Pair of iPhone 5s with smashed screens

How To Prepare For An Assistive Technology Disaster

If a businessman loses his iPad it’s frustrating, but if an AAC user loses their iPad they have lost their voice. If an able-bodied person’s computer breaks down they can borrow and use another computer, but if a piece of assistive technology breaks down there probably isn’t a spare one available to borrow.

Everything fails eventually! So the question isn’t “if”, but “when” it will happen. Here’s how can you best prepare for assistive technology disasters…

Joe Kissell wrote an article in Macworld recently, How to prepare for a Mac disaster. It had sections about insurance, backups, and theft, and I recommend you all read it. But it also made me realise there are other things that many disabled users need to do to protect against AT-related disasters or to help themselves recover when those disasters inevitably occur.

Back Up Your Devices

If you use an iPad, iPhone or Mac computer, you must be backing up at least weekly, and preferably daily. If it’s possible, make multiple backups in different places.

The best way to make sure you back up properly is to set things up so it’s very easy to make backups or – preferably – that it happens automatically without any intervention on your part. If it’s annoying or fiddly or takes energy to do it, you’re much less likely to do it regularly. Backblaze researched how many people back up their computers properly and found last year that only 18% backed up daily or weekly!

Pie chart showing time between full backups.
Backblaze found that only 9% backed up their whole computer daily and only 9% backed up weekly.

The best way to make sure you back up properly is to set things up so it’s very easy to make backups or – preferably – that it happens automatically without any intervention on your part. If it’s annoying or fiddly or takes energy to do it, you’re much less likely to do it regularly.

If you use a Mac computer, you can use an external disk drive or Time Capsule and set up TimeMachine backups to happen automatically as you use the computer. Other backup methods such as SuperDuper (to make full disk images) and off-site backups like CrashPlan which upload your data to someone else’s server can also be set up to happen automatically. This Take Control book is a good start to learning about those things:

Recommended: Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac Recommended: Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac Read along as backup guru Joe Kissell helps you understand the three components of a solid backup strategy, implement that strategy to meet your specific needs, and understand the hows and whys of what you are doing, taking you far beyond the limited security of turning on Time Machine or copying a few files to a flash drive or cloud service.

If you use an iPhone or iPad, and you have enough bandwidth you can set up iCloud backups to happen automatically. If your bandwidth doesn’t permit it though, get in the habit of charging your device by plugging it into a USB port on your computer running iTunes, so a backup is made to iTunes each time you charge the computer.

And remember that unexpected catastrophes can always occur – relatives of mine lost their computers and all their backups when their house burned down. Since then I use both local and off-site backups together for a more complete solution.

Keep Duplicates

For cheap devices, or those which only last a year or less, keep duplicates available as much as possible. Things that might come into this category depends on your assistive technology needs and how rough you are on your devices, but some examples would be:

  • Styluses
  • Mouth sticks and head pointers
  • Switches
  • Headphones, earbuds, or headsets
  • Trackpads and mice
  • Cables for charging iPhones and iPads

Christopher Hills, who uses head switches for computer, wheelchair, and phone control, tells me that he keeps spare switches around:

I regularly drop and break my Magic Trackpads, and they only cost $75, so I always have a spare one around.

Keep Outdated Technology

Some things are just too expensive to buy spares – I don’t have a spare screen for my computer, for example, or a spare power wheelchair. Many disability-related devices are super expensive and having spares sitting around just isn’t feasible… so what can you do then?

Firstly, keep outdated technology! If you upgrade to a new iPhone, keep your old one. Dana Nieder has blogged about her daughter Maya’s old iPad being kept around as a backup. I gave my old computer screen to my flatmate to use, but if my new one breaks down we have an agreement that I’ll be able to use it again.

Sometimes outdated stuff isn’t appropriate – a set of braces that your child already outgrew last year probably aren’t going to be a useful backup a year from now – but often things are good enough to still be of some use even if they aren’t perfect. Sometimes there’s no space for old things – I couldn’t keep my old power wheelchair even though it still functioned because I have no storage area and with a power chair, a manual chair, and a shower chair my house is already overflowing – but just do your best.

iPhones 1, 4, 5, 6 and 6 Plus side by side.
Your iPhone collection probably won’t be this enormous, but keeping an old model around can be very useful. Images from iPhone Arena comparisons.

If you are keeping old technology around as a backup, remember to keep it charged, update the software, and test it’s working on a regular basis. Put a note in your calendar or a repeating reminder to get things out and make sure they’re OK. If you are using an AAC system, get in the habit of updating the programming on the old one when you change it on the new one.

Have Low-Tech and No-Tech Last Resort Options

As a last resort option, make sure you have a low-tech or no-tech option around that will do as much of the job as possible. It won’t be perfect but it can still be better than nothing and if the power is lost for an extended period, or something else really unexpected happens, “better than nothing” is still a step up.

Some low-tech options for an iPad or iPhone AAC user might include having printed-out versions of commonly used pages from your device, having an old communication system such as a PODD book, having an alphabet board for users who can spell. For somebody who uses their device as a cognitive prosthesis/memory aid: print out the contents of your address book every 6 months or so, print out timetables and visual schedules when they’re updated, and learning to set a timer to (partially) replace iPhone alarms.

Ring binder cover with strips of velcro over it. Square symbols with typed labels are attached to some of the strips.
Maya Nieder’s Word Book is a low-tech AAC device that she could still use if her iPad was unavailable for some reason.

No-tech options might include establishing firm yes/no signals for an AAC user, or agreeing to verbally remind your family member to take their medications.

Everybody’s low-tech and no-tech options are different because everybody’s needs are different.

To help figure out what your needs are, imagine what might happen in a catastrophe – what might happen if there was a storm and the power was out for a month? What would you do if your family had to evacuate to a shelter after an earthquake? These thought exercises can help you figure out what the most vital things would be – for me it’s access to my CPAP machine and reminders to take my medication at the appropriate times – everybody’s will be different.

Make a Timetable

Now that you’ve decided what your preparation is going to be, make a timetable and put that timetable into whatever calendar or reminder system you prefer!

First up, you need a timetable for implementing things – do you need to buy a Time Capsule to set up your automatic backups? Do you need to dig out that old iPad and check it’s still working? Do you need to buy some spare mouth sticks? Do you need to talk to your speech therapist about yes/no signals?

Note says: Buy Time Capsule (2TB) - Next Tuesday. Check old iPhone works - tomorrow. Set up Time Machine - next Friday.
Make a checklist, whether on paper or on a computer, with specific times set for each task!

Once everything’s set up, you need a timetable for checking that things are charged and still working, for practicing any relevant skills, and for testing that your automatic things (like backups) are working. Figure out how often you need to do these things, and then enter the reminders into your reminder system of choice.

In a slightly hilarious display of “practice what you preach”, my computer’s hard drive died while this article was half written and I was without a computer for four days. Thank heavens for an iPhone full of audio books, which kept me almost sane! Once the computer came back from the repairers, the hard drive had had to be wiped so all of my files were gone. Thanks to my triply redundant backups (I use Time Machine, SuperDuper and CrashPlan) I was able to put everything to rights within about a day, thankfully.

How well are you prepared for assistive technology disasters? What’s on your calendar or checklist of ways you’ll get better prepared?

– Ricky

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