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Apple and Google Help Assistive Tech Go Mainstream

September 30 2009 | by


BusinessWeek magazine ran an article by Reena Jana about how technology for the disabled is being marketed more as mainstream innovations. Apple is one of the leaders in this space, and its products for people with disabilities are discussed at length, including its new iPhone voice control option and the not-so-new VoiceOver product, which is an essential read-out-loud “screen reader” for the blind and others who cannot physically control a computer or device. These innovations are now enhancing Apple’s iPod and iPhones, and giving it a competitive leg-up over other music players and smartphones. Two examples: motorists and exercisers love the hands-free options.

“While VoiceOver helped broaden Apple’s reach to the blind, it also became a mini-engine for innovation within the company. ‘When we created the VoiceOver idea and concept for the Mac, we also realized we could take advantage of it by mainstreaming it,’ says Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice-president for iPod and iPhone marketing.”

Since BusinessWeek tends to cover mostly Fortune 500 companies or rags-to-riches start-ups, there’s no mention of the dozens of other companies that are doing great things to make tech more mainstream for the disability community. One company, Serotek, which is run by its blind founder, Mike Calvo, makes a portable screen reader that can be accessed from any computer, anywhere in the world. Serotek also makes a program called Accessible Events that gives deaf and blind persons equal access to webinars and other Internet-based presentations.

BusinessWeek also gives a shout-out to Nuance Communications, which invented the engine used in Dragon Naturally Speaking, the voice recognition program used widely by people who cannot type. Nuance’s speech engine also powers Amazon’s Kindle — though a larger issue at hand is whether publishers — citing copyright laws — will continue to let people with print disabilities use the voice option without having to pay extra.

While the article briefly mentions Google’s attempt to caption YouTube videos — this technology isn’t really mainstream nor hugely beneficial to the deaf. The real problem is that captions for web TV and videos are still “optional” and not required by the FCC. A bill in Congress aims to bring captions to Internet-based TV programs, movies and videos for the deaf, as well as provide narrative descriptions for the blind. (Another related technology being tried out is Radio Captioning, which National Public Radio Labs demonstrated on the night of the 2008 presidential election.)

The last mention is toy maker Mattel, who is introducing a mind-controlled game. A player dons a hat with sensors and use their brain to control objects on a screen. This is indeed cool; I wish the article had also mentioned how critical this development could be for people with autism or ADD. Also, in the future mind control software can be used for many more electronic gadgets — think computers and wheelchairs!

Finally I’d like to give a nod to IBM, which is doing great things to make smart homes and smart cities. In Salerno, Italy, for example, IBM technology is enabling the blind to navigate streets, ‘read’ signage and access public resources. I don’t know about you, but I think even sighted folks — tourists — who aren’t familiar with small towns in Italy could find this useful.

Oh, an interesting slideshow accompanies the article. More than half of these products are listed and reviewed in my upcoming book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology. And the glide cycle is way cool.

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