Market Spotlight: Assistive Technologies for the Disabled

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Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), speech technologies are assisting people with disabilities “in ways that are limited only by our imaginations,” says Robin Springer, an attorney and president of Computer Talk, a consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of speech recognition and other hands-free technologies.

Springer, along with many other advocates for the disabled, says speech recognition, text-to-speech, and speech-to-text technologies, in particular, have come a long way in ensuring full integration and equal opportunities for people with disabilities. They also say the technology has plenty of room to expand and grow even further.

Speech synthesis has long been a vital assistive technology tool, and its application in this area is widespread. Screen readers, which verbalize everything on the screen, including text, graphics, control buttons, and menus, have been the most widely adopted. The technology lets computer users who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, or have other disabilities hear what they are typing and provides a spoken voice for people who cannot communicate well on their own. (To read how Hope Technology School in Palo Alto, Calif., is using the technology with its autistic student population, read the story “In Their Own Voices” on page 34.)

At the University of Washington in Seattle, for instance, such systems are “being used all over campus by people who are disabled,” reports Dan Comden, the school’s access technology manager who is affiliated with the campus DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program. “Screen reading for people who are blind or reading-disabled is available on hundreds of computers.”

Speech-to-text systems, such as digital dictation programs, are becoming more common as well. The technology allows people to give commands and enter data using their voices rather than a mouse or keyboard. Users of these systems speak into a microphone attached to the computer to create text documents, such as letters or email messages, browse the Internet, and navigate among applications and menus.

And then there are programs that convert audio to text so the deaf and hearing impaired can read what is being said in podcasts, online videos, and other audio files. These programs, which mimic closed captioning of television programs, are finding applications across the Web and telephony arenas.

“We’ve certainly come a long way since the days when you needed a special card [inserted into the computer] to do anything,” Comden says.

That said, the technology is “not quite at the point where people would prefer to use it [because] few people are sitting in front of a computer creating text all day,” he explains.

Speech technologies in the assistive space “are best-suited to people who are in one location and can install it on one machine that they use there all the time,” Comden continues. “It’s better for faculty and staff than for students who travel all over campus all day.”

Despite advances in the technology, it is still difficult for students to use in high-traffic locations where there is a lot of ambient noise. “Also privacy issues are a concern. Students are reluctant to work with it in a setting where they could be overheard,” Comden says. 

The speech industry also needs to work with computer, PDA, and mobile device hardware and software manufacturers to incorporate speech technologies right into their operating systems, Comden and others say. “It’s always important for application developers to make sure their interfaces are built with standards for the operating systems so users can control their computers with them, so applications can be fully controllable without having to use a keyboard or mouse,” Comden says. “Until we get an operating system that is designed out of the box to be used with speech, we will continue to come up short.”  

And while applications have become much simpler to use, Comden believes ones used to command and control the computer need to be simplified because few users are familiar with all the very specific commands. They understand that to close a document you click with a mouse on the X in the corner, but they might not be familiar with the specific term needed to command the computer to do the same thing, he explains.

For speech to truly reach its full potential in assistive technologies, vendors will have to revise how they approach the market, he says. “Often the accessibility market is an afterthought for many vendors, and it should be a primary thought because it’s a huge market for people who want to use the computer.”

Indeed, it’s a market that is growing. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that students with disabilities represent 11 percent of all college students. In addition, recent government recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice have stated “ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for students with disabilities.” The recommendations, contained in a June 29 letter to college and university presidents across the country, further notes that technological advances should make “procuring electronic book readers that are accessible…neither costly nor difficult.” 

The market is also spreading beyond those with disabilities. “Technology that was previously used exclusively by people with disabilities, such as desktop dictation and text-to-speech, is now used in mainstream products, like cell phones and cars,” Springer says. “These are assistive technologies because they make us more productive, irrespective of whether we are disabled because we are blind or [we are] disabled because we are unable to take our eyes off the road to read an email or text message.” 

New Law to Require Greater Use of Speech

President Barack Obama signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act on Oct. 8.

Among other steps at making the Internet, smartphones, television programs, and other modern communications technologies accessible to people with vision or hearing loss, the law requires closed captioning of television programs and online videos. That would require companies to provide, either via speech-to-text technologies or human transcriptionists, a visual representation of all audio content within videos. Remote controls will need to provide a button so the deaf can easily access the captioning.

The law also requires broadcasters to provide—most likely via text-to-speech technologies—audible descriptions of on-screen action, as well as audible program guides, selection menus, and emergency broadcast information. Mobile phone companies will also be required to make Web browsers, text messaging, and email on smartphones fully accessible. 

The Federal Communications Commission will have authority over the legislation, which is expected to take full effect in three years.

Leaders at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) called the law a huge victory for the 36 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. “For many of us, the quality of our lives depends on an accessible Internet, and we appreciate Congress’ recognition of this essential civil right,” said Bobbie Beth Scoggins, president of the NAD, in a statement.

“This law is life changing for the millions of us with disabilities who are too often unable to take advantage of new technologies,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), in a statement. “It opens the door to the digital age, and gives Americans with visual or hearing impairments equal access to smartphones, emergency broadcast information, the menus and controls on televisions, cable TV guides, and much more.”  

“It will help Americans with disabilities work more productively, respond to emergencies more effectively, and participate even more in society and culture,” added Mark Richert, director of public policy at the AFB.

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