Assistive Technologies: Helping The Disabled Join The Technological Revolution

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About 10 million Americans (nearly 3 percent of the population) have a visual disability, and another 48 million Americans (nearly 14 percent) have some hearing loss. But while the world increasingly relies on computers, laptops, and smart devices to get anything done today, this significant portion of the population can only use these devices with special assistive technologies that in most cases involve some form of speech-to-text, text-to-speech, or related applications.

The visually impaired cannot see written text, but they can listen to speech synthesized by a text-to-speech (TTS) engine. The hearing impaired cannot listen to speech, but they can digest it when the audio is converted to text by automatic speech recognition (ASR) technologies. And most speech-impaired people can write down what they want to say, and technology can produce the sounds for them. Speech technologies can even let people with conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease—which puts sufferers at risk of losing their voice—preserve their own unique speech through TTS. Automatic speech recognition is also useful for the physically disabled, who can issue voice commands to control devices, applications, and even smart home systems. 

The number of vendors offering technologies with these kinds of capabilities is in a constant state of flux. Some of the more long-standing vendors include Acapela Group, ReadSpeaker, Freedom Scientific, AssistiveWare, Nuance Communications, and Dolphin, but new start-ups are forever on the horizon. In the United States alone, the assistive technology market for vision and reading aids is expected to reach $34.4 billion by 2020, growing at a compound annual rate of 6.2 percent, according to ResearchandMarkets.

To show just how significant the demand for voice solutions adapted to the accessibility market is, Acapela recently created a whole division dedicated to it, with an initial focus on those with speech impairments, learning disabilities, visual impairments, and seniors. Called Acapela Inclusive, the unit aims to provide everyone, regardless of disability, with a voice to help them live more independently through easy access to technology.

“Our company has been present for decades in the accessibility market, helping users live and succeed in their everyday environments,” said Nicolas Mazars, who is heading the new business unit, in a statement at the time. “Our voices ease the daily life of thousands of people around the world.”

But while demand for assistive technology is high, worldwide only one in 10 people who could benefit from speech technologies to help communicate with others have access to them, largely because of high costs and a lack of awareness or availability, according to the World Health Organization.

There are some free or inexpensive technologies, such as the built-in screen readers—like Apple’s VoiceOver, Google’s ChromeVox, and Microsoft’s Windows Narrator—that come standard with computers today; other screen readers can be downloaded for free, such as NVDA or Serotek System Access, while others, such as SpokenWeb or WebAnywhere, are web-based programs that can be used to read content from the internet. 

Beyond those systems, though, many other forms of assistive technologies can be quite expensive, often costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. At present, the burden of covering such costs falls primarily on the users or their caregivers.

To help overcome that obstacle, the industry and advocates for the disabled have been working toward an increase in government spending for assistive technologies.


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