In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle criticizes technology, in particular smartphones, for getting in the way of meaningful conversations. For the approximately 60 people who attended the Open House and Technology Fest at Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) on Oct. 19, however, technology is in many situations what makes conversation possible.

Sara Capetillo is a good example of how technology has opened doors to a richer life. She is the bilingual employment advocate at PCIL and a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. Sitting in her electric-powered wheelchair, she said, “Technology and people with disabilities go hand in hand. For example: If the ventilator did not exist and/or evolve in such a way that I could hook it to my chair like a backpack, I would not have been able to leave my hospital bed, much less go back home, go to school, get a job, and supervise interns. AT [assistive technology] devices provide people with disabilities the skills and abilities that are vital to living.”

At the Technology Fest several speakers informed participants about a wide range of AT devices available. Sue Castle described the services provided by a nonprofit called the Illinois Assistive Technology Program (IATP), which include devices for speech communication, vision, hearing, computer access, vehicle modification and much more.

IATP provides loans for the purchase of assistive technology such as ramps, roll-in showers, stair lifts, hearing aids and scooters. Their demonstration center in Springfield serves as a showroom where consumers can do hands-on explorations of assistive technology. One of the AT’s on display was JAWS, i.e. Job Access With Speech, which, according to its manufacturer, is a screen reader for computer users “whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse” and which features two multi-lingual synthesizers.

Lonnie Beasley from the Cook County Clerk’s Office showed attendees how to become a registered voter, using the new voter registration website and brought along an accessible voting booth to demonstrate how it works. Lonnie also went over the multiple security features that ensure the integrity of each vote, eliminating voter fraud.

Free emergency cellphones were provided to low-income participants by Denise Lewis, and Geovanni Bahenna, who is blind, gave a presentation on cellphone technology for the visually impaired. Ed Vitu, a vender of technology devices for the blind and visually impaired also demonstrated some of the new technology available from his company.

PCIL had on display “new devices, gadgets and toys, all to promote independence and a better life” which attendees could try. Participants had a chance to meet PCIL staff and become acquainted with the center’s Job Seeker Skill-Sets Database. Lunch was also served.

Two of the 10 Principles of Independent Living at PCIL are De-Institutionalization and Self-Help. The “I” in PCIL is for “independent,” and that’s what the Technology Fest was about, i.e. introducing new technology to PCIL consumers or clients, which can help them live even more independently than before. Capetillo emphasized that Technology Fest was also billed as an open house, part of PCIL’s ongoing attempt to make connections with the community.

At the end of every email she sends, Capetillo lists her two master’s degrees, her position at PCIL, her phone numbers and the following: 

“Life is like a wheelchair. To be successful and get ahead, you gotta keep pushing!”