More than 20% of U.S. adults live with some form of disability, according to a September 2015 report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest generation of smartphones, tablets, and personal computers are equipped with accessibility features that make using these devices easier, or at least, less onerous, for those who have sight, speech, or hearing impairments. These enhancements include functions such as screen-reading technology (which reads aloud text when the user passes a finger over it); screen-flashing notification when a call or message comes in for the hearing impaired; and voice controls of basic functions for those who are unable to physically manipulate the phone or computing device's controls.
Other technologies that can help the disabled have or are coming to market, and not all of them are focused simply on providing access to computers or smartphones. Irrespective of the accessibility provided, most market participants agree more needs to be done to help those with disabilities to fully experience our increasingly digital world.
Thanks to the ubiquity of PCs, smartphones, and tablets, a significant number of accessibility-related applications and enhancements are in use today. The aforementioned screen readers are interfaces that have been developed to make it easier for people to view and interact with content on their computers, and vary in complexity and features offered. Screen reader software can range in cost from free, such as the Orca software that works with applications such as Open-Office, Firefox, and the Java platform, to for-pay options such as Serotek's System Access, which provides access to Microsoft Windows, Outlook, Adobe Reader, and Skype.
While each screen reader features its own command structure, most are designed so the operator can send commands via keystroke or a braille display to the computer and instruct it to read text out loud, and then have the computer's voice synthesizer read a line or full screen of text. More advanced features allow for voice or braille control over spellchecking, verifying the position of a cursor, or modifying content.
Other technology designed to help people who cannot see interact more easily with their computing devices includes a software/hardware solution that reads content on the computer and then provides output in braille. The software captures words and images from web pages, then converts that content into a digital version of braille, which is then used to electromechanically control a set of pins contained in cells, which are arranged side-by-side. When a blind person touches each cell, the pin configurations are reconfigured to represent the next line of the text being read. Some examples of these types of refreshable braille displays include the 40-cell Freedom Scientific's Focus 14's Ultra-Portable Wireless Braille Display ($1,295) and the larger, 80-cell Alva BC860 Braille Display ($8,995), which offers simultaneous connectivity with two computers or a computer and a smartphone.
Manufacturers of smartphones have not ignored this market, either. Apple patented a technology for "hover-sensitive devices" in 2011 that could detect hand gestures made near the screen. Rival Samsung has provided support for its Airview feature, which lets users enlarge text or activate apps without touching the screen, on certain Galaxy devices running Google Android.
Frederic Pollmann, a researcher at the University of Bremen's Digital Media Group in Germany, has been working on the issue of accessibility and smart devices, which led to the development of a mobile app called HoverZoom. HoverZoom is a finger-detection function that significantly enlarges the area of the keyboard under one's finger to make the underlying keyboard more readable and easier to use. This enables people who have issues with fine motor control, such as Parkinson's disease sufferers, to more easily use the device since they do not need to place their fingers directly on a small surface to activate a key.
The app addresses a significant issue that likely will become more prevalent as the Baby Boomer generation moves into old age: fading or failing capabilities.
"We have a use-case where people are used to using a smartphone now, and don't need glasses," Pollmann says. "But in five years, they may need them in order to use the smartphone."
A key concern of both researchers and educators has been the focus on technology for entertainment or productivity, perhaps in lieu of focusing on tools that help people with daily tasks and activities. While the growing use of technology in game consoles has helped drive development of assistive technologies, some researchers believe not enough is being done to figure out how such technologies can be specifically adapted to help those with significant disabilities.
"When we see we already have technology like the Kinect, which we use for dancing games, it's sad to see that no one is thinking about how we can put this technology to use for better reasons," says Markus Pröll, founder of Xcessity Software Solutions, a Graz, Austria-based developer of human-computer interaction technologies.
Pröll and his team developed assistive technology using the Microsoft Kinect that allows severely disabled people to access a computer completely handsfree. By using the Kinect's sensors to track a person's head movements and facial expressions, the movement impaired can control the mouse-cursor and mouse buttons without using their extremities.
Other developers also are working on applications designed to address specific, real-world problems faced by those with disabilities. Digit-Eyes, an iOS application that creates QR code labels that can be affixed to everyday items and then read by the autofocus camera included on the iPhone, is one example of how technology already embedded in today's devices simply needs to be adapted to focus on accessibility issues, such as by printing item-specific labels on household items like coffee cups, telephones, or even toothbrushes.
Meanwhile, robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are developing assistive robots to help blind travelers. Starting with a humanoid robot called Baxter made by Rethink Robotics of Boston, the researchers modified Baxter to provide both physical and visual assistance at an information desk in a busy transit center when human workers are not available. The ultimate goal for the project is to integrate the robot with a smartphone navigation app and then, eventually, to introduce mobile robots that could physically guide blind people in a manner similar to guide dogs.
Pröll says for those dealing with disabilities, today's largest hurdles are not simply technological, but are related to overcoming issues with interfaces. "We have all the technology in place that is needed to gather any signals you can imagine from the body," he says. "Of course, I'm talking about brain-computer interface research and such, but generally, we can get so much data from any body movements, to eye movement and eye tracking. [But] it's always an interfacing problem with existing applications."
Pröll contends for those with severe disabilities such as ALS, traditional input and control interfaces such as touchscreens and even voice commands are impossible to use, and require more sophisticated alternatives, such as eye tracking and brainwave measurement.
Kyle Rector, a graduate student at the University of Washington, developed a software application called Eyes-Free Yoga to assist and guide blind or sight impaired people into six yoga positions, such as the Warrior I and Tree positions. Eyes-Free Yoga uses geometry to calculate the proper angles needed to complete a yoga pose, and then reads the person's body positioning using the Kinect's cameras and skeletal-tracking technology. The application compares the user's body positioning against the correct pose geometry, and provides verbal instructions and auditory feedback to guide the person into the proper position.
Rector chose Kinect because of its open source software, as well as the widespread availability of Kinect hardware. She acknowledges the biggest challenge was "documenting [the setup process] well enough so someone with a screen reader can download and install the software and [set up] the Kinect's cameras without assistance."
Meanwhile, Eelke Folmer, an associate professor of computer science and the head of the University of Nevada Reno's Human Plus Lab, worked with Tony Morelli of Central Michigan University, John Foley of the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland, and Lauren Lieberman of SUNY Brockport to develop a project called VI Fit, which creates modified, personal computer versions of popular Nintendo Wii games. The first title, VI Tennis, uses a modified Wii remote control to provide haptic feedback, along with audio and speech effects, allowing blind players to "see" the ball and play a version of the game. Folmer has since published adaptions of the Wii Bowling game, as well as Pet-n-Punch, a game inspired by the Whack-a-Mole game.
"A lot of those kids don't participate in regular physical activities because it's not safe," Folmer says, referencing a study conducted by his collaborator Lauren Liebermann, who found parents of the visually impaired often are concerned about the risk of falling or other hazards that come from exercising in an outdoor, uncontrolled environment. "I looked at these exercise games, and I thought they were pretty fun, you can do them independently, and they are safe to play," Folmer says.
Another issue impacting the availability of assistive technology is a lack of a centralized push for accessible solutions from the disabled community. Because the needs and challenges of blind people are distinct from the needs of those with other impairments, such as hearing loss, muscular control issues, or other disabilities (such as dyslexia), there is no centralized advocate for increased accessibility.
Clearly, those with disabilities have backing from government and industry organizations. The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) serves as an advocate for those with disabilities, and the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) is an association of manufacturers supportive of the development of assistive technologies. However, because the needs and challenges of blind people are distinct from the needs of those with other impairments, such as hearing loss, muscular control issues, or other disabilities (such as dyslexia), there is no single advocate from the disabled community itself to push for greater innovation.
Because the needs of the blind are distinct from the needs of those with other impairments, there is no centralized advocate for increased accessibility.
Nonetheless, another group operating out of the University of Washington is trying to address disabilities from a holistic perspective. The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering people with disabilities through technology and education. Working with school-age children and college students, DO-IT seeks grants and funding to promote awareness and accessibility; since its inception in the early 1990s, it has received grants totaling more than $55 million.
The Center's largest program, Access Computing, provides funds to increase the participation of students with disabilities in the computing field. Led by Sheryl Burgstahler, founder of the DO-IT Center, and Richard Ladner, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, the program is designed to help disabled students get more involved in the computing field, which may lead to better integration of accessibility features in the applications and technologies of the future.
"There's a need for leaders in the disability community," explains Burgstahler. "Oftentimes, leaders might know a lot about their own community, like blindness, but those people don't tend to know a lot about learning disabilities or Asperger's. Our programs are all about leadership, and so we expect students to learn about different disabilities, and be advocates for the whole community, not just themselves."
Still, the relatively small market sizes for those with specific disabilities makes it difficult for mainstream technology or hardware providers to justify the development, production, or distribution of accessible technology aimed specifically at each of those communities. That is where technologies that have been successfully used in other fields can and should be examined to see how they might be used to address accessibility issues.
"Unfortunately, for companies, it's not always marketable to have every single add-on for every single disability, because you don't know how big your audience will be," Rector says.
However, Pröll says that looking at existing solutions in adjacent markets, and seeing how they can be adapted for use in accessibility, may help enlarge the overall potential market size for a specific technology.
"I'm using some face-tracking technology that is being used in the animation market," Pröll says. "Putting these technologies to use, and thinking about how people with disabilities can use it, is the approach we need to take."
University of Washington Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center http://www.washington.edu/doit/
Morelli, T., Liebermann, L, Foley, J., and Folmer, E.
An Exergame to Improve Balance in Children who are Blind. Foundations of Digital Interactive Games, April 2014 http://fdg2014.org/papers/fdg2014_wip_13.pdf
Eyes-Free Yoga: An Exergame Using Depth Cameras for Blind & Low Vision Exercise https://youtu.be/cm_ghJPqj70
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