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An unstoppable blogger keeps it rolling

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Photo of Rabbi Simes smiling

Rabbi Simes

An Ottawa area Rabbi sent me an email last night; using only his eyes.

Let me explain: I’ve been collaborating with my colleague Mitchell Bellman to help improve the quality of life for Rabbi Simes, a quadriplegic, who recently had a tracheotomy.

Rabbi Simes is known as an outstanding elementary school teacher, and is a loving husband and devoted father to eight children. In June 2010, he and his family were in a terrible car accident when they tried to avoid a deer that ran in front of their car. Thankfully all of his children and his wife, who was expecting at the time, walked away from the accident. Unfortunately Rabbi Simes was left paralyzed.

As part of his long recovery and his desire to fulfill his passion for teaching, Rabbi Simes began blogging as the Rolling Rabbi: rollingrabbi.wordpress.com. Since its advent in 2012, the Rolling Rabbi has attracted followers and reached readers from around the world. He was able to achieve his blogging and communication goals using voice recognition software.

Unfortunately, in the last year Rabbi Simes had a major setback when he was put on a ventilator in conjunction with a tracheotomy. This apparatus took away his ability to speak, and he could no longer use the voice recognition software that had allowed him to use his computer with ease. His communication was restricted to nodding or the frustratingly slow process of looking at a letter chart while someone tries to interpret what he is trying to communicate.

Here was a very clever man, and a great teacher, unable to share his ideas and wisdom with the world. This dire situation provided my colleague and I with a unique challenge that we were determined to conquer. We have been working for the past several months to not only find a way for him to resume his passion for blogging, but to find a way to help him communicate with his family more effectively.

We were all thrilled when we discovered a new eye tracking device and development tool from Sweden. We were able to use the new development tool in combination with homemade software from Israel and a Windows Surface Pro to create a custom solution that allowed Rabbi Simes to blog, email, and most vitally, communicate with his wife and children again. It has been a steep learning curve and progress is slow, however it is steadily getting better and better.

Photo of Rabbi Simes staring at a computer screen showing  an on-screen keyboard.

Photo: Mitchell Bellman

There is currently no off-the-shelf assistive technology for people with Rabbi Simes’ disabilities. In many cases the technology that is available is either prohibitively expensive or incompatible with basic and commonly used software. During our exhaustive quest to give Rabbi Simes a “digital voice” we discovered there were many disabled individuals, too many, who were unable to control their computer or accessible technology, without some level of human (physical) intervention.

Thanks to the creative help of some great developers, who are themselves living with severe disabilities, we were able to find a reasonably priced solution that has already shown great promise.

Our ultimate goal is to have a setup that allows Rabbi Simes to fully control his computer, blog and email, completely independently. Every time we try out a new setup or tweak, our hope is that it is so successful that he asks us to leave all the equipment at his house. We are happy to say we are nearing our goal and anticipate we are one or two visits away from that moment. On our most recent visit, Rabbi Simes was able to send an email, control Windows, and type a few short messages. He painstakingly wrote out the names of all nine of his children and how highly he regards of each of them. Once the heartfelt messages were complete he turned his attention to improving the system and immediately requested an alphabetical onscreen keyboard rather than a Qwerty keyboard. My colleague and I were almost as excited as he was! Up until this visit Rabbi Simes’ only option for feedback was to nod in response to questions; it was a giant leap forward.

A screenshot of an email from Rabbi Simes saying" I want an alphabetical keyboard"

Rabbi Simes is currently blogging with a proprietary piece of hardware that uses an eye scanner. This setup requires someone to transcribe his writing from the device to a computer; this device costs in excess of $20,000. We hope our solution will allow him to have total communication independence at a fraction of the cost. To date we have only spent $3,000 setting up our custom system.

Serendipitously, I will have the opportunity to speak with the Swedish Team that is responsible for the amazing new development tool for eye-tracking software, Tobii EyeX. We will both be at Funka Accessibility Days. If you happen to be there too, I’d love to discuss custom solutions for accessibility!

Look for updates here, or for Rabbi Simes’ perspective on this whole process at: rollingrabbi.wordpress.com.

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Reviewed July 28, 2015

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