Assistive Devices Help Millions—but They Can (and Will) Go Further

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For years, screen readers and desktop dictation products have utilized speech technologies to help many of the more than 56.7 million people with disabilities in the United States, and 1.3 billion people worldwide, be more independent.

While these products traditionally kept users tethered to a desktop computer, the landscape has transformed, giving us access to technology, including speech technology, 24/7.

But how far have we come? And how much farther can we go?

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, 2 billion people will require at least one assistive technology. While innovations have improved the lives of untold millions, currently, only 10% of people with disabilities have access to the technology they need.

In considering ways to make technologies more available and more usable, it may be helpful to keep in mind that products don’t need to be dripping with technology; voice-enabling a single feature can be transformative.

“Technology shouldn’t be something that calls attention to itself, but something that integrates into the way you behave,” says Kursat Ceylan, founder of WeWalk, which makes a connected cane. The product, which includes a built-in microphone and speaker, attaches to the user’s cane and, via Bluetooth, provides complete phone control, including turn-by-turn navigation with Google Maps. It also integrates with Alexa.

WeWalk uses speech technology to warn of impending obstacles and in some locales it can read bus schedules and notify riders when the bus is approaching. Ceylan envisions his WeWalk product becoming a personal hub for people with visual impairment, including communicating with traffic lights to help users cross roads and helping firefighters identify where people with vision loss are located within a building.

Other products, like OrCam’s MyEye and Cyber Timez’s Cyber Eyez, integrate speech technology into wearable devices that enable users to identify their environment, people’s faces, denominations of bank notes, and information in bar codes. Microsoft’s Seeing AI app provides similar access, but uses one’s phone camera instead of a wearable device.

Improving accessibility for people who are blind, visually impaired, or print-disabled translates into improved quality of life, whether it’s enabling them to enter the workforce or to simply live more fulfilling lives by being able to navigate the environment independently.

Consider the ramifications to the country’s more than 7.5 million people who are blind or visually impaired, and the tens of millions who have print disabilities, including those associated with dyslexia, paraplegia, and brain injury.

In 2017, there were nearly 4.2 million people in the workforce with vision or cognitive difficulty. However, fewer than 30% of working-age adults with significant vision loss were working full-time.

Products that use speech to replace these vision and cognitive functions could increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce and the success they enjoy. And considering that people with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to live below the poverty level, enabling just some of these individuals to enter the workforce, even part-time, would not only improve their standard of living but also provide psychological benefits.

Assistive technology can be equally transformative for the nearly 8 million people in the United States who have vision or cognitive difficulties and who are not in the workforce. While able-bodied people often take for granted the ease with which they can run an errand or meet friends for lunch, people with disabilities often do not enjoy similar independence. The ability to engage in these ways reaps myriad benefits and cannot be overstated.

The assistive technology market is expected to at least double by 2024, jumping from $14 billion in 2015 to as much as $31 billion, with an annual growth rate of nearly 7.5 percent, so there’s no shortage of opportunity for developers.

From Pellegrino Turri, who invented the typewriter so his blind friend could write him letters, to Debby Elnatan, who created a harness so her son with cerebral palsy could walk, many innovations are created with a single person in mind.

The Absurdity Project by the technology incubator Not Impossible Labs, developed to “solv[e] things that just need to be solved,” embraces this idea. The incubator’s thesis is that nothing is impossible forever and that solving one problem for one person will inevitably solve problems for other people.

Borrowing from the Absurdity Project: Who is your one? 

Robin Springer is an attorney and the president of Computer Talk, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in speech recognition and other hands-free technology services. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or contactus@comptalk.com.

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