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Innovating for people with disabilities: Why companies should invest in universal design

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Sensor technology, automation, artificial intelligence and the evolution of natural-language processing have made our personal electronic devices more intuitive and functional than ever. In recent years, these technologies have converged to make up the Internet of Things (IoT)—that is, a movement to make everyday items “smart” by embedding sensors and enabling network connectivity. We now have an ever-expanding suite of products, from smart doorbells to smart traffic lights to driverless cars, that can be automated and controlled through voice or touch. These products and services weren’t created specifically for people with disabilities, but this demographic stands to benefit most from their development.

“Clearly, IoT technologies are very well suited for people who have, let’s say, challenges in terms of mobility or independence,” says Alain Louchez, managing director of Georgia Tech’s Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies (CDAIT).

“It was never what I needed; it’s what was there”
For the able-bodied, asking a virtual assistant about the weather is a hallmark of a busy (or perhaps lazy) lifestyle. Automated smart-home technology, meanwhile, can help people with a variety of physical and cognitive limitations. Imagine a scenario in which a quadriplegic person can open the front and garage doors, turn the lights and some music on, order groceries online and text their spouse a love note—all without the help of another person.

For Todd Stabelfeldt, that’s the kind of independence his iPhone and Apple’s smart-home product line, HomeKit, have afforded him. Stabelfeldt was accidentally shot at home when he was eight years old, paralyzing him from the neck down. “I grew up in the ‘80s being paralyzed, and there was no [accessible] technology,” he says. Still, he graduated from college at the age of 17, subsequently getting a job writing software. His commute between work and his home in the Seattle area took more than four hours a day between his driver, a ferry ride, and him driving his wheelchair a few miles.

He had no cell phone, since there was no way for him to answer it or make calls. That changed when Motorola debuted “auto-answer,” allowing him to pick up the phone but not to dial out—so he had someone call him periodically during his commute to make sure he was still OK. He eventually graduated to a BlackBerry. Being a quadriplegic made Stabelfeldt feel like he had to at least try the latest technology, to see if it could help improve his quality of life. “It was never what I needed, or wanted. It was what was there,” says Stabelfeldt. “And it was brutal.”

Apple’s 2013 release of iOS 7 rocked Stabelfeldt’s universe. Included in the software update was an accessibility feature called Switch Control which, when paired with accessibility switches like Tecla, allows people with extremely limited mobility to control their iPhones (and later, iPads). “Overnight, everything about my story was completely rewritten,” he says. “It just changed everything.”

The following year, Apple enabled “Hey, Siri,” the hands-free voice-activated version of its popular virtual assistant. Until that point, using Siri required pressing a button first, as demonstrated in the commercial featuring Samuel L. Jackson that Apple made in 2011 to unveil Siri to the public. “Hey, Siri” gave Stabelfeldt even more freedom and autonomy.

Most recently, Stabelfeldt—who owns a database-management company called C4 Consulting—appeared in an Apple commercial showing off how Siri and its HomeKit technology has given him a new lease on life. The video is appropriately entitled, “Convenience For You Is Independence For Me.”

IoT can restore independence—and a sense of dignity
That video title is a statement at the core of Stabelfeldt’s outlook on technology: That technology designed for the convenience of people without disabilities can give people with reduced mobility and functioning unprecedented independence. That outcome, says Louchez of Georgia Tech, can reconnect people to a fundamental part of the human experience.

“A corollary of independence is also dignity,” he says. “Because the more independent you are, the more comfortable you are with yourself. You feel you’re not depending on somebody else.”

Dignity is one of the most powerful forces humans can feel. As Psychology Today writes, “The glue that holds all of our relationships together is the mutual recognition of the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and to feel safe in the world. When our identity is accepted and we feel included, we are granted a sense of freedom and independence and a life filled with hope and possibility.”

IoT technology gives people unprecedented autonomy and a sense of dignity, but it would be an exaggeration to say modern product design is universal. If you ask Siri to tell you the weather, the assistant will display the forecast on the screen—not so helpful if you have low vision. And Amazon’s Alexa is mostly useless for people who are hard-of-hearing. Understanding how to use all the devices in conjunction with each other, too, presents a learning curve that could put IoT out of reach for some. Worse, not all proprietary IoT devices are compatible with each other. Then there are the data permissions; can a person with Alzheimer’s or another cognitive disability truly consent to surveillance and data collection?

“People with disabilities need to be given the opportunity to have IoT technology that’s available and usable,” says Helena Mitchell, the principal investigator for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies and a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s disability advisory committee.

Embracing universal design as a pathway to inclusivity
Mitchell notes that many recent technological inventions have the potential to help people with mobility problems and disabilities. Exoskeletons could help people regain dexterity and movement, she points out. Smart glasses can increase font sizes for vision-impaired people. Modern hearing aids can help filter out noise better than ever before. But there’s a lot of work to be done to make IoT, and technology in general, truly inclusive and universal.

The first challenge is making the business case to technology companies. Worth $14 billion in 2015, the assistive-tech market is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall demand for technology. Short of government intervention, how can companies be compelled—at least morally, if not legally—to make products that disabled people can easily use?

Mitchell recognizes that today’s marketplace moves quickly, and companies are looking to go to market with new products as fast as possible as a result. At the same time, company shareholders are trying to get the lowest production cost to maximize profits, making it easy to ignore—or worse, cut out—“superfluous” design features that could actually promote more widespread accessibility. And then there is the socio-cultural barrier: In the rare occasion that it happens, designing something specific to a subset of people with disabilities is seen as an act of charity.

Mitchell chalks this gap in product design to a lack of awareness, rather than an intentional exclusion. To overcome it, she argues that companies should embrace the principles ofuniversal design—that is, creating products and services everyone can use and that are, ideally, universally compatible. Having such an approach could actually make more financial sense in the long run. “What you don’t want is to have to retrofit for a population you forgot about,” Mitchell says. It may also uncover unintended client bases; for instance, a connected device to help people with low vision could also potentially help improve firefighters’ vision when entering a smoke-filled building.

Still, there are many real and perceived barriers to innovating for disabilities. One of the problems Mitchell hears most often from companies is that they don’t know how to reach enough people with disabilities to test a product. She urges companies to partner with universities to design, create and test new products. University research departments often have long lists of potential focus-group participants who could serve as product testers. And, Mitchell continues, schools also have labs and R&D groups that are far cheaper to hire and staff than creating a private lab. Another option is to partner with veterans’ groups, as many war veterans have acquired disabilities.

Governments also need to take a broader role in starting, and maintaining, the conversation about designing for disabilities, Mitchell says. She doesn’t advocate for government setting industry standards—by the time a standard is created, the technology will be outdated. “I’m more for looking at social and cultural aspects of designing next-generation technology,” she says. “It becomes a question of, what do people with disabilities use the most now, and how can it benefit all users?”

When Switch Control was released by Apple, Todd Stabelfeldt says he went to every Apple store he and his wife could get to, and he LinkedIn-requested every Apple employee he could find. He wanted them to know how Switch Control had changed his life—and also wanted to make sure it continued to be included in future iterations of Apple’s products. “I was afraid Switch Control as a feature would go away,” he says.

Stabelfeldt says he’d love the opportunity to work with technology companies to design and test better products. “Corporate America is all about the bottom line. You gotta make money, I get that,” he says. “If you’re going to make convenient items for you, that’s OK—but that’s independence for me.”

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