survey or assessment system that allows people with cognitive disabilities to go through an assessment or a feedback instrument to personally provide that feedback and answer questions about how happy they are with where they live, are there any changes they’d like to make, are they satisfied with the staff, and the staff isn’t the ones asking them the questions.

Dan Davies:
They’re going through this either on a mobile device or through a web interface with our accessible design features that are used to make it independently usable by individuals. And there’s organizations that are using ATLAS for satisfaction surveys, health related surveys. The health service in Ireland is just beginning to use it to assess the satisfaction of individuals in their day services programs there, so lots of organizations are seeing the value of getting that feedback directly from the customers and the individuals that they serve rather than through a proxy or someone else speaking for them.

Josh Anderson:
No, and that’s great because how are you are going to be able to improve your services if you don’t get honest feedback? I know we run into that in AT services a lot just because for some folks who’ve never used any kind of assistive technology, anything’s better, so of course it’s great and it’s the most amazing thing ever and it’s wonderful, but is it really? And sometimes getting that data is so hard because if you’re, like you said, if it’s the person that they’re asking about asking the questions, well, just natural human nature, you’re going to sugarcoat it and make it sound a little bit better. If you add on a cognitive disability or something else, you just think, “Well, they’re asking me, but they want me to be nice and they want me to be polite.”

Dan Davies:
Correct.

Josh Anderson:
That’s correct that you’re giving them a tool to actually be able to voice their own opinions, as well as just the benefit for the organization, the government entity or whoever’s trying to get that information to really be able to get actual data they can use to improve their programs.

Dan Davies:
Yeah really, it is mutually beneficial because the agencies are getting better feedback because it’s coming directly from the individuals they serve and the individuals are having the opportunity to have a voice in their own life that oftentimes they don’t get to have.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, that’s an unfortunate thing and that seems to happen everywhere around the world, where it seems like too many times the folks aren’t involved in their own services and that’s a shame, but hopefully that’s something we’ll see change, but we could spend, again, a whole show kind of talking about that. I want to talk about a few more things that you guys do offer. You also have a mobile and a desktop suite. Now, what are those?

Dan Davies:
Good question. The Super Smart Living desktop suite is a… basically, it’s a cognitively accessible interface that sits on top of a Windows computer to make the use of a computer easier for folks with cognitive disabilities. It’s essentially a interface shell that has cognitively accessible components built into it. For example, there’s an email program called Smart Living Email that allows an individual to send and receive email without use of a keyboard. They simply touch a picture of a friend or family member in their picture address book and then they can speak their email aloud and they don’t have to use keyboard at all. Or if they’re using a communication device, they can use the communication device to speak and have that recorded and that audio recording then is sent automatically to the recipient for them to listen to. Emails that come in are read with the computer by text-to-speech so individuals with limited literacy skills and who don’t really have the ability to type out an email address or email to an individual, they can use that. That’s part of that application.

Dan Davies:
Another component is a accessible browser called Web Trek that’s part of the Smart Living Desktop Suite that allows folks to access content on the internet in a simpler fashion. There’s a simple screen reader built into access content once they get there, there’s capabilities to directly launch a YouTube video in full screen. And then when that one video is finished, it comes right back to the desktop so you don’t end up getting plastered with a whole bunch of additional videos that can lead you who knows where. The desktop suite also has the capability to provide step-by-step instructions for activities of daily living or morning routine through our Visual Impact Program on the desktop.

Dan Davies:
The mobile suite is focused on helping an individual get through their day. There’s a accessible scheduling component with our Endeavor application that provides the picture and audio and simplified interface to help the individual know when it’s time to do things. That might be a morning routine, it might be heading out the door to catch the bus. The other component of the mobile suite is our Visual Impact Application, which provides step-by-step instructions in an accessible format for any of those tasks that the individual may need to perform. It could be the morning routine itself, so the scheduling application comes on at 8:00 and says, “Hey, it’s time for your morning schedule. Press this button to begin.” And once they do that, the Visual Impact task is played for the individual that provides all the things they need to do to get ready to go to work in the morning or something like that.

Dan Davies:
Those two applications are part of the Smart Living Mobile Suite and they’re designed to be that key technology the person carries with them throughout the day. And as they go to work, they can use the same application to follow step-by-step instructions on the work site.

Josh Anderson:
That is really cool. I love that. You answered all kind of questions there. A desktop computer, because we get asked a lot, “Hey, I want my son, daughter, brother, friend, family member to be able to use a computer more effectively. What are kind of some ways?” And yeah, if you think of just a maybe what we would call a simple email program and just how much fluff there is around it, how many different things you have to click on just to get an email or send an email or which one’s forward, which one’s reply, all those other things, so yeah, just being able to talk to it, have that go right straight through and then be able to have it read back to you not having to remember email addresses or type them in because, I mean, I don’t know how many times per day I type one wrong or send an email to the wrong person and I use email constantly. That’s great that you do that.

Josh Anderson:
The YouTube thing, I think that’s a really, really good tool too because I know any individual, you end up down some really weird rabbit holes if you just let it continue to play because the next video isn’t necessarily related to the first one in any way, shape or form.

Dan Davies:
That’s right. That’s right. And the email program, one other feature for example, is you can, that’s just kind of similar, is you can turn on a setting that restricts the incoming email to only friends and family in front that are in the individual’s picture address book. So any spam or any unsolicited emails, they never even show up, make it to the computer.

Josh Anderson:
Nice, so no worries about clicking on that badly, getting a virus, the phishing, the anything else that we all seem to be bombarded with daily. Well, Dan, can you tell me a story about someone who’s had a positive change in their life made by something from AbleLink Smart Living Technologies?

Dan Davies:
Sure, sure. I mean, lots of stories. The one I’ll share with relates to transportation. This is a story of an individual in the Rapid City, South Dakota area, that was the dependent upon staff to get to work. He worked at grocery store and staff would come pick him up and take them there and then pick him up right after work was over. He would call the agency in the morning to make sure staff was coming because there was one time they missed and so he was concerned about that. He’d call like 10 to 15 times in the morning. That was kind of a burden for the staff because they were assisting him, but they still having to answer the phone every time and all and so they decided, “Well, let’s try Wayfinder with… and see if he wanted to utilize that.” He was positive about that and said, “Yeah, I’d like to try that.” They set up Wayfinder with him, taught him how to use it. He used that to then begin to take the bus on his own to get to work and to get home from work.

Dan Davies:
What they found was a couple of things. One is he started going to work early so he could hang out in the lunchroom and visit with his coworkers. And they had no idea… He didn’t have the opportunity to do that before when staff was picking him up and getting him back home, he didn’t have that extra time to socialize and develop friendships in the workplace, so he really enjoyed that. He’d do the same thing after work sometimes. He’d stay after and visit with folks. About three months after using Wayfinder, he handed it back to his staff and said, “I don’t need this anymore. I can take the bus on my own,” and he actually learned how to ride to different locations in the city. He was a real great example of how technology may just be providing a step up into a new skill that the individual can utilize for the rest of their life and they don’t always have to have the technology to there to support them.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. I don’t remember who said it, but somebody told me that the technology is the door handle. The door was always there, there was just no way to open it. But once you open it, somebody can step through, the sky’s really the limit. Yeah. I really love the way the story that, A, like you said, he didn’t even really need it anymore, but just that staff found out that he really wanted to hang out at work more and be able to actually kind of talk to coworkers and build those friendships and relationships that had he just been relying on the rides he wouldn’t have been able to do. And of course with, I’ve talked to other folks with the Inclusive Design Challenge and other things, and all of us in the different disability communities are really hoping that something does happen of it. Because here in Indianapolis, we do have kind of a paratransit service that is there and it is helpful. It’s not always the best, it’s probably a little underfunded and other things like that, but it is there.

Josh Anderson:
But in so many communities and so many areas, unless you’re in a major metropolitan area, there’s nothing. There is just almost nothing or you’re relying on staff like the gentleman you were telling us about and that just closes so many doors and just takes away so many opportunities for individuals.

Dan Davies:
Well, there’s many areas that aren’t covered by paratransit or fixed route transit and that’s really where the automated vehicle project comes in. Because for individuals to be able to get from their home to the doctor’s office or to a friend’s house when there’s not a bus available and they can’t schedule two, three days in advance for the paratransit trip, having the ability to use an automated vehicle and just request that on their own, it gives them the freedom really to live their life.

Josh Anderson:
Definitely. And working in this job and working in employment before this, I worked with a lot of folks who would love to have worked more hours, but it isn’t like they could just call them and say, “Hey, so and so called in, can you come in?” because they couldn’t. Because like you said, they don’t have that just at your fingertips transportation.

Dan Davies:
That’s right.

Josh Anderson:
That is awesome. Well, Dan, I can sit here and talk to you all day, but unfortunately we’ve run out of time. So if our listeners want to find out more about all the great things that AbleLink Smart Living Technologies can offer, what’s the best ways for them to do that?

Dan Davies:
The best place to act access information about AbleLink will be our website, which is AbleLinktech.com. That’s T-E-C-H in AbleLinktech.com. And from there, you can contact us, you can see information about the different products and services that we have and learn about the things that AbleLink is doing.

Josh Anderson:
We’ll put a link to that over in the show notes so our folks can easily find that. Well Dan Davies, thank you for so much for coming on today and telling us all about AbleLink Smart Living Technologies, your inclusion in the in Inclusive Design Challenge and then all the other great solutions that you all are offering.

Dan Davies:
Thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on an Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124, send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org or shoot us an note on Twitter @INDATAproject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or INTRAC. You can find out more about INTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guest are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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