The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of access to online products and services; this necessity was especially apparent for people with disabilities. Accessibility tech assists people with disabilities to become more independent, but several roadblocks slow its progress.
Accessibility tech context
Assistive technology refers to any device or software that aids persons with disabilities to become more independent, including enabling access to online services. The industry focuses on designing and producing wheelchairs, hearing aids, prosthetics, and, more recently, tech-based solutions like chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) interfaces on phones and computers. According to the World Bank, an estimated one billion people have some form of disability, with 80 percent living in developing countries. People with impairments are considered the world's largest minority group. And unlike other markers of identity, disability is not static – anyone can develop a disability at any time in their life.
An example of assistive technology is BlindSquare, a self-voicing app that tells users with sight loss what is happening around them. It employs GPS to track the location and describe the surroundings verbally. At the Toronto Pearson International Airport, navigation via BlindSquare is made possible by Smart Beacons. These are low-energy Bluetooth devices that mark one route in Domestic departures. The Smart Beacons provide announcements that smartphones can access. These announcements include information about surrounding areas of interest, such as where to check in, find security screening, or the nearest washroom, coffee shop, or pet-friendly facilities.
Many startups have been working diligently to develop accessibility tech. For example, an Ecuador-based company, Talov, developed two communication tools, SpeakLiz and Vision. SpeakLiz was launched in 2017 for the hearing impaired; the app converts written words to sound, translates spoken words, and can notify a person hard of hearing of noises like ambulance sirens and motorcycles. Meanwhile, Vision was launched in 2019 for the visually impaired; the app uses AI to convert real-time footage or photos from a cell phone camera into words played through the phone's speaker. The Talov software is utilized by over 7,000 people in 81 countries and is available in 35 languages. In addition, Talov was named among the top 100 most innovative startups in Latin America in 2019. However, these successes are not bringing in enough investors.
While there have been many technological advances, some say the accessibility tech market is still undervalued. Companies such as Talov, who have made positive changes in their customers' lives, often don't find the same success as other businesses in Silicon Valley.
In addition to lack of funding, accessibility tech is unattainable for many. According to the World Health Organization, two billion people will need some sort of assistive product by 2030. However, only 1 in 10 who need assistance have access to technology that can help them. Barriers such as high costs, insufficient infrastructure, and a lack of laws mandating access to these technologies prevent many people with disabilities from having the resources they need to assist them in independence.
Implications of accessibility tech
Wider implications of accessibility tech development may include:
- The increased hiring for people with disabilities as accessibility tech may enable these individuals to re-enter the labor market.
- An increase in civil groups' filing lawsuits against companies over their inaccessible services and resources, as well as lack of accommodation investments for accessibility tech.
- The latest advancements in computer vision and object recognition being incorporated into accessibility tech to create better AI guides and assistants.
- Governments passing policies that support businesses in creating or developing accessibility tech.
- Big Tech gradually beginning to fund research for accessibility tech more actively.
Questions to comment on
- How is your country promoting or supporting accessibility tech?
- What else can governments do to prioritize accessibility tech developments?