Technology can help people with disabilities increase their independence. At noon on January 26th, at the Chapman Senior Center’s monthly Storytime, Rachel Owen, who is blind, will show how PENfriend 3 has helped her.
PENfriend 3 is a voice tagging system. People can use the device, which looks like a digital thermometer, to record a short description onto a special tag. The tag is then attached to the item, and when scanned, the device plays a recording.
Owen’s friend Mary Monasmith helped Owen put tags on several items around her home.
“When we went to Rachel to get groceries, we would come home and tag her … and teach her how to cook,” Monasmith said. “It used to be that she would call me and she would say, ‘I don’t remember how long I cook the chicken nuggets,’ or what she was doing.”
Now, Owen can pull an item from the fridge, or pull a can off the shelf, scan a label with the PENfriend 3, and hear her cooking instructions recorded.
Mona Smith also helped her organize a notebook with a plastic sleeve that contained all her important paperwork and files. If she needs to bring something to an appointment, she can find it easily.
Owen also has tags on her clothes to help her choose matching items. She can tell what some items are and what the fabric is by feel, but touch can’t tell her the color or pattern.
“She used to have to ask me what color her jeans were because they all felt the same,” said her friend Linda Jark-Stoffer. “It really helps her coordinate her outfits for the day.”
PENfriend 3 tags are small and easily attached to the manufacturer’s tag on clothing. For clothing, the company makes different labels than those used for food and other items.
“When I heard about them, I thought, ‘Yeah, sure. How are they going to wash up?'” Owen said. “I’m telling you, they do stand up to multiple washes, and they’ll stand up to the dryer.”
Owen received the voice-tagging device from OCCK’s Solution Outreach Center after learning about it and researching it on an iPad equipped with voice-over technology.
“Rachel actually does all her research on her iPad, which means she has to listen to it and find all this information,” Jark-Stoffer said. “I was going to Salina when she told me about it, so I stopped by the Solutions Center and mentioned it to them. They said, ‘We don’t know anything about this, but We have to look into it.”
They kept their word and ended up buying one for Owen. Solution Outreach’s assistant technology director, Michael Daniels, says their mission is to help people with disabilities find solutions to their needs, whether it’s a wheelchair or technology.
“What she needs is help with identification,” he said. “PENfriend is probably the best thing on the market, there are a few others on the market, but this is probably the best…and it’s the most economical on the market.”
Owen started testing with the borrowed equipment to see if it really did what she thought it would. OCCK helped her gain her own independence as she learned how much it had enhanced her independence.
“I don’t have to worry about it now — do I match?” she said. “For food, I can’t remember all the oven settings and how long the food needs to be in the oven. It enhances the ability to cook the food long enough or without burning the food.”
Cooking is Owen’s hobby and she sets up a stove so she can manage the settings. However, she needs to know when and at what temperature to put something in the oven. OCCK also gave her extra long oven mitts.
“The whole idea is to make people live more comfortably and independently,” Jark-Stoffer said. “Even small items like oven mitts that you and I take for granted… I used to find out that Rachel had burns on her wrists. She wanted to keep cooking, but you touch that grill and you get burned.”
The safety aspect of PENfriend 3 also extends to things like medication. They can put labels on prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
Owen said the device has changed her life, and she hopes people will attend her talks to learn about it and see how it can help other people, not just the visually impaired. She said people with reading difficulties, such as dyslexia; or cognitive disabilities, could also benefit from the device.
“My goal in doing this is to get information to people or family or friends who have other issues or are blind,” she said. “Just to spread the word about PENfriend 3 and what it’s for.”
To learn more about assistive technology and how PENfriend 3 can help people, plan to attend Storytime in January.
Where: Chapman Senior Center, 439 N. Marshall St.
When: Lunch is at noon, presentations are after lunch, starting at approximately 12:30
Cost: $7 under 60, $4 over 60.
Lunch Reservations: Call (785) 922-6958