Inclusive Technology

Four reasons to get excited about the future of assistive technology

by Lily Rogers

Last Saturday marked the closing of the annual conference put on by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) that takes place each January in Orlando, FL. With over 2,500 in attendance, nearly 360 separate sessions held over four days, and 100 companies and organizations represented in the exhibition hall — this conference is Accessibility’s answer to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that takes place in Las Vegas every year.

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Although assistive technology (AT) feels like a small space, we saw an incredible amount of innovation in Orlando this year, and we are super excited about the future of AT!

We must demand that universal design principles be applied not only to the physical environment, but to the digital world as well.

Inspiring Innovation 

Augmentative and Alternative Communications (AAC) companies were well represented in this year’s exhibition hall, including the larger industry players like Tobii Dynavox, Saltillo, Ablenet, and Prentrom. Today’s AAC tablets are more advanced than ever, and come with seemingly endless configurations of pre-programed words, phrases, and pictures to help users communicate. In addition, eye gazing continues to be a popular solution for individuals who have both complex communications needs and motor challenges. A few companies have also started to experiment with alternatives to eye gazing that include head tracking (Sesame Enable), sticker tracking (Saltillo), and electromyography (Neural Node).

Industry Leaders Make an Effort 

Microsoft and Google both had large booths at this year’s ATIA. Bubbly employees were eager to discuss each company’s recent efforts in AT, and both Microsoft and Google led a number of training sessions designed to help individuals navigate accessibility tools.

In addition, smart homes are poised to help increase independence for individuals with disabilities. Google Home demonstrated voice integration solutions for people with motor challenges, and Teltex, a large communications distributor for people with disabilities, announced its partnership with Apple Home to build fully integrated smart homes. While all of this is encouraging, voice activated smart home solutions are still being explored and are only accessible to people with non-impaired speech.

The Demands of Customization 

In the universe of disability, words like “normal” and “standard” simply don’t exist. Each individual user has a profoundly different set of needs and desires, and catch all approaches that tend towards a standardized mean can end up excluding more people than they include. Thus, in our universe, customization is key.

Educators are always on the lookout for new apps that will help their students develop new language skills. One Town Hall session on AT apps was filled beyond capacity with eager ears hoping to discover new software to try.

While text-to-speech (TTS) has been available for decades, one thing is clear, TTS is lacking spontaneity and convenience. Users often feel that it takes too long to input words or phrases into devices, and they are unable to keep pace with conversations due to the lost time of needing to search for or spell a word.

A Common Goal 

Although ATIA hosted educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, corporations, and government officials, it was clear that everyone shared a common goal: to improve the lives of people with disabilities. As the world continues to enjoy increasingly intelligent and advanced technology, we must demand that universal design principles be applied not only to the physical environment, but to the digital world as well.

Over 56 million people in the US have a disability, and 1.5 percent of the US population has a speech disability. Although speech recognition has seen incredible progress in recent years, existing systems are unable to capture, understand, and respond to, the sounds of non-standard speech. This means that all of the innovation surrounding smart homes, digital assistants, and fluid speech-to-text dictation is inaccessible to millions of people with conditions like ALS, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.

Technology has the potential to truly transform lives — let’s make sure it is accessible to everyone who needs it.

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Lily Rogers is a Senior Marketing and Development Manager at Voiceitt, a company committed to developing accessible speech technologies that enable people to unlock their communicative potential. www.voiceitt.com  

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. — Franklin D. Roosevelt 

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