Transferring technology to blind

Altoona man, helping older population, ‘great role model’

The special problems of the elderly blind in central Pennsylvania came home to me when I was a patient last year at HealthSouth’s Physical Rehabilitation Hospital in Pleasant Gap.

I am a 69-year-old paraplegic. I was in the hospital because I broke my ankle. My ankle has since healed.

However, a conversation I had with a physician on staff (who is my contemporary) continues to disturb.

The doctor told me his wife had recently become blind and was having an understandably difficult time made more difficult as a result of her discomfort with technology.

She is afraid to use Siri to navigate the Internet on her iPad — listening to music she loves, having books read to her, sending and receiving emails.

Consequently, I became convinced the elderly blind are the portion of our disability population most critically in need of assistance.

Four years ago, The National Association of the Blind raised the alarm: “A rapidly increasing proportion of the aging population experiences eye problems that make simple daily tasks difficult or impossible, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses … Experts predict that by 2030, rates of vision loss will double along with the country’s aging population.”

I have worked for and with Altoona’s visual disability activist Joseph Fagnani to find employment for the blind.

Fagnani, who has been blind since early childhood, is a great role model. A retired information technology professional, he worked in New York City to help sighted employees at a major corporation master computer technology.

Application of the latest advances is now commonplace for the visually disabled.

Advances include the ability of the blind to operate robotically-controlled automobiles and use of automatic teller machines.

Yet despite technological developments that allow ambitious blind women and men to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), a growing percentage of the U.S.’s visually disabled population is unable to benefit from the developments that could alleviate pain as a consequence of being unable to see.

In central Pennsylvania, part of the problem is the sad state of our community’s Internet infrastructure.

Another part of the problem is fear of technology.

In November, Fagnani gave a seminar to the graduate students at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering on designing housing for the visually disabled.

Relevant is Abraham Lincoln’s establishment of the Department of Agriculture.

Combining USDA and the research at land grant colleges, 19th Century farmers were able to benefit from technology transfer.

Similarly, Fagnani has joined with Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering on a special project to obtain the life-enhancing benefits of technology transfer.

Leading the effort is trustee Elliott Weinstein, Professor M. Kevin Parfitt, Interim Department Chair; and Professor Ali Memari, head of Pennsylvania Housing Research Center.

For the past seven years. Joel Solkoff has been applying his disability-related experiences to research projects at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering.