The 2022 State of Assistive Technology

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Roughly 10 percent of all U.S. adults, and almost 22 percent of those over the age of 65, have some form of disability—affecting their vision, hearing, mobility, communication, cognition, etc., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Serving the needs of those individuals presents a tremendous opportunity for providers of speech-enabled assistive technologies, and those technologies will only flourish as more of those people come to own laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

More than six in 10 (62 percent) of disabled adults own a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 81 percent of those without a disability, and smartphone ownership is 72 percent for those with a disability compared to 88 percent of those without, according to Pew Research.

With that level of penetration, the business opportunity for assistive technologies that increase access to those devices and provide better all-around living experiences is evident.

Beyond the business opportunity, legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits companies from ignoring this sector of the population.

“Accessibility on the internet, to devices, in applications, must be primary to any conversation or work surrounding technology policy and civil rights,” noted the American Association of People with Disabilities in “Centering Disability in Technology Policy,” a report developed with the Center for Democracy & Technology.

In the speech arena, most of the current assistive technology is geared toward helping people with difficulty hearing or seeing, or those for whom dexterity is a challenge.

Year in Review—Help for the Hearing Impaired

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders reports that about 2 percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. The rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64, to nearly a quarter for those aged 65 to 74, and to half for those over the age of 75. Additionally, about 13 percent of people over the age of 12 in the United States have some hearing loss in both ears.

“Patients have come through the door with a lot of issues, not just with their hearing with regular speech, regular conversations, but also with music,” says Lana Joseph-Ford, founder and CEO of the Joseph-Ford Enterprises High Level Speech & Hearing Center in New Orleans. “Music is something that a lot of the hearing aid providers have not addressed at all.”

Though some music programs are being created to incorporate into hearing aid technology, they simply aren’t doing the job, according to Joseph-Ford. The issue is that as people start to age and begin to lose their hearing, high-frequency sounds tend to go first. Turning up the volume on hearing aids, radio, television, etc., doesn’t compensate for the loss.

The current generation of hearing aids incorporate technology designed to isolate certain sounds, increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, providing better quality, and enabling the user to hear higher-frequency sounds, according to Joseph-Ford. Most hearing aids only have a single driver.

“The technology has changed,” she explains. “Ít’s actually advanced significantly. And it’s going to continue to advance significantly. The interesting thing about that advancement, though, is the proposed ruling for over-the-counter hearing aid devices.”

While the technology behind most hearing aids has been significantly enhanced, the biggest change is occurring in the area of cost. In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed policy changes that would improve access to and reduce the cost of hearing aid technology for millions of Americans. When finalized, the rule would allow hearing aids within this category to be sold directly to consumers in stores or online without a medical exam or a fitting by an audiologist.

Those with difficulty hearing are also benefiting greatly from solid advances in speech recognition, captioning, transcription, and speech synthesis accuracy. With a fresh infusion of artificial intelligence, speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies, which play a key role in captioning for telephone, conferencing, and online video content, as well as screen readers and similar technologies, are far superior to humans in accuracy and speed.

Year in Review—Help for the Dexterity-Challenged

Another class of disabled people is those with dexterity challenges, for whom it is difficult to operate a mouse, keyboard, and similar devices. Globally, the number of people who fit into this category range in the millions, according to Bob Bilbruck, CEO of Captjur, the public relations firm for 6Degrees.

“It could be anyone who is missing a limb or a hand. It’s usually for someone who is physically disabled, but it’s also for people who have tremors or other types of conditions that may not allow them to use an electronic device as easily as you or I do.”

Tasks such as swiping, tapping, or mouse-clicking can prove challenging for people with these kinds of fine motor disabilities, so the value of technologies that allow them to command and control devices and applications with their voice cannot be overstated. Virtual assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, give them that capability, and thanks to a growing number of speech technology vendors, many of these command-and-control capabilities, with all the necessary wake word, authentication, and data storage functionality, are now being embedded on the devices themselves, making them faster, more reliable, and more secure.

And while many of the best-known speech vendors are very active in this space, there are a number of newer entries that have come on board with innovative technologies. 6Degrees is one of them.

The company works closely with the Wounded Warrior Project and many other nonprofit and advocate organizations to help people with dexterity challenges navigate through daily activities.

6Degrees’ MyMove motion-based controller translates motion to control smart devices, replacing mouse clicks or finger swipes or taps.

“The solution is very intuitive, it uses Bluetooth connectivity and requires zero setup, which makes it really easy for dexterity-challenged individuals to use,” Bilbruck says. 6Degrees is looking into ways to integrate MyMove with augmented reality, virtual reality, the metaverse, and similar technology.

Year in Review—Help for the Visually Impaired

Visual impairment is a limiting factor for much of the world’s population today. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, with 39 million of them considered blind.

Several of the newer technologies for the visually impaired leverage smartphone technology. Among them are the following:

  • NavCog, an app still in development, is designed to help guide the visually impaired in buildings via integrated beacons and sensors.
  • Supersense is a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence to identify and describe objects seen through the smartphone’s camera. The app can read text and handwriting on any object, from restaurant menus to street signs.
  • TapTapSee is an app that reads handwriting and currency denominations, while also naming recognized objects.
  • Be My Eyes is a free smartphone app that connects sight-impaired users with sighted volunteers on a video call for various types of assistance.

Vendors of speech technologies, like screen readers, captioning, transcription, dictation, voice search, speech synthesis, and others, have been addressing this market for years. Innovation in this area has been robust and is expected to increase.

A Look Ahead

No matter their involvement in the assistive technology market, many vendors are fully committed to serving the elderly and those with disabilities, and many are working directly with the disabled to involve them in the design process.

Google, for example, recently launched Project Relate, an app that can be used by the disabled to transcribe spoken words to text in real time, speak for them using a computerized voice, and communicate with Google Assistant using voice commands.

Google is now looking to test the technology in the real world and is calling on disabled users to improve the app. Google is looking for English-speaking people with conditions that make their speech difficult to understand to test the app. Participants will be asked to record a series of phrases to help the app learn from their individual speech patterns and then offer their feedback once they start using the app.

Google previously worked with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to collect speech samples from adults with Down syndrome to train its speech algorithm as part of an initiative called Project Euphonia.

Apple, Microsoft, and other vendors have launched similar initiatives. 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises1@comcast.net.

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