September 13, 2017 | Chris Corsi, AAPD Intern
On Wednesday, August 23rd AAPD hosted the August Technology forum, a space where leaders from the technology industry can collaborate with leaders from the disability community to advance accessibility in current technology and set the path for future advances in the tech industry to pave the way for a more accessible future. The August forum brought technology representatives from Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, IBM, CTIA, and others, as well as disability representatives from the National Council on Independent Living, United Spinal Association, the National Association of the Deaf, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Hearing Loss Association of America, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, and others.
The meeting in August functioned as a planning session to inform the focus of the AAPD Technology Forum’s work moving forward. While a broad range of issues were discussed, the meeting hoped to tackle and address two central questions:
- What are some of the issues that are currently facing the disability community and how is technology currently hindering or helping to overcome those?
- What future advances in technology will affect the way people with disabilities live, and how can we ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in these advancements?
Below is a brief summary of the topics discussed during this meeting.
A question was raised as to whether technology might be able to supplant the lack of support supplied to individuals needing Personal Care Assistants (PCAs). This is a vital resource for many, demand for which is expected to rise 37% in the next 5 years. However, the Disability Equality Index, a joint initiative of AAPD and the US Business Leadership Network to measure the disability inclusion policies and practices of participating companies, shows that only 8% of companies offer PCAs as an accommodation. The future of robotics and mobility devices may offer more affordable options for businesses. A paper published in the Journal of Intelligent Robots and Systems presents research focused on developing applications to assist individuals with dressing.
Advancements in speech-to-text have created new avenues of accessibility for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHOH) individuals. For example, it is being considered that the same technology that allows someone to voice-type a text message could be used in an airplane to transcribe what the pilot is saying to Deaf passengers. While this is a good idea for future advancement, it was noted that many DHOH individuals currently do not trust speech to text technologies. The current transcriptions on YouTube videos by Google’s automatic speech recognition often have numerous substantial errors. Working to improve speech-to-text technology can reduce these mistakes and improve accessibility for the DHOH community. IBM’s Watson’s speech recognition can recognize different speakers in a conversation, breaking down barriers in multi-person communications. Many newer artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistant devices are not accessible as well, as they focus on text-to-speech and listening. For instance, Alexa and Google Home require activation and interaction through voice.
Additional issues were raised from the cognitive community in the advancement of “simple language,” particularly within online platforms and personalization of all technology. Although great strides have been made during recent years, advancements in technology have remained stagnate for the cognitive community. As machine learning continues to gain traction, the technology industry needs to ensure it is inclusive of all people with disabilities.
Access to basic household appliances is still an issue for some in the blind community. For example, certain laundry machines might be better adapted for blind individuals if they were equipped with text-to-speech. Motivating businesses working within the world of IoT (Internet of Things) to increase accessibility could improve this area, especially considering that blind and low-vision individuals comprise 2% of the population.
One of the most pressing issues facing people with disabilities across the spectrum of disability is the digital divide. While 81% of adults without disabilities use the internet, only 54% of adults with disabilities use the internet. Of those, 69% of adults without disabilities have broadband at home, compared to only 41% of adults with disabilities. This divide contributes to the economic oppression of people with disabilities and keeps people with disabilities from being as connected as they should be to the world around them. As Congress has begun discussing the idea of a new wireless infrastructure bill, this creates an opportunity to advocate to lawmakers the needs of discreet populations. For example, when 5G rolls out, how will advocates be sure this technology is delivered to rural areas and people with disabilities, as well as urban areas?
Looking forward to the future of technology, the August Forum also discussed mobility as it relates to self-driving cars. As cars become more autonomous, drivers will transition from the roles of “operators” to that of “riders,” and this will greatly benefit individuals with disabilities who may not currently be able to drive, but would be permitted to in a fully autonomous vehicle. The Forum hopes to ensure that people with disabilities are not left out of this transition (perhaps by states arguing there must be a cognitive requirement to be the primary rider in an autonomous vehicle). Ridesharing also presents its own challenges. Blind individuals have reported being passed over when they order an Uber or LYFT. There have also been issues where people with service animals are being denied service because the driver will not permit them, even though in 2016 it became Uber policy that drivers must allow service animals. While there are still issues in many areas for wheelchair users obtaining service, Uber has begun to roll out UberWAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles) in a number of metropolitan areas. These advancements increase the accessibility of current rideshare technology and sets the path for the future of ridesharing development as it becomes increasingly autonomous.
Wayfinding has been another topic of discussion regarding one’s ability to be independently mobile. Perhaps an autonomous vehicle drops someone off who is blind or otherwise has trouble with navigation a block or two away from their desired location; how can they find their way to their desired path? Ideas with augmented reality were discussed, which overlays virtual landscapes over the visual field in order to change (or augment) the way we experience the world. This could provide new ways of wayfinding that are more useful and accurate than GPS.
One step, among many, advocates can take to improve accessible transportation would be to ensure that the future Hyperloop (a proposed mode of transportation that would travel at 670 mph across long distances) offers accessibility features. While this seems like a faraway phenomenon, Tesla is currently testing pods for production, and we could see the first Hyperloop in the next five to ten years.
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Chris Corsi is the fall 2017 AAPD In-House Intern. He is a senior at the University of North Carolina.
The AAPD Technology Forum, comprised of individuals from the disability community and tech industry, works to advance access to technology to increase the opportunities and independence of all people with disabilities. The September Technology Forum will focus on the “open internet” and telecommunications policy.