The 2023 State of Assistive Technology

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One in four people in the United States has some sort of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While these disabilities can entail, say, minor knee and leg issues that require nothing more than a cane, others can severely restrict a person’s ability to speak or use common electronics without assistive technologies.

Because of this, far fewer disabled people own computers compared to people without disabilities. In fact, Pew Research recently reported that only 62 percent of disabled adults own desktop or laptop computers compared to 81 percent of those without a disability.

Though technology providers once overlooked this segment of the market, today they are providing a variety of systems to help people with disabilities use computers, smartphones, and other common devices.

There is an entire industry dedicated exclusively to creating and selling various accessibility systems for those with speech, visual, or hearing impairments. Still others specialize in technology for the elderly, and others to disabled students in educational settings. Even the manufacturers of computers and smartphones are increasingly adding and improving the capability of their devices to meet the needs of the disabled without add-on devices, though the embedded capabilities have only limited functionality.

Accessibility for computers and smartphones is a multilayered problem, says Gianni Aiello, vice president of products at Rev.com, a provider of audio and video transcription and captioning services.

Year in Review

In March, the U.S. government issued new guidelines for website accessibility, which it considers a top priority.

Screen readers—which voice the text on a screen for the blind; provide captioning for those who are hard of hearing; and include voice recognition, eye tracking, motion sensors, and many other accessories—can help people with disabilities use computers.

But even with the aid of these devices, people with disabilities can have extreme difficulty with websites, giving rise to the government’s rules.

Among the website accessibility barriers that such users face are these:

  • Poor color contrast. People with limited vision or color blindness cannot read text if there is not enough contrast between the text and background (for example, light gray text on a light-colored background).
  • Use of color alone to give information. People who are color-
    blind might not have access to information when that information is conveyed using only color cues. Also, screen readers do not tell the user the color of text on a screen, so a person who is blind would not be able to know that color is meant to convey certain information (for example, using red text alone to show which fields are required on a form or blue to identify live links to other pages or information sources).
  • Lack of text alternatives on images. People who are blind will not be able to understand the content and purpose of images, such as pictures, illustrations, and charts, when no text alternative is provided. Text alternatives convey the purpose and content of the image.
  • Lack of captions on videos.
  • Inaccessible online forms. People with disabilities might not be able to fill out, understand, and accurately submit forms without labels that enable screen readers to convey to their users clear instructions, error indicators, and mouse-only navigation.

Many companies don’t even know that their websites fail to meet these guidelines. But such oversight can be costly. The American Bar Association reports that since 2018, website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits have made up roughly a fifth of all filings in federal court for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The explosion of rich technology using audio and visual information over the past half a dozen years has made it much more difficult for the disabled to use websites unless there is technology that will provide accurate captioning, Aiello says. “We help companies meet those accessibility guidelines.”

Aiello and Miguel Jetté, Rev’s vice president of artificial intelligence research and development, add that many of the available captioning/transcription services struggle with accents or in switching between speakers.

Companies can’t just use a check box indicating that they have captioning available for their rich media; they need to ensure that it accurately voices the text, Jetté says. “That’s a big challenge for companies and something that Rev takes very seriously. We make sure that our automatic tools work for everybody. We compare our service against others and find it shines nicely against them.”

The difference in accuracy matters for most of Rev’s customers, who are in the legal and education sectors, because it enables them to speed up their processes, Jetté says.

But perhaps one of the biggest advances for assistive technologies came in the form of Food and Drug Administration action as the government approved a rule to allow over-the-counter sales of hearing aids. Those sales started in October.

The rule was a long time in coming. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act passed Congress in 2017.

The Hearing Industries Association estimated that before the rule took effect, hearing aids could cost thousands of dollars, placing them out of the reach of many, even though the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 30 million adults could benefit from the devices.

“The FDA estimates this rule will save consumers on the order of about $1,400 per individual hearing aid or over $2,800 per pair,” says Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, of the new FDA rule.

“A hearing-aid market disruption is under way, with affordable, safe, and effective products heading to drugstores and retailers,” says Consumer Technology Association member John Luna, CEO of Nuheara, a provider of smart earbuds for hearing enhancement. “These OTC devices improve outcomes for Americans with mild to moderate hearing loss and their families, and they’ll cost a fraction of prescriptive hearing aids fitted by audiologists and hearing care professionals.”

Newer devices are being outfitted now with technology that allows for noise and echo cancellation, voice isolation, audio signal boosting, and more, and some with hearing loss are using technology not typically considered a hearing aid.

For the blind and visually impaired, one of the most exciting technology developments in the past few years is the creation of the burgeoning smart glasses market. Though still in their infancy, smart glasses continue to improve as the artificial intelligence technology that they use continues to evolve.

This past spring, Envision unveiled its latest smart glasses that use AI to read aloud printed documents or words on any object, such as street signs or restaurant menus. These devices can also provide audio descriptions of surroundings, identify people in conversations, and provide other audio cues to help blind or visually impaired people navigate their world.

A Look Ahead

To show the viability of the assistive technology market—which Zion Market Research expects to grow at a 13.8 percent compound annual rate through the end of the decade—assistive technology was one of the major product categories on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January. Some of those technologies were completely new, others have been available to the public for years, and still others are in various stages of development. Some build on other technology already on the market, including eSight’s eSight Go, which the company says offers heightened visual clarity, lightweight design, and an expansive field of view.

“We’ve spent the past year vastly improving the capacity and design of our digital eyewear, not only to help enhance vision for our visually impaired users, but so they can enjoy an enriched and fulfilling livelihood in the most seamless way possible,” said Roland Mattern, eSight’s drector of product marketing, in a statement.

Another huge market opportunity—and one that is quickly being seized, is the area of voice-enabled personal assistants for the elderly, either at home alone or in senior living communities and assisted living facilities, to facilitate hands-free automated engagement. Such devices can provide users with news and information, issue reminders to take medicines and go to medical appointments, conduct health assessments, track vital signs and relay that information to caregivers and family members, control smart home systems, and much more. New capabilities include video televisits with healthcare professionals and third-party service integrations for grocery delivery, ride share, and connected home solutions.

Voice-assisted technologies have a lot of potential to grow, playing a much larger role in the lives of people with disabilities. This is especially true of the assistive technology market, which in the fall got a huge shot in the arm with the creation of the Speech Accessibility Project. That initiative is bringing together tech titans Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, as well as university researchers and nonprofit organizations—an interdisciplinary team with expertise in linguistics, speech, AI, security and privacy—to make speech recognition systems better able to understand people with disabilities or unusual speech patterns.

The Speech Accessibility Project will collect and analyze speech samples from people with several conditions that impair speech, including ALS, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease, to train new AI models. All voices collected will be anonymized and put into a dataset for training AI models to understand people with those speech impairments. The project is starting with U.S. English, though it could expand to other languages..

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

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