“High speed Internet empowers people with disabilities to become more independent. [It] can remove barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating in everyday activities such as employment, education, civic responsibilities and social connection.”
From a joint statement by: The American Association of People with Disabilities and The Communications Workers of America
For America’s 54 million people with disabilities, two important events happen this summer. First, there’s Memorial Day, when disabled veterans will proudly lead ceremonies and officials will emphasize the need to help those injured in conflict.
Second, July 26th is the 20th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was a long time in coming and is probably the single most empowering law during the past generation. But while the ADA has been instrumental in providing legal help for Americans with disabilities, something else is doing an important job in improving basic living standards.
It’s your mobile phone.
That’s the conclusion of a new research paper that Mobile Future issued today. For all the talk about texting, streaming video, gaming and other apps, one of the most heartening mobile developments involve affordable, life-changing improvements for those with disabilities. The FCC also recognizes this development and hosted a workshop to explore ways in which new technologies can offer opportunities to meet the communications access needs of people with disabilities.
Take the hearing impaired. In 2006, according to the CDC, 37 million adults in the United States had trouble hearing (ranging from a little trouble to being deaf). That’s an increase of more than five million since 2000.
As described in Mobile Future’s paper, a new wireless system developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute offers those with hearing difficulties the ability to caption events in real-time. The device translates spoken words into text and displays it on a screen.
Meanwhile, according to Scientific American, researchers at the University of Washington (Seattle) are developing software that lets mobile phone users communicate through sign language and real-time video instead of being limited to text messaging.
But what about those who can’t see? Some of the same technology that lets you save money while shopping is also turning the phone into an electronic seeing-eye companion.
As we discovered, mobile apps can use smartphone cameras to scan labels and announce the contents of grocery items, their nutrition labels, and even pill bottles. When merged with GPS technology, these apps can assist the visually impaired by giving them step-by-step directions through their smartphone.
Know someone with a speaking disability? An estimated 6 to 8 million Americans have this challenge. Many, if not most, can now take advantage of low- or no-cost communications apps on their cell phone. There’s voice output software that conveys typed messages; downloadable text-to-speech software can be an effective, less-costly alternative to speech devices covered by private insurance and Medicare.
Also, some experts say that children with speech impairments often prefer using “mainstream” technology which is less stigmatizing.
Mobile Future’s research paper is meant to be both an assessment and a celebration of the key innovations that are helping those with disabilities. It is also a “look-ahead” at the next phase wireless technologies in the pipeline which promise even more transformational impacts for the one in five Americans who live with disabilities.
This column was originally posted on Huffington Post on May 13, 2010.