The State of Assistive Technology

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When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, it was geared mostly toward ending discrimination in employment, improving physical access to buildings, and similar matters. There was little reason at the time to pay attention to online access, and help for those using computers was minimal.

Great strides have been made since then, with more advances every year. For companies adopting assistive speech-based technologies—which include screen reader software to convert onscreen text into synthetic speech, and speech recognition software to convert speech into text and carry out voice commands—the incentives for doing so include elimination of legal liability and opening additional markets to sell their products.

Year in Review

One of the most important developments for assistive technology in 2020, according to Sukriti Chadha, accessibility product manager at Spotify, was the launch of Apple’s latest iPhone, which includes light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to help disabled and sight-impaired users navigate the world around them.

Both Apple and Google also enable users to navigate their mobile devices using voice, helping the blind, visually impaired, or those with other disabilities that make it difficult for them to type control their devices and apps with speech, Chadha adds.

Google’s Look to Speak eye gaze technology for mobile devices, for example, accesses users’ computers or communication aids using a mouse that people control with their eyes.

The typical eye gaze system uses lights and cameras that pick up light reflections from users’ pupils and translates their eye movements into mouse/cursor movements, but the small size of mobile devices makes such technology much more complicated. Google worked with a speech and language therapist and incorporated machine learning to develop the mobile device solution.

With the app, people can also select from preset lists of words and phrases with simple eye movements and have them spoken by the computer.

“Perhaps my favorite feature is the ability to personalize the words and phrases. It lets people share their authentic voice,” said speech and language therapist Richard Cave in a Google blog post about the technology. “The eye gaze sensitivity settings can be adjusted, and all of the data is private and never leaves the phone.”

In similar fashion, Voiceitt recently worked with Amazon to make its Alexa virtual assistant-enabled devices accessible for people with speech impairments. They can now use the Voiceitt mobile app to access and interact with Amazon’s Alexa.

“We’re excited to work with Amazon to bring the benefits of voice technologies to a broad segment of customers who, until now, may not have been able to enjoy these products,” said Danny Weissberg, cofounder and CEO of Voiceitt, in a statement at the time. “Voice technologies are increasingly mainstream, and this Alexa integration is testament to the growing awareness among major technology players of the importance of ensuring these technologies address the diverse needs and preferences of their customers, including people whose voices deviate from standard speech.”

Voiceitt piloted the technology with Inglis House, a long-term-care wheelchair community for people with physical disabilities, helping participants with cerebral palsy and atypical speech use Voiceitt and Alexa to independently perform daily tasks, such as controlling channels on their TVs or playing music.

“Due to lack of neurological and motor control, speech impairments are often accompanied by other motor control disabilities, making it difficult for some of our residents to do everyday activities like asking for help, saying hello to a friend, and turning off a bedroom light,” said Dyann Roth, president and CEO of Inglis, in a statement at the time. “Commercially available solutions do not always work well for people with speech impairments, who may need them the most. Through Alexa and Voiceitt, Inglis residents and many others in our community will be able to access these innovative technologies for the first time.”

Some of the other leaders in the assistive speech technology market include HandsFree Health, provider of WellBe, a voice-enabled virtual health assistant for seniors, and Envision, a provider of assistive technology for blind and visually impaired people. Envision recently launched Envision Glasses, which use artificial intelligence and optical character recognition to help users read documents, view labels while shopping, recognize their friends, find personal belongings, use public transportation, place video calls, and more.

“Envision was born from our desire to empower blind and visually impaired people with greater independence and access to the visual world, including things many of us take for granted, like reading text from a book, newspaper, magazine, computer, tablet, or smartphone, perusing a product label, opening and reading a handwritten card or letter from a loved one, or running a business meeting without the need for assistance,” said Karthik Mahadevan, cofounder and CEO of Envision, in a statement. “Envision Glasses integrate our proprietary AI-assistive software with high-quality, lightweight, enterprise-grade Google Glass to offer the most robust and cost-effective vision aid technology solution on the market today.”

Similar technology was also released by Starkey and OrCam Technologies, which together unveiled an integrated solution pairing Livio Edge AI hearing aids to wearable OrCam MyEye devices via Wi-Fi.

Starkey’s Livio Edge AI hearing aids analyze the acoustic environment and make immediate adjustments. OrCam MyEye reads printed and digital text from any surface; recognizes people’s faces; and identifies consumer products, colors, money notes, and more. When paired with Livio Edge AI hearing aids, the audio from OrCam MyEye is streamed wirelessly to the hearing aids.

A Look Ahead

With roughly 26 percent of U.S. adults living with some sort of disability, companies that ignore accessibility issues potentially exclude a significant portion of the consumer base.

But the legal liability could be a more serious issue. According to UsableNet, web, mobile app, and video accessibility cases have increased almost 25 percent in just the past year, and December 2020 lawsuits were double what they were in January 2020.

The increase in lawsuits means it’s more important than ever for companies to test their websites to ensure that they meet accessibility requirements, says Ryan Bateman marketing director at Deque Systems, a digital accessibility company.

Lawsuits can cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, well beyond the means of many e-retailers, the prime target of many of the cases, Deque says.

The same standards also apply to other digital content, which has spawned an entire industry devoted to closed captioning of online video content and videoconferences. A leader in that burgeoning market is AppTek, which recently partnered with Gallaudet University, a federally chartered private university for the deaf and hard of hearing, located in Washington, D.C.

Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program (TAP) and its School of Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health (STAMP) worked to develop a transcription and captioning application for web browsers and videoconferencing platforms.

Integrating AppTek’s automatic speech recognition (ASR) platform, the application will incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Over time, Gallaudet also intends to incorporate multilingual capabilities using AppTek’s Multilingual Automatic Speech Recognition and Neural Machine Translation technologies.

“While much of the world is relying heavily on videoconferencing applications to communicate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, commonly used applications unfortunately do not provide reliable, real-time capabilities that allow deaf and hard-of-hearing participants to engage fully. We are passionate about and humbled at the opportunity to collaborate with Gallaudet on bridging that gap by developing new tools to give the deaf community greater freedom, control, and access to virtual communication,” said Mike Veronis, AppTek’s chief revenue officer and program manager for the 21st Century Closed Captioning Project, in a statement.

And because 72 percent of people use only their mobile phones to access the internet, companies can’t afford to ignore their mobile apps when it comes to accessibility, as the success of Apple and Google’s assistive offerings would indicate.

The speech industry as a whole is coming together to develop assistive technologies to continue to address a valuable market as well as to help companies stay ahead of the growing number of lawsuits charging defendants with ADA violations.

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises@wowway.

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