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ATU681 – Gadget Camp with Brian Norton


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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.
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Brian Norton – VP of Adult Services – Easterseals Crossroads
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—– Transcript Starts Here —–

Hi, my name is Brian Norton, vice president of Adult Services here at Easterseals Crossroads, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

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 Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to 681 of Assistive Technology Update. It is scheduled to be released on June 14th, 2024. Folks, here we are in June. Apple has had their WWDC earlier this week and of course meant most of the time, talking about all the cool new features of iOS 18.

And while some of them are very exciting, including changes to messages, changes to email, photos, just the way we set up our whole iPhone and iPad, all the different kind of controls. There were definitely some that caught my eye and of course the accessibility features, and we’ll get into those in a minute, how excited we are for those, but also some changes to Notes. Being able to do math right in there, being able to draw my math and change it over, get answers and stuff like that can always be super-duper helpful. As well as actually having a calculator on an iPad, something that I must admit I never realized didn’t exist.

But I do love the fact that it’s going to let you use the Apple Pencil to be able to draw out math problems, actually get those solved for you. I figure that can help a lot of students with some different kind of learning disabilities and other things. But let’s not lie, if you’re listening to this podcast, you are probably all about the new accessibility features. And while Apple has some of the most amazing accessibility features out there, if we think of voiceover, voice control, maybe some other things that really can help a whole lot of folks, some of the new ones coming out are just absolutely amazing.

Now, granted, haven’t tried them, so who knows. Maybe it’ll be a little bit different. Once we actually get it, they’re a little clunky, but the just simple fact that they are going to be there is really and truly encouraging. We figure some of this probably comes with the new artificial intelligence kind of features that’ll be in there. And I suppose we could talk about those a little bit, about Apple partnering with OpenAI and their different AI engines to make Siri a little bit smarter, able to answer questions a little bit better, maybe even create some different things for us.

So I’m excited to see what that looks like and how that can help individuals with disabilities. But the ones made specifically for folks, I guess we have to start with the eye tracking. So there’s a lot of folks out there that do use eye tracking in order to access different kinds of devices, especially AAC, a computer and other stuff like that. This usually involves a device that is plugged into the device I’m trying to control. It calibrates to my eyes. It will track where they are going. Then by either dwelling on an object or blinking, I can usually activate that item.

This will be built in to iOS 18, which is super-duper cool. Now, I do not know just how touchy it will be, but the fact that I can control my iPad with my eyes really kind of opens the door for a lot of folks to be able to access their device. Says it’s using on-device machine learning using the front facing camera to set up and calibrate in seconds. So anyone who’s ever used kind of an eye control system and there’s a lot of different ones out there, they have gotten a whole lot better. There’s a lot less set up. Whenever I first started doing this a decade ago or so, I remember helping set one up.

And it seems like you’d get it perfect, it would be balanced on the eye, and then you barely bump something and you kind of had to start over. And it was a little bit frustrating, especially for the individual trying to access something using it. So if this really works well and can do that in just seconds, then we’re super excited that it will be there and cannot wait to check it out. Another one I’m really excited about is vocal shortcuts. So for this, it’s kind of made for folks who maybe have atypical speech.

So if there’s certain words that are kind hard to say, then maybe Siri or your voice control on your iPad or iPhone really probably makes some challenges. But for this, you can actually just kind of record the way that you say it and do complete tasks, launch shortcuts, do all kinds of other things. I’m not sure because I haven’t really dug into it a whole lot. I haven’t really played with it a whole heck of a lot. Of course, it’s not out there yet, but we can really think how this can be super helpful for folks who just have different speech patterns,

Who may not be able to say the exact voice controls that the device needs in order to function, but this gives them a way to actually be able to have the phone better understand them. And from my understanding, and again, it won’t be quite out yet, you don’t have to record every single word. It’s going to use that machine learning, that artificial intelligence built into the device to kind of fill in the blanks. So very, very cool, cannot wait to get and play with that one as well. Another one that I really cannot wait to try just to see exactly how this works are some changes to switch control.

So switch control, I will say the iPhone works pretty well. You can connect most Bluetooth switches or an adapter, most kind of standard switches and it seems to work pretty well, but that still does require the outside device, the switch, which makes sense because it’s switch control. But one of the changes they’re making to switch control is you can use the option to use the cameras in an iPhone or an iPad to recognize finger tap gestures as a switch. Now I don’t know how sensitive this is going to be or does my finger actually need to physically tap something or can it just tap in the air?

Is that little bit of finger movement enough to actually activate as a switch or I suppose is any little bit of movement? If it can recognize a finger, can it recognize anything? So is any little bit of movement enough to count as a switch without having an actual physical other device connected to my device? Because if it is, then that’s one less thing I have to get. I don’t actually have to get a switch if that’s the way that I can access my device. Very, very, very cool stuff. So there’s tons of other cool ones, but I don’t want to sit here and bore you by talking about them all the time.

I will put a link over to just kind of Apple’s announcement kind of page. I’m sure there’s many more articles that dig in much better to this, and we’ll probably talk about some of the other ones as we sit here and wait for iOS 18 and iPadOS 18 to come out and as we kind of look to really check them out and get our hands on them. But there’s other features again kind of coming. These were just three that really caught my eye and I thought were really, really great and can really help some folks with some major kind of physical challenges.

But what I really like is that we’re looking at having this stuff built into a device, whereas it used to take another device connected to do it. So how far will this eventually go? How far will it get to the point where maybe even with some very complex needs, will I be able to access an iPhone, an iPad in these kinds of devices without the need for any outside assistive technology? So again, we’ll put a link over to just their announcement, which most of you have probably already seen. I guess I’m just really excited about these.

There’s lots of other cool ones coming out. And listeners, is there one that really stuck out to you? Is there something you’re really excited about with the accessibility features of iOS 18 and iPadOS 18? If there is, definitely shoot us an email at so that we can know what you’re looking forward to as well. Listeners, towards the end of this month, something special happens here INDATA. We take a break from a normal services and work and head a few miles west of here to the campus of Butler University, and it’s there that we host our yearly event known as Gadget Camp.

This camp is one of our favorite times of year around here and for some reason, which is far beyond my comprehension, I’ll be playing lead camp counselor this year. Since this will be my first year leading the camp, I thought that it would be nice to sit down with Brian Norton, our former director and current VP of Adult Services here at Easterseals Crossroads. I talk a little about the camp, maybe steal some pointers off him and then share that conversation of course with all of you.

Brian, thanks for coming on the show today to talk all about Gadget Camp and maybe for our listeners who’ve never heard your voice on here before, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

So I’ve been here at Easterseals Crossroads for 27 years. This was my first job out of college and I’ve been here ever since. Love the organization, love what we stand for and the things that we get to do. Spent a long time in assistive technology, 25 plus years, and now I’m vice president of Adult Services, which includes assistive technology but also employment services, veteran services, deaf community services, and then also what we refer to as resource facilitation, which is services for folks who have brain injuries.

Awesome, awesome. Well, we are so happy to still have you here and still be a part of everything. So we had you on today so we can tell our listeners a little bit about our Gadget Camp. So I guess let’s start off with just kind of the big picture. What is it?

Well, gadget Camp is my favorite week of the year. Every year it never fails, but it is a camp that we as an assistive technology program put on every summer for kids who use augmentative communication devices. So that’s the common denominator between all of the folks, all the campers who come. And we put on a very fun, energetic, fun-filled week of just summer activities.

Ultimately, the bottom line is we want to have fun, but we also then incorporate their augmentative communication devices into the camp to help them be able to learn how to use it in real life situations. We practice with them, we do some different things throughout the day while they’re with us to really have a good time.

And it is an absolutely great week. One of the really cool things I always like about it, even though this will be my first year kind of running, it’s a terrible thing.

You’re going to do great.

Running the camp, but I really do like… Because it also gives a lot of folks who use AAC devices may never really encounter someone else who uses it. So being able to get everybody together and actually have everybody using their devices at the same time is always kind of a nice thing.

I guess Brian, just because I’ve been in AT for, goodness gracious, I don’t remember, 11 years, something like that, but I know Gadget Camp started a little bit before I kind of started in AT. So when was it started and where did the idea come from?

It’s been going for about 15 years now, and we have a lot of summer programs here. We do a lot of summer camps here at our organization. And our assistive technology program, we’re just kind of thinking we would like to do a camp too, and what can we do that really has a focus on assistive technology and really, I think, just kind of dreamed up this whole Gadget Camp idea where, again, kids are using these augmentative communication devices.

It’s a really important piece of technology that helps folks communicate, and we wanted to be able to find a way to engage them with those devices and have a little fun during the summer months.

Awesome. As I said, this is might be my 10th year being a part of Gadget Camp, always as a volunteer. I did volunteer at least one day a week, and then usually if somebody cancel, I’d come another one and if I could make it, I’d come five days. But how has the camp maybe changed or progressed over the years? You said it’s been about 15 years. How has it changed from maybe that first year to now?

It’s been pretty consistent. I think we are seeing some changes within the last few years just with the age groups that we’re having come in getting a little younger. Typically, it was for kids 10 years old, up to 21, 22, 23 and with a variety of different needs. It could be a physical need, it could be a cognitive need, intellectual developmental disability, those types of things. And so we’re now seeing a younger population come in, but ultimately everything is still the same. We really just want to have a fun summer experience for kids with disabilities and give them some real practical time working with their devices.

We have really started to partner with our augmented communication department, so we do assessments and helping folks connected to the right type of device with the right apps and those types of things. And so we are involving our program a little bit more, and we’re going to be doing a little bit more this year around just the communication and helping them prepare every day. So here’s a good practical example of how that plays out at camp. Every day we have a theme, and so we do this thing called Wacky Water Thursdays.

And so we want to make sure that the student has something on their communication device, a board set up for them so that they can really engage in the activities. And so our AugCom department is working with them to be able to help set up those boards so they can answer questions and have topical things that are related to what we might do on Wacky Water Thursday. And so a typical Wacky Water Thursday involves fishing. We go down to a canal and we fish with them. We also then have a water balloon fight, squirt guns, all sorts of things. Switch adapted squirt guns for the kids that need that.

Super, super fun. But again, we want to work with those devices, provide them a communication board that specifically helps them communicate in and around that topic. And so that’s a way that we can kind of engage not just the summer fun stuff, but also how did they use those devices? How can we help them really practically use that during that type of a day?

Awesome. And I will definitely say, folks, that one of my favorite possible things is seeing some kid who’s maybe never been able to use the squirt gun before, be able to use that switch adapted squirt gun and just run around and shoot you like an assassin.

I usually end up wet from head to toe, soaking wet and bring a towel in my car so I can get home at night.

It is definitely fun. Well, you talked a little bit about Wacky Water Thursday and the fishing and the water balloon, squirt guns and all that kind of things. What are some of the other kind of activities and guests we have there at Gadget Camp?

So we’re really lucky. We’ve been holding Gadget Camp Butler University, which is here in Indianapolis since its inception, but we bring in lots of different types of entertainment. So things like cookies and canvass where they get a chance to paint and have some cookies. We bring in people who can do things with balloons, balloon animals, other kinds of things. We bring in silly safari and they come in and bring a bunch of animals. So we have lots of activities. We do crazy music, silly songs in the morning, lots of walks.

We get around the campus. It’s a beautiful campus and we walk around and we count fountains during the day and/or go do scavenger hunts throughout the day. And so it’s a lot of just fun outdoor activities, but also some indoor types of things where we’re bringing in different types of entertainment. We bring a magician in, for instance, and so just lots of really fun ways to engage students and the campers during that week.

That’s really great. We also have T-ball, tons of outside games, snow cones and stuff like that. So maybe kids that just have some needs where sitting through a magician show or something like that isn’t something that’s real feasible, there’s still plenty for them to do to kind of do what they want.

Because as Brian said and kind of the real theme of Gadget Camp is there’s all these great things to do, all these other wonderful stuff, but really the job there is just to make sure that the campers have a really great time. Brian, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but do you have a favorite activity?

I really do like Wacky Water Thursday.

I think everybody does.

Fishing’s pretty fun, but the water fight is the best, and we do let kids or volunteers opt out. We do that in a big courtyard that we have set up with a big tent, and anybody who doesn’t want to get wet sits inside the tent, but everybody who wants to get wet is outside the tent having all sorts of fun, throwing buckets of water at each other and things like that. That’s my favorite activity. And it’s probably a toss up between fishing and the water balloon fight.

It is definitely, definitely a great day, and it’s kind of nice having the whole week because usually we can move that around a little bit if the weather’s going to be back Thursday. We can change some things. Brian, I’m not sure, because again I wasn’t in this program when it all started, but I’m guessing maybe you weren’t the original lead of camp. I’m guessing maybe Wade did that when it first started.

So at some point you kind of took those over when you became director, as I’m reluctantly but very happily and excitedly doing this year. What advice can you give me about how to handle this new role and just ensure that everyone, especially the campers, just have a great experience?

Well, I know you, and so really it’s just be you. They are ready to have fun and just cut loose a little bit. And I think that’s what I love most about that week, why it’s my favorite week is you can just cut loose a little bit. There’s no set program. We have a schedule for every day, but it’s just like, go with the flow, have a lot of fun, engage with the students. It helps. We invite our clinical program and our other folks in our AT program to come out and volunteer.

Because it’s really just a great way to step back from all the busyness and the to-dos and the regular work that we’re doing and just have a day of fun. And just enjoy nature, enjoy the kids, enjoy the activities, all those types of things. And so honestly, you’re a fun-loving guy. I’ve seen you interact with the students in years past. It’s just now you get to do that on a grander scale with all of them. And instead of just with being a buddy to one, you get to be a buddy to all 10.

That does make it pretty fun, and I’m definitely looking forward to it. It will be hard not to just keep eye on one kid, but keep an overarching eye on everybody. But no, it’ll be like everything else, scariest could be for the first hour on Monday and probably look forward to the event next year by the time Friday gets here. So Brian, you talked a little bit about our partnership with Butler being able to have it there, but can you also talk about our partnership with Indiana State University and their OT program?

So we’ve got a unique relationship. So with Indiana State University, they have a doctoral OT program that has a cohort that meets throughout the summer. And we do full-day trainings here at our agency through our AT program through INDATA where we’re talking about different aspects of assistive technology and different population groups. And one day the teacher, the professor from that particular class attended one of our full-day trainings and approached us afterwards and said, “Hey, I’m really interested in a way that we could work together.”

And so we set up this really fun relationship where, as a part of their summer cohort, the students who are in that doctoral OT program, they come and they volunteer with us. And so we get a chance to… We get four or five of their students. So there’s usually a class of between 20 and 25 students that they have going through their summer cohort. And then we get to then work with them. They come and volunteer, they get to be buddies. And the cool thing is, because it’s a part of their class, it’s a requirement of the class.

What they’re required to do as far as a grade in the class is to come up with activities, a craft for our students. And so they do a morning and an afternoon craft or sometimes just one big craft each day for our students. Where they’re finding ways to be able to help engage all of these different students with different types of disabilities and needs and doing a fun, energetic, engaging craft with them each day. And then obviously from our aspect, we get the help of having some really qualified volunteers, but then they’re getting some real practical hands-on experience throughout this cohort.

And we just found it’s a very rewarding relationship. We have a really strong partnership with them. We do go out there, so I know that next week you’re going out there to teach a class. So we teach a class. We teach one of their sessions on assistive technology, and then we come back in and they help us with Gadget Camp.

And we’re looking very, very forward to it. And it is a great relationship and just having all those OT students, so you have volunteers with a little bit of experience, but also a brand new experience for them at the same time. But I know they definitely have a whole lot of fun, and a lot of them are kind of sad they only get one day out of it. Brian, your role’s going to be different this year. What are you looking forward to about it?

I don’t know. I don’t do well with change. We’ll see. I don’t know. I’m just excited to see where it goes this year. I’m glad to be involved. I would be so sad if I wasn’t able to be involved in some level, but I’m really excited for you because I know for me. It’s exhausting, but it’s such a rewarding week, and I feel like we make a pretty big impact in some of those campers lives. So it is so fun.

It is a good kind of exhaustion, and I can tell you, at least from my role, I’m so glad you’ll be there just so I have somebody to kind of ask questions. And it would be kind of bad if I didn’t talk about just everyone on INDATA and how much they really help out with this entire thing. From setting up all the stuff to booking the talent, everything that we kind of do, getting all the information, all the folks from our AAC program, all the help that they do. Not just finding our campers and making sure that they’re kind of good fits, but helping them with their devices so they can get those set up so they can actually interact with folks to the parents, the volunteers.

It takes not an army, but a very small army of people to get it all to work. And I tell you, it goes off to where people probably don’t even know all the things that go on behind the scenes, and it’s kind of amazing. Brian, do you have a favorite memory or one that just sticks out about Gadget Camp? I know the whole thing’s fun. I know the whole week’s fun, and you’ve been doing it for years, but is there just maybe one or two that really stick out there? Something that I don’t know went wrong and turned into a good thing or, I don’t know, something that really sticks out when you think of Gadget Camp, maybe the first thing that kind of comes to mind?

Oh, man. There’s so many good things. There’s a few particular campers that I have in mind that it was just so fun to be there with and just to see the smiles on their faces and be able to just participate in all of the activities with them and to kind of get to know them throughout a week. You really create a bond over the course of a week with some of these students and getting also to know some of their parents or their home health aides or nurses that come along. It’s just such a fun experience to just get to know them more. I don’t know.

I guess maybe the biggest experience or the thing that sticks out in my mind is the first time I was director and we did the wacky Water Thursday, the water balloon fight. And of course I know I was going to get wet, but I was literally drenched and starting to kind of… It was literally to the core that I was wet. I think they ended up dumping a 20 gallon quart of water on top of me from head to toe. And so that is my favorite day. That’s my favorite activity, and it’s my favorite activity every year just because I can see kids are grinning from ear to ear and just having a ton of fun just running around and horsing around a little bit.

I know last year a young man that I had to run after pretty much the entire time. He’d give you that look and dart, so it was definitely pretty exhausting for me. But I know talking to his mom who was there with him, she said every day he was very, very excited when they left and asleep a few minutes later. And then when Friday came, I guess he cried because he didn’t get to go back the next day. And he was a little bit apprehensive I know the first day, because I think last year was his first time.

But no, we’re definitely excited to see him this year, and I know excited to see kind of all the campers. And then I guess Brian, probably the most important question, at least for me and everything, are you making sure to build time in your schedule to be able to do this year after year?

Absolutely. I’m going to be there in some way, shape or form. I’ve got meetings throughout the week, but luckily the place that we’re at, we have a basement and I’ll just be in the basement. And when I’m done doing my meetings, I’ll be able to come up and enjoy and just be a part of camp like I normally am. So very excited.

Well, we’ll work Brian’s meetings into our scavenger hunt.

That’s right. “Where’s Brian?”

How many of us we can get on camera during Brian’s Zoom meetings during that time. Well, Brian, thank you so much for coming on the show, for telling our listeners a little bit about Gadget Camp and just how cool and how fun it is, and we’re looking so forward to it this month and being able to get out there with the campers. Well, I guess there is a little bit of… I do have a little bit of fear of singing camp songs in front of a group of people. Karaoke is my third vision of a nightmare, but that’s okay.

Good morning.

I know. I’ll start working on that. I’m already practicing the songs at home with the kids, so I can make sure I don’t sing the wrong words or anything like that.

That’s awesome.

But we’re definitely looking forward to it. Thanks for taking time out of your day to come here and tell us about it and just sharing all that with our listeners.

Sounds great. Thanks Josh.

Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on assistive technology update? If so, call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Send us an email at or shoot us a note on Twitter at 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 Special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule.

Today’s show is produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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