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How technology can improve people’s lives

Millions of people in the UK live with some form of impairment, whether it’s with their hearing, sight, speech, language, mobility or dexterity.

The permeation of technology into all aspects of society would seem to have huge potential to play a role in helping disabled people do more and become more independent. However a recent report by Ofcom claimed disabled people are being left behind by technological advancements, such as the trend for more and more services to be run through smartphones and apps.

The study claimed: “53 per cent of disabled people have a smartphone in their household, compared with 81 per cent of non-disabled people, while 67 per cent of disabled people use the internet, compared to 92 per cent of non-disabled people. Those who are not online may not be able to participate as fully in society as they would wish.”

So is ‘mainstream’ tech empowering disabled people or the opposite? We spoke to AbilityNet, a charity set up to “change the lives of disabled people by helping them to use digital technology at work, at home or in education”.

“There are circa 12m people with a registered disability in the UK alone, with an estimated total disposable income (the ‘purple pound’) of £250bn, and then there are the many millions more with dyslexia, literacy difficulties and age-related impairments – all of whom will gravitate towards inclusive products (Apple anyone?),” says Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. 

“But we also need to consider volume procurement decisions and how, since the Equality Act 2010 that requires proactivity in avoiding discrimination, the badge of accessibility can swing multi-million pound buying decisions in the public and education sectors. Employers too are beginning to appreciate that a diverse workforce requires inclusive products – not only those designed and developed by young white males with little regard for a diverse userbase.”

There are a range of specialist tech products on the market designed for disabled people. Apps make up a big part of this – Seeing AI, Soundscape, BlindSquare, Be My Eyes and AIRA are specifically designed to make the lives of people with vision impairment easier.

There are also adaptations on mainstream hardware. These could be based upon mainstream tech, such as In Your Pocket – a smartphone which is entirely voice-controlled, loaded with standard smartphone functionality as well as specialist apps.

Then there are specialist devices such as smart canes, which can provide obstacle proximity detection and Bluetooth functionality to control a smartphone with a single button interface.

Another category is connected devices that can be controlled with special apps or even voice controlled via compatibility with a smartspeaker.

“These devices are often replacing expensive specialist alternatives that had been the only option before this connected appliance revolution,” adds Christopherson. “Amazon, for example, sells a powerful microwave in their ‘Basics’ range that is Alexa-aware. Talk to your Echo and you now have full control over an otherwise inaccessible device. Increasingly the future of assistive tech will hinge on remaining abreast of these powerful and affordable mainstream solutions that work together to create an ecosystem of inclusive options for the individual.”

BT was shortlisted for a Disability Smart Award and has worked with Cambridge University to develop the Inclusive Design Toolkit – a publicly available resource which gives designers of products and services an indication of the number of people who would not be able to use their product based on various capability criteria. Meanwhile its Next Generation Text (NGT) Lite App brings text relay services for deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech- impaired people.

It also runs competitions through BT Infinity Lab to engage with start-ups and encourage open innovation in the field of accessible technology. In 2016, one of the finalists came up with a new solution, Zone V, to make smartphones more accessible. The Zone V software makes text, menus and icons on smartphones larger and easier to see. The phone case features a front-facing speaker and a magnifying glass over the camera, making it easier to hear calls and read small text. It is on the market now.

Katherine Ainley, director of Better World, BT says: “There are millions of people living in the UK with an impairment. We categorise the key areas in which our products and services support into the following groups: hearing – there are 11 million people with hearing loss across the UK, that’s around one in six of us. Sight – almost one person in 30 in the UK is living with some form of sight loss. Speech and language – having a stammer, a quiet voice or no voice at all can make speaking on the phone a challenge. Mobility – your ability to move around can affect how you communicate. Dexterity – reduced dexterity can make using the phone or a keypad a challenge. Understanding and using technology – with so many gadgets on offer it can be hard to understand how things work.

“Technology is increasingly being adopted innovatively in order to enhance accessibility for all users. We see a general trend of blurring of lines between technology to aid accessibility and technology that makes everyone’s life easier, for example products such as Alexa can help everyone. We may therefore start to see a shift from ‘accessible vs normal’ technology and instead enhancing functionality across the board.”

The rapid innovation in the tech industry means that products, services and functionality for all of society are constantly providing new ways of living and working. The internet of things, 5G connectivity and 3D printing have the potential to produce all manor of new products and services. There also may be implications more specific to disabled people.

“5G will provide more opportunities for enhanced independent services and functionality, making more use of instant video interpreting, fast captioned telephone calls and speech to text capability that guarantees accuracy with very little end user training required,” adds Ainley. “It will also provide opportunities we haven’t even thought of or considered yet.

“For BT specifically, we will be concentrating on providing fully accessible relay services and will be updating our Next generation Text (NGT) app over the next few months. We will also keep up-to-date with any new technologies that will allow faster communication and provide enhanced access to users with a range of disabilities.”

Christopherson adds: “If it feels like there’s a merging of mainstream and specialist tech today, then this will only increase as we move forward. People with the widest range of abilities will benefit from an increasing choice of smart, connected devices from white goods to specialist bionic implants in 3D-printed prosthetics. IoT will impact all of our lives and disproportionately benefit those for whom advances in tech don’t just mean more choice but choice where before either none existed or was far out of financial reach.”

AI in particular is often touted to be continually on the edge of transforming how we all use technology and how entire industries work. Indeed, it is already used in huge swathes of businesses to perform anything from identifying species of fish to financial number crunching.

Are there any specific implications for disabled people in AI?

“Machine learning and AI more generally will also play an increasingly significant role in tuning these ecosystems to provide a range of services that are tailored to our specific set of needs,” says Christopherson. “Wearables will more closely monitor our health and detect disease, apps will meet needs beyond their current abilities and computing will become ever more ambient – it’ll just exist in the air all around us, built into appliances, smart glasses or even contact lenses.

“Sony predicts a full computer with screen and camera in a contact lens that will be recharged by the movement of our eyes. Whilst I as a blind person am holding out for the full bionic implant – I’d still settle for a contact lens that was always analysing my surroundings and reading me text, recognising faces and barcodes and feeding it all to my Bluetooth earbuds without ever needing to reach for a charger.”

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