How a wave of new tech products are making life easier for people with disabilities

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The 76-year-old begins a typical day by donning his Apple Watch and listening to its synthesized voice deliver the weather. Over coffee, the Arlington, Virginia, resident catches up on overnight news on his iPhone X and consumes books read out loud on topics like coding – his goal is to write apps for the iPhone.

Blind since birth, Wakefield has been taking advantage of features on the most popular tech devices and platforms that have made them more useful to people with disabilities.

These have meant big changes in the way he goes about his daily routine. A former broadcaster for the Department of Agriculture and later a computer specialist working in government, he uses Microsoft’s Seeing AI app for the iPhone to, among other purposes, scan barcodes that let him distinguish the groceries that are delivered: packages of crackers, or the Chardonnay his wife prefers to the Pinot Noir he favors.

Previously, someone would have to tell him and his wife, who is also blind, which bottle was which.

Thanks to narration tracks on Netflix and Apple TV, he can take in a movie, following audio that depicts the scenes, from what characters are wearing to their facial expressions. In 2016, Netflix reached a settlement with advocates for the blind community to add such “audio descriptions” tracks to more of the content.

One of the biggest shifts in Wakefield’s day-to-day routine comes from the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod; he owns all three voice-activated smart speakers. For example, he can summon the assistants to turn on household lights by voice.

“I often say if all these tools were around when I was going to school, God, it would be a breeze,” he says.

Over the last few years, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have leveraged artificial intelligence, computer vision and advances in voice recognition to deliver tools to assist blind individuals and people who are deaf, have motor impairments or other disabilities. At the same time, new technologies such as voice-activated speakers and more captioning on websites and in social media have widened access to some internet services.

Pressured to do the right thing

Development of these specialized features are driven by a confluence of factors – a  desire by tech leaders to be more inclusive, but also the need to satisfy legal and market imperatives.

“This is the right thing to do both from a moral point of view but it’s also the right thing to do from a business point of view,” says Amazon director of accessibility Peter Korn.

Companies must adhere to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires the federal government to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. And many states have their own Section-508-type requirements or consumer-protection statutes.

Laws have provided the biggest benefit to blind people, because “you can’t count on people’s compassion to drive industry,” says Anil Lewis, executive director for the Jernigan Institute at National Federation of the Blind.

Companies are also cognizant that to keep expanding their customer base, they need to make products that everyone can use.

More than a billion people, or about 15 percent of the global population, have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization.

What’s more, as the general population ages, “accessibility is not something that is strictly thought of anymore as helping people who are blind or helping people who are deaf,” says Geoff Freed, director of technology projects and web media standards at the National Center for Accessible Media. “When you make something accessible for a specific population, the entire population benefits.”

Built-in tools, not after-thoughts

But there’s still plenty of room for progress across the tech industry.

Increased tech accessibility is needed to break down some of the barriers that prevent or make it difficult for people with disabilities to enter the workforce. In 2017, 18.7 percent of people with a disability were employed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, compared to 65.7 percent for those without a disability. And the unemployment rate for people with a disability was 9.2 percent, more than double the 4.2 percent rate for the rest of the population.

Artificial intelligence promises to help predict consumers’ needs, model human conversation and sort through vast tracts of data – all potentially helpful for people with disabilities.

But, “we’re still kind of at the starting line with AI in terms of what its promises are and what it will be able to deliver,” said Eric Bridges, executive director of the American Council of the Blind.

Advocates also warn that technological innovations meant as conveniences must avoid conferring a stigma on the user.

“People want their accessibility tools to be built into the same devices that everybody else is using whenever possible, rather than have their own device that makes them stand out because of their disability,” says Eve Andersson, the director of accessibility engineering at Google.

Lewis of the Jernigan Institute was on a panel at an accessibility conference when an executive from IBM brought up the idea of an artificial intelligence robot that could help a blind person check into a hotel and show them around their room. While acknowledging it could be helpful for some, Lewis was insulted.

 “Just give me the key. If I get to the hotel and expect this (AI robot) to take me to the room, that’s going to make me lazy and not practice my independent travel skills. And one day that technology may not work or not be available.”

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