It’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal law opened up services and opportunities for millions of Americans. Today, developers in the tech world are testing new ideas with the disabled community in mind.
Take Chad Hebel. Sometimes he'll go to a restaurant with friends only to find himself physically cut off from his company.
“You’re looking under the table at everybody else,” Hebel says of his experience being in a wheelchair in those settings.
Hebel is a businessman with an eye for innovation. Both of those factors make him a valuable resource for developers looking to design assistive technologies to bring to market. Hebel, who mentors startup companies for the Dallas accelerator Health Wildcatters, says where there’s a need, there’s a business opportunity.
An Opportunity For Developers
Just like buildings constructed decades ago weren’t designed for people with disabilities, many of the gadgets and apps created today leave out a segment of the population. For example, Google Maps doesn’t tell you whether the sidewalks are wheelchair accessible. Another example: you still need to use your hands to make a drawing on your tablet.
Which is exactly why student Mohammed Azmat Qureshi is spending his days in a lab at UT Arlington surrounded by loose cables and pieces of robotics.
“There’s a huge potential of using the technology that is out there in a different way for the differently-abled people,” Qureshi says.
Qureshi and his partner Oluwatosin Oluwadare comprise one of several dozen teams that have submitted a proposal to a tech challenge called Connect Ability. The competition, which is sponsored by AT&T and New York University and has a $100,000 prize, is meant to empower people with disabilities.
Collaboration Is Key
Oluwadare says the device he's created with Qureshi, called “EyeCYou,” will help the visually impaired “see” people in front of them.
To show how it works, Oluwadare puts on a pair of glasses with a camera attached and snaps my photo. The software analyzes the image and the tablet reads aloud a description: "Person one is wearing an orange dominate shirt, has a light-skinned complexion. She is a female adult."
So far, the device analyzes age, gender skin and shirt color. Oluwadare admits that some of the features it’s programmed to report may be sensitive – like skin color or age. But guidance from people living with disabilities is helping shape the technology. Xian Horn likes that.
"Unless you talk to the people that you’re trying to help, you’re not going to know — even with your best intentions — how to help," says Horn. Horn is a writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy, which impacts her mobility. She’s also working with developers in the Connect Ability Challenge.
For Horn, the priority is hands free technology. She has poor balance and muscle control.
“So the fact that I walk around the world with shiny blue ski poles means that my hands are occupied," Horn says.
One device she likes is called Pallette. It transforms your tongue into a mouse that can control anything from a wheelchair to a light setting. That might help people who have conditions like multiple sclerosis. Another technology called DrumPants gives a voice to people with difficulty speaking. They just have to tap sensors on their pants or shirt. Horn says the control box might be too large to fit well on a cane, and she got to give that group feedback.
“We can collaborate and create things that not only work in theory but actually have an impact on the future of someone’s life," Horn says. "This kind of technology can be life changing.”
The winner will be announced on July 27, the day after the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.