Staying in Touch: A Simple Email Program Means Independence for People with Cognitive Disabilities.

We’re rarely far from our email these days. For most of us, it’s a great communication tool: We use it every day for work and play. For people with cognitive disabilities, email may be the key to overcoming isolation and building family and community relationships. Research from two NIDRR-funded studies has shown that a simplified email program is a suitable tool for the job.

People with cognitive disabilities such as brain injury often have difficulty with communication and social skills. Face-to-face and telephone conversations can be awkward or exhausting as they struggle with vocabulary and the perils of social graces. Many opt out of group activities, stop responding to calls or letters, and become socially and physically isolated. Some take their relationships online. Email, and the Internet in general, can reduce those feelings of isolation. In a development project, researchers from Western Oregon University (WOU) and Life Technologies, LLC., surveyed people with brain injuries and found that more than half used email for linguistic and cognitive stimulation, preferring it to face-to-face and phone conversations. However, many people found the technology to be a challenge: complicated menus, piles of junk mail, and difficulty in maintaining conversation threads are just some of the distractions.

Demonstration of coglink's interface.The Coglink interface: A clear layout shows only the buttons you need and the friends you talk to.

Enter Coglink! Based on survey results, WOU and Life Technologies built a simple email program to address some of the barriers to communicating online. They eliminated complicated and hidden menus, reorganized “friend lists” and conversations, and focused the program on simple tasks, all within one screen. Reminders, conversation threads, and other features are all designed to encourage interaction and reduce the chance of social gaffes.

Coglink was tested by people with brain injuries in home and community settings. Testers and their email friends were able to learn how to use the program and all met or exceeded at least one self-set goal such as sharing meaningful, interesting conversations with friends and family; talking about diverse topics; and making new friends. All of the participants, including those with serious cognitive disabilities, were able to use Coglink to become “independent, satisfied emailers” according to the researchers. They felt more socially connected and continued to email even after the study was done.

Lynn Fox, PhD, lead researcher for the development of this software, says a tool like this gives individuals the power to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. For some people with cognitive disabilities, this means re-establishing neglected relationships with family and friends. One user, a man in his 50s who rarely left his home or called his children, rebuilt his relationship circle thanks to this program. “After learning how to use this program, he talks to his mother once a week,” said Fox. “He connected with his sons and friends. He is even planning a vacation with friends several hours away from home!”

Coglink comes with automated training as well as live support. It can be self-installed or set up by an occupational therapist or trainer. It also comes on a personalized portable drive, the Personal Access Computer Key (PACK) for use on public computers in libraries or community centers. The PACK portable drive was developed through a NIDRR Small Business Innovative Research grant by Life Technologies, LLC. These low-cost solutions are available through assistive technology catalogs (see CogLink in AbleData’s AT database) and the Personal Technologies website at http://www.personaltechnologies.com.

For more information on these projects, follow the links below to the NIDRR Program Directory:

  • Why Go It Alone? The Use of Public Resources to Enhance Computer Accessibility for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities. Life Technologies, LLC. H133S070096.
  • Think and Link: Email for Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities. Western Oregon University. H133A010610.

2011. Long-term follow-up interview with Lynn Fox for H133S070096.

Fox, Lynn E., Sohlberg, McKay M., Fickas, Stephen, Lemoncello, Rik, Prideaux, Jason. (2009). Public computing options for individuals with cognitive impairments: Survey outcomes. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 4(5), Pgs. 311-320.

Sohlberg, McKay M., Fickas, Stephen, Ehlhardt, Laurie, Todis, Bonnie. (2005). The longitudinal effects of accessible email for individuals with severe cognitive impairments. Aphasiology, 19(7), Pgs. 651-681.

Todis, B., Sohlberg, M. M., Hood, D., Fickas, S. (2005). Making electronic mail accessible: Perspectives of people with acquired cognitive impairments, caregivers and professionals. Brain Injury, 19(6), Pgs. 389-401.


Produced by HeiTech Services, Inc. for the National Rehabilitation Information Center, a project of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
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