Technological advances happen every day, and technology has had a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities. We take a look at how assistive technology is making the UK – and the world – more accessible.

What is assistive technology?

According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association, it covers "any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities." In short, assistive technology is all about accessibility.

Screen readers, which allow people who are blind to navigate a computer, are one example you might already be aware of. Other examples of assistive technology include closed captioning devices such as CaptiView or closed captioning glasses which allow people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to enjoy movies. Ai-Media contributor and YouTuber Rikki Poynter is a huge advocate for better and more widespread captioning. There is much work to be done, as this technology is not without its shortcomings – just ask Nyle DiMarco or Amanda McDonough – but tech is changing lives and making the world more accessible to all.


Innovative solutions, real impact

Just over the past decade, technology for disabled people has advanced considerably. Tilly Lockey, a girl who lost her hands as a baby, now uses bionic hands. Designed by Open Bionics, the hands allow her to pick up objects as small as a marble. Assistive technology not only has day-to-day practical effects but can also be a huge confidence booster.

Voice recognition and speech-to-text software can help people who can’t use their hands to write, but what if you could only use your eyes? The 2007 film 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' was based on a book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the journalist who had what is known as “Locked-In Syndrome” and could only blink. He crafted the story with the help of a nurse who spelled out every letter of the alphabet aloud and then, when Bauby blinked, wrote down his chosen letter. Today, he’d probably use something like the Eyegaze Edge, a groundbreaking tablet which uses a video camera and pupil centre corneal reflection technology to record exactly where someone is looking. Thanks to this technology, at least twelve books have been written by people using only their eyes.


Captioning for everyday life

You’re probably familiar with closed captioning on television, but in the UK live captioning is also provided in theatres, allowing d/Deaf and hard of hearing audience members to enjoy performances. To do this, a trained captioner uses specialist software to turn a play's script into captions which include all speech, sound effects and music, and to ensure accurate timing. The process can take upwards of 60 hours per play, but this inclusive technology widens the theatre's potential audience.

From Pokémon Go to Animojis on the iPhone X, augmented reality (AR) is quickly becoming part of our lives. The British National Theatre is employing the technology to make its performances more accessible: fully customisable, minimally obtrusive captioning glasses that allow people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing full access to a live show, anytime they want. While the National Theatre does offer captioned shows, they are infrequent, and patrons have to look at a screen off to the side of the stage; AR is changing all this.  

If you’re a student who's Deaf or Hard of Hearing, you’ve likely found communication access in the lecture hall to be a challenge. At work, perhaps you’ve found yourself lost during important meetings. Live captioning services, such as Ai-Live, provide real-time access to the spoken word in everyday situations. Captioners either type using a stenotype machine with a phonetic keyboard (as used by court reporters) or re-speak what they hear into voice recognition software that they have specifically trained to their voice. This text is then streamed over the internet to your smartphone, laptop or tablet. This process easily fits into your lifestyle, letting you seamlessly participate in a meeting, lecture, or event.


How tech firms are increasing accessibility

Multinational tech companies are increasingly offering tools aimed at making not only their products and services accessible to a wider audience, but also to make society accessible more generally.

Microsoft recently introduced the Adaptive Controller, allowing gamers with muscular dystrophy and other conditions the ability to play video games. Facebook and YouTube have made their live streaming platforms more accessible via live captions.

Airbnb is making it cheaper to find accommodation around the world, and now they’ve added new search features, like whether there’s a roll-in shower or whether each room has step-free access, allowing users to make sure that a home meets their needs. Similarly, Google Maps has incorporated a search feature for wheelchair accessible routes, making it easier to get from Point A to Point B as a wheelchair user.

Accessibility-focused tech firms are also springing up. ActiView, a captioning and audio description app, is making movies more accessible. San Francisco-based tech company Aira is pioneering a solution that allows blind people to travel independently with the assistance of a trained agent who verbally guides them.


How organisations can join the accessibility revolution

There is a wide range of tools available which organisations can use to make the world more accessible. The first step is to recognise people with disabilities and their unique contributions, and then make sure that they can access all the organisation has to offer. From always putting the captions on during video presentations, to providing large print written notes to accompany lectures, and from adjusting lighting to removing obstacles from pathways, simple changes can ensure that people with disabilities are included.


Progress ahead

At first glance, some of this technology might seem like something out of a science fiction movie, but this inclusive technology is simple to use and is changing lives for people with disabilities, bringing content to more audiences than ever and creating a more inclusive world for all.

There is definitely still a long way to go to make the world truly accessible for all, but technology has revolutionised what it means to have a disability. The wheels are in motion, and they show no signs of slowing down.



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