Big chunks of the world are built to exclude about a fifth of us.
Not deliberately, of course. But much of society is built with with the false assumption that we’re all able-bodied. In reality, around 19 percent of Americans have a disability and frequently experience obstacles completing commonplace activities, like entering and moving around a building, taking the bus, using everyday technology, or even attending a university.
American legislators have tried to fix this problem for decades. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act. It offered a wide range of protections, similar to those offered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA requires employers, public facilities, transportation services, and telecommunications companies to provide “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that disability isn’t a barrier to access.
But even today, the reality hasn’t yet caught up to the ideal. People with disabilities don’t always have the same level of access as able-bodied people.
If you want a sense of how big this problem is, consider the January 2016 study “U.S. Medical Schools' Compliance With the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The researchers discovered that only a third of the schools examined explicitly said that they would accept a qualified student with a disability. The study concludes, “Most medical school [technical standards] do not support provision of reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities as intended by the ADA.”
According to senior study author Dr. Michael D. Fetters, “In this day and age when public institutions are expected to conform with the law, this is almost unimaginable.”
But while institutions sometimes fail to provide access, emerging technologies like wearables and specialized apps have the potential to solve the problem facing almost a fifth of Americans — and change what disability means in the future.
Wearables For The Visually Impaired
In 1944, Dr. Richard Hoover, a Valley Forge Army Hospital physician, wanted to find a way to help blinded soldiers. He developed a long, lightweight white cane that was cut to a particular length according to the user’s height. By arcing the cane side to side, blind soldiers could move through buildings without bumping into walls.
Technology that improves access for visually impaired people hasn’t evolved much since then — but a new wave of experimental wearables are providing a greater range of options for blind people.
Toyota Project Blaid is one of the most intresting new wearables for disabled people. This is a shoulder-mounted wearable designed to help blind and visually impaired people navigate indoor spaces. It uses a camera to survey the area and inform the wearer about their surroundings.
In a demo video, a blind man demonstrates how it helps him understand his environment.
Even more futuristic is the BrainPort V100. This device mounts a small camera on a pair of glasses. The image is then translated into a pattern which is impressed on the user's tongue through gentle electric stimulation. This allows users to understand the shape, size, location and motion of objects in their environment without actually seeing them.
Here’s how one user describes their experience: “I do not see images as if I were sighted, but if I look at a soccer ball, I feel a round, solid disk on my tongue. If I look at a sidewalk, I feel a strip of space in front of me with stimulation on either side, and if there's some object on the sidewalk like a person, I feel stimulation on my tongue in the middle of that strip of space. The stimulation on the tongue works very much like pixels on a visual screen.”
The BrainPort, besides providing aid to people with disabilities, also has the potential to alter what senses are used for accessibility.
“The BrainPort concept is fascinating,” says Travis Roth, a disability consultant and principal partner at Accessabilty Partners LLC. “To me the most interesting part is the alternative human computer interaction interface it has. Using a different sense than the typical, using hearing instead of sight, etc., is exciting as it may open up so many more ways to gather information and more information about one’s environment.”
Special technology isn’t necessary in order to benefit from wearables. Everyday consumer devices that have multiple uses can also help people interact and navigate through their environment.
In 2013, Google released Google Glass, a face-mounted, voice-activated device. Ian Ruder, a writer for New Mobility, was one of the lucky few who tried out the Google Glass as part of the Explorer program. In an article published in 2013, he waved away predictions that the new face mounted wearable would bring about the Cyborg Age.
“As a wheelchair user and a quad, I wasn’t as concerned about all that,” he wrote. “All I wanted to know was whether Glass could make navigating our increasingly tech-heavy world easier and improve my quality of life.”
As a reporter, he found it useful to take pictures, record video, and then share them on the web with just voice commands. However, he found that it was difficult to use the touch command without use of his fingers.
At least one published study concurs that this is a major limitation. The paper tested how several people with motor impairments used Google Glass. The study "OK Glass?": A Preliminary Exploration of Google Glass” found that test subjects had difficulty with the touchpad. Three weren’t able to use the touchpad at all. Despite this, the researchers conclude that it had several advantages over other interfaces, including being “relatively hands free, does not require looking down at the display, and cannot be easily dropped.”
Ruder says that he stopped using the device about eight months after the article was published. Since he works from home, he discovered he didn’t have much use for it. It didn’t provide any additional value over having access to his phone and computer. “It wasn’t because I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was just that for my lifestyle, it wasn’t that efficient.”
Greg Priest-Dorman, an engineer on Google Glass, said that Google was aware of accessibility issues and hoped to solve them in future iterations. The device was officially discontinued on January 19, 2015. Google says that they are using what they learned from the program to create an even better version.
While helping people with disabilities isn’t the explicit goal of the Google Glass, Google has expressed a commitment to improving accessibility. One of their nonprofit initiatives is Impact Challenge: Disabilities, which aims to find novel solutions to accessibility issues.
“The world is currently not built for everyone,” says Google. “But we believe if we all come together, we can change that. Our focus is on building awareness, identifying solutions and helping create more access and opportunity for people with disabilities.”
Assistive Technology As A Grassroots Movement
Some of the most intriguing assistive technologies aren’t coming from big corporations — or even startups. For many startups trying to cash in on the rise of wearables, accessibility is either not considered or an afterthought.
Venkat Rao, creator of the Assistive Technology Blog, says that he’s encountered tech entrepreneurs who simply fail to consider how their new devices might improve accessibility.
“I remember interviewing a startup owner who is working on a very cool gesture based wearable that did lots of things around the house, like turn off lights, lock doors, turn down thermostat, all with one gesture,” says Rao. “His target market was the ‘lazy’ individual out there. He thought his product could be used in nursing homes, etc. But that wasn't really his primary market.”
However, disabled people — and able-bodied people ewho want to help their family and friends — have found technological solutions to accessibility barriers they see every day.
Snap Type for Occupational Therapy
This app helps children with dyslexia and dysgraphia by allowing them to take a photograph of their schoolwork and type answers with a tablet. It was created by occupational therapist Amberlynn Gifford after she witnessed a fifth grade student struggle with completing homework because of poor handwriting.
ModMath is an app that eliminates the need for young math students to write out equations by hand. It was developed by Dawn Margolis Denberg, the mother of a boy with ADHD and dyslexia.
Near Sighted VR Augmented Aid
Near Sighted uses VR technology to magnify objects around the user. This allows people with low vision to see and experience their surroundings in greater detail. It was developed by Matthew Thorns, a Seattle-based IT specialist who develops apps in his spare time.
VEST (Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer)
This is a high tech vest worn under clothes that turns sounds into vibrations which can be felt by the wearer. VEST might allow deaf people to “hear” their environment. It was developed by neuroscientist David Eagleman, and the project was funded by hundreds of people through a Kickstarter campaign.
“If you dive deep into the assistive technology world, you will see constant innovation happening,” says Rao. “And a lot of this innovation is being done by individuals with a cause, and not necessarily big corporations.”
Technology And The Next Frontier Of Accessibility
The rise of technology that helps people understand their surroundings, learn, connect to the Internet, and more easily move through their environment might help achieve the dream of access for all.
However, even the most impressive technology won’t replace the need for companies, governments, and other institutions to ensure accessibility.
“We have to be careful to not assume that there is a magic device that will eliminate all other work on accessibility,” says Travis Roth. “For example, we have screen readers that can read content displayed on a screen to a blind or visually impaired user. But it cannot work alone. A web site developer needs to still provide an accessible site that a screen reader can read. Maybe some day artificial intelligence will be so good it can describe the image, but we have a long ways between here and there.”
According to Ian Ruder, new technology won’t solve the puzzle of accessibility by itself. But it is an important piece of that puzzle.
“We’re heading towards a future where wearables are more and more integrated into our lives,” says Ruder. “To me, tech needs to level that playing field just as much as the ‘real world’ one. I don’t think anyone would accept tech alone as a solution, but it is part of the solution.”