Giving ear to change

3rd March 1995 at 00:00

Sally McKeown finds the Swedes take an imaginative approach to retraining those with learning difficulties.

Gunilla Ahngren has worked with deaf adults for many years and now works in a government retraining centre for the unemployed in Uppsala which specialises in retraining deaf and visually-impaired adults and those with learning difficulties.

Once housed in a former bicycle factory, Arbetsmarknadsinstitutet, as it is called in Swedish, is now based in a brand new building on an industrial estate and shares its accommodation with an up-market computer company. The reception area would not disgrace the headquarters of a multinational company, but the lift was even better - it had Braille controls and a voice announced each floor as we passed.

The centre takes in adults for varying lengths of time and the emphasis is on finding them a work niche. Staff include medical personnel, technicians, engineers, therapists, employment advisers and vocational trainers.

All recruits are given a thorough assessment on arrival. If they have a hearing loss, they are checked by an audiometrist to see the extent and type, and to ensure that they have the most suitable hearing aid. Technology moves so fast that there may be newer technologies which can enhance residual hearing more effectively.

One member of staff has created a superb device which is an alternative to a loop system. This works on infra-red and is a small box which can be placed on a table or on top of a bag. The box is attached to headphones similar to personal stereo headphones which plug into the ear. Hearing aids often just amplify sound, so the user is deafened if someone drops a bunch of keys or there is a sudden loud noise. This device removes background noise and makes sound clearer, not louder. Staff think it will be a boon not just in the workplace, but also in social settings like restaurants.

The day I visited, one group of trainees was just finishing a course and their families were coming to an open day to see their progress. Many deaf people are quite isolated within their families and feel that their deafness is misunderstood. Gunilla Ahngren and Martin Dahlqvist from the Royal Institute of Technology Department of Speech Communication and Music Acoustics in Stockholm have produced a video which simulates different types of deafness to help others understand. They took a video clip of an early evening regional news programme and, using a sound desk facility on an IBM, distorted the sounds to simulate high and low-frequency hearing loss and tinnitus.

But this advanced technology is not just confined to the deaf. At a conference organised by the Swedish Handicap Institute, everyone was impressed with "Isaac", a new device to give independence with a life line to adults with severe learning difficulties.

Isaac is a lightweight portable system which comprises a shoulder bag, a Newton pocket computer, a digital camera, a global positioning receiver (similar to the bug used to track villains in thrillers) and a mobile telephone. It is surprisingly compact and weighs about 5lbs.

The user is connected up to a computer at the day centre or group home and can call for immediate help on the phone. The day centre staff can see where he is and can offer advice, if he wants help making a decision or can't remember what to do next. The camera not only shows staff where the user is, but can take pictures which can be fed into the computer and printed out at the end of the day.

"People with learning difficulties often have no history. They don't collect the same memorabilia that many of us do and they can't always remember things. Now they can have their pictures printed each day, while the experience is fresh in their mind, and take them home to show their families," says Arne Svensk who, together with Bodil Juensson, developed Isaac at the Centre of Rehabilitation Engineering at Lund University.

There is also a smaller version of the system for individual users, like one young man who had had a stroke and was just starting to go out on his own again. His wife is a hairdresser and cannot afford to give up work. She takes a laptop to the salon each day and he goes out with Isaac. She can continue with her job, confident that if he is in trouble, she will be the first to know.

Field trials of Isaac are currently being conducted in two group homes in Lund and it is hoped to move into larger-scale production shortly, so that it becomes available to overseas buyers.

As an outsider, I was astonished that a country like Sweden with a small population should have such an enormous range of technology for so many different groups of disabled people. At some information and demonstration days organised by the Swedish Handicap Institute, there was technology for visually-impaired pupils, videophones with Bliss for with those with no speech, text telephones with Braille for deafblind adults and software for nursery-aged autistic children.

So often we are told that there is a very small market for devices for the disabled and that new developments are not commercially viable. In Sweden they seem to create the solutions and then find out how to market them.

Perhaps it comes down to a different way of viewing life. As I set off early one morning, I saw a man setting up a ramp across the two steps that led up to a small shoe shop. I asked him if many of his customers were in wheelchairs. "No," he said, "it's to help mothers with young children as well. How else would they get their pushchairs into the shop?" I didn't tell him what we do in England: I don't think he would have understood.

The National Council for Educational Technology is running a major one-day conference in London in May, as part of its Focus on Deaf People project. Further details are available from Sally McKeown, NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7JJ.

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