Whether you call it adaptive technology or assistive technology, implementing ways to make your city be more user-friendly for people with special needs is a wise investment; and as Mike Carter of Sand Springs, Okla., will share, it doesn’t have to be a pricey one.
Although people use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference, according to an article on asssistivetech.com. An assistive device would cover hearing aids, wheelchairs, ramps or any device that helps a disabled person obtain their goals. Adaptive technology refers to special versions of existing tools and includes devices like screen magnifiers, adapted keyboards for the visually impaired, handheld amplifiers, digital talk books and so on.
As cities adopt new technology, like social media apps or online registrations, some people may not be able to use them. According G3ict’s website, touch-screen kiosks that many restaurants are using present problems for some as do the social media-based apps that some municipalities are using to get resident feedback. Blind and low-vision people can’t use the apps, and some seniors over 65 are less likely to use them.
James Thurston, vice president of global strategy and development at G3ict, which promotes access to information and communication technology, stated in a blog post on the initiative’s website, “Cities may think they’re getting data from all their residents, but if those apps aren’t accessible, they’re leaving out large portions of the population.”
City Manager Mike Carter of Sand Springs talked about the adaptive technology for the hearing impaired that his city has implemented for public meetings.
“We just built a new public safety facility, and the architect installed a device from Listen Technology that connects to a microphone in the courtroom,” he said.
The new public safety facility was built in 2019 and includes a courtroom, training rooms for police and firefighters and space for large gatherings. Carter said the city allows some homeowner’s associations to use the space to meet as long as they have a police officer speak during the meeting.
“It’s a nice thing to have available for the public,” he said.
Someone with a hearing disability can get a receiver from a city official; this device can fit into a pocket and connect to the person’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. The receiver helps hearing-impaired people hear anything that comes through the speaker system, such as what the judge or the prosecutor are saying.
Carter said, “For the courtroom, it came as a standard best practice from the architect to be American with Disabilities Act compliant. The municipal building is older, so we didn’t have it, but after we saw it and became aware of it, we thought it would be great to bring into the council chambers.”
Then it became more personal as one of the city’s council members, Vice Mayor Beau Wilson, was in a car accident. Reportedly, he was hit from behind by a semi, causing damage to his ear and his hearing. He had cochlear implant surgery but, according to Carter, “He had problems — there were times he couldn’t hear everything going on.”
Carter said they installed a microphone system in the council chambers that could be used for any city meeting — council meetings, planning commission or board of zoning appeals and so on. The city has five receivers at each facility. The systems also come with different technologies — some are done through radio waves or infrared, so there are different options.
Carter said it was “very easy” to use — just plug it in and there’s a jack in the back of the system that plugs into the receiver and transmits. He said they also have kits, so if someone needs to have it in a closet, for example, the antennae would work on both sides of the door so the signal doesn’t get blocked.
For the hearing impaired, the receiver is discreet and can be worn on a necklace, a lapel or placed in a pocket.
“The feedback we got from our councilman was that he could hear even the tiniest noises. He said it was a ‘gamechanger.’ We were very happy we could do that for him,” Carter shared.
Carter said the councilman, who was elected vice mayor by his peers on the council, just “throws it in his pocket and runs a cord to his cochlear implant. We did have to encourage others to speak into the microphones and then it’s clearly heard through the system.”
The Listen Technology system is “very inexpensive,” according to Carter. “The biggest package I see online is $2,469,” he noted. “In the scheme of the money that municipalities spend, this is a very low expense way to accommodate people with disabilities and also less intrusive — they can put it on and act like everyone else.”
One thing the city didn’t do at first that Carter had recommended is getting the ADA signage, so people are aware that the technology is available. “People with disabilities are familiar with the signage.”
He said other than Vice Mayor Wilson, the city has had one other person request the receiver so far.
In the courtroom, officials had a hearing-impaired gentleman make a special request: He wanted a real-time transcription as the case against him for speeding was happening. Carter said a 76-inch monitor is available on the wall, and during his trial, the transcriptionist was typing out the dialog between the two parties.
“He had a hearing deficit, but this was his preferred method; he wanted to see it in writing. We felt that was a reasonable request, and we gave him the accommodation he asked for,” he said.
Other cities improving crosswalks
Other cities, like New Canaan, Conn., and Springfield, Mo., are improving crosswalks for the visually impaired.
According to a New Canaanite.com article by Michael Dinan, dated Nov. 9, 2022, New Canaan officials were investigating adding locator signals at the downtown intersections. The signals would differ from the pedestrian signals that tell people when it’s safe to cross. These, instead, would be a continuous low beep signaling the visually impaired where the intersection is located.
Meanwhile, Springfield’s city council recently approved $600,000 to upgrade 19 intersections to ensure compliance with ADA. Improvements will include new sidewalks and pedestrian push buttons, and a representative from the city said they plan to have audible signals, too.
A quote by Vice Mayor Wilson, in a July 2023 article by Catherine James on Fox23.com explains the importance of these technologies saying, “If you’re a citizen of Sand Springs, you have a voice. And, we want everybody’s voice to be heard. And, sometimes when individuals don’t feel like they can communicate properly, or they don’t have the means to communicate, they sometimes withdraw and they don’t allow their concerns to be heard” Carter doesn’t think his city was unique in the endeavor. “We’re not doing anything groundbreaking, I don’t think. The technology is out there so I just did a Google search and found out where to buy it,” he said, adding, “We view this now as standard equipment for our outreach to people with disabilities and compliance with ADA.”