Accessibility on the go: mobility for everyone
Photo Steven Lelham via Unsplash
Erich Manser has run 18 marathons and set an Ironman world record for a physically-challenged athlete. He’s also legally blind. For him—and all athletes who are blind—carefully navigating the swirling stampede of runners, the chaotic cowbell-banging crowds, and the crush at water stations can be exceptionally tricky, even with the help of a guide.
So when Manser ran the Boston Marathon in 2017 he tried something new—Aira, a service that links smartglass technology with a smartphone app. A sighted guide 750 miles away in Columbus, Ohio saw a live stream of the race via the glasses and provided assistance by verbally telling Erich about events as they happened.
Manser finished strong. He also learned details during the race he otherwise wouldn’t have seen, like when a man wearing a tutu and boots surged ahead of him.
“I was pushing through the pain after mile 18 when marathons get especially challenging,” said Manser. He felt both humbled and amused: “I was like ‘He’s not taking this anywhere near as seriously as I am at this moment.’”
Smart streets are human-centered streets
Running a marathon is just one example of how technology provides independence and opens options for the disabled and aging population.
“Technology represents convenience for most people but for people with disabilities it can be life-changing,” said Manser, who works with IBM Accessibility and IBM Research. “Things that weren’t possible before now are.”
Manser works on the #AccessibleOlli initiative, led jointly by Local Motors, IBM, and the CTA Foundation. This initiative is piloting technologies on a self-driving AI-enabled shuttle bus called Olli that could help riders—including the aging population—with a range of disabilities.
For Manser, the project is personal on many levels. “I had to give up driving about 16 years ago because it didn’t feel safe anymore,” said Manser. “In the U.S., in many ways it’s like giving up your independence and dignity.” As he gradually lost his eyesight due to a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa, he became more motivated to make a difference. He has embraced his role as a “Accessibility Evangelist” and helped many governments and companies explore the role accessible technology should play when driving digital transformation.
Manser believes that technology like AI and IoT can help innovate city transportation through deep insight—and empower people to thrive at school, work, and life. In self-driving vehicles like Olli, this tech can understand spoken instructions, speak sign language, observe nearby surroundings, and recognize when people need help. Together with smart cities and infrastructure, technology can provide independent mobility with practical assistance that is specialized for each user’s abilities and needs.
Designing for accessibility
But before public and private sector organizations race ahead with their designs, Manser recommends a few key things. First: Consider all users from the beginning. When users are able to decide how they want to experience your product or content, designers will make informed choices. And product design changes are much easier to include at the start than when the design is locked in.
Next, Manser says, better engage persons with disabilities and aging communities in those processes and keep them involved. “People with disabilities have often been left out of the conversation,” said Manser. “I’m frequently the first person with an actual disability that design teams have interacted with directly.” Real human perspective builds empathy and ensures designs are even more usable and create a better experience for everyone.
Finally, empower users to continue a personalized experience across many screens: “Whether in my office, at the grocery store, the ATM, or in a self-driving car, it would be amazing if any screen that I interact with in my day to day would know me and automatically adapt to my personalized needs.”
Overall, Manser encourages an open mind: it’s important that accessibility be deeply considered when exploring the potential of emerging technologies. “Governments have been tremendous at adhering to their own standards, but compliance by itself is not a very effective motivator. It becomes a checklist,” said Manser. And, perhaps best of all, this open mind can lead to surprise.
Manser also has a competitive swimming background. Some of his proudest moments are at the end of the swimming part of a triathlon when he hears people’s surprised cheers.
“They realize this blind guy is not just participating, he’s toward the front. And that’s the thing I love about technology—it’s empowering people with disabilities to do things that may surprise you,” said Manser.