The 2017 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Assistive Technology

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Computers, smart devices, and similar technologies are part of everyday life for most people in developed countries. Though these tools enable most people to communicate with others, obtain encyclopedias of information, book travel, perform financial transactions, and conduct business easily and efficiently, there are times they have their own hiccups.

But for the visually or hearing impaired, these technologies, until recently, have largely been extremely challenging to use, if they were usable at all. More people face challenges with declining sight, hearing, and other abilities as the population continues to age.

According to the National Institute on Aging, in 2015, 8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) were 65 or older, a figure that continues to grow as Baby Boomers continue to age. The older this population gets, the more its members will need assistive technologies, joining the larger (and already sizable) cohort that faces impaired sight or hearing regardless of age.

Though there have been a few well-publicized cases of famous people using assistive voice technologies, like world-renowned physicist and author Stephen Hawking and the late film critic Roger Ebert, the technology challenges of the hearing- and sight-impaired had gone underappreciated to many until relatively recently.

Recognizing some of these issues, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) has required substantial increases in technology accessibility, making advanced communications services like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), electronic messaging, and video usable by people with disabilities.

The Interstate TRS Fund has pledged up to $10 million per year to distribute specialized equipment to low-income people who are deaf-blind so they can access telephone, Internet, and advanced communications services.

Newer accessibility legislation was also introduced at the end of 2016. With the new session of Congress opening in January, legislation could be reintroduced with bipartisan support.

The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016, sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), was designed to make it less expensive and easier for the hearing-impaired to acquire and use assistive technology.

According to a Warren press release, some 30 million people in the United States have hearing loss related to aging, but today just 14 percent use assistive technology.

Strong Market Growth Expected

Beyond support from the government, technology companies are aiding the cause by embedding some assistive technology in their devices. Speech activation is a key component of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.

For the disabled, speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies are obviously a very important component of any accessibility plan. There are literally dozens of options, from companies such as Acapela Group, ReadSpeaker, Freedom Scientific (makers of the widely popular JAWS screen reading technology), and Dolphin, for the hearing impaired and blind alike.

Development of assistive technologies is expected to accelerate through 2017 and into the future as the need for communications, Internet, and computer access for the disabled continues to grow. According to Stratistics MRC, the global market for assistive technologies for the elderly and disabled accounted for $43.1 billion in 2015. It is expected to reach $69.8 billion by 2022, growing at a compound annual rate of 7.2 percent.

Microsoft added significant accessibility-related updates in Windows 10 and the recently released Anniversary Update.

Apple has similar accessibility features in its Macs, but its dabblings in the assistive technology arena go back much farther.

Ed Marquette, a partner in the Kansas City law firm Kupack Rock, was blinded in a hunting accident in 1967 and has been using speech-based assistive computer technologies since the Apple II was state of the art. He says the technologies have taken a quantum leap forward, even in just the past few years.

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