Ingenious

21 December 2015

Technology is creating ‘a new era of accessibility’ for people with disabilities

 Technology is creating

Advances in technologies such as mobility, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things are set to drive an upsurge in accessibility and inclusion opportunities for people with disabilities over the next few years.

That’s the view of Dr Nicola Millard, customer insight futurologist at BT, who believes we are now entering a new age of accessibility.

Said Nicola: “More and more people are living better, more included lives thanks to a combination of technological innovation, superior design and our greater understanding of society’s needs. And this trend will continue - especially as the technologies begin to mature.”

“A good example is with voice recognition technology which is coming on leaps and bounds. People with visual impairments have traditionally been keen users of services like Siri, Google Now or Cortana on their devices.”

Strike a conversation

Continued Nicola: “Maybe the conversations haven’t been incredibly profound to date but things are developing fast. We are beginning to see AI and the use of voice commands work really well together so that apps and services can become far more accessible for many. It’s a mash-up that could potentially have life-changing results for lots of people - with or without disabilities.”

For millions of folk with physical or other types of disabilities, getting out and about can be a challenge. But mobile connectivity and the ability to access data while on the move is helping to change this.

Said Nicola: “New services like BT’s Next Generation Text (NGT) service, make it much easier for say people with say hearing and speech impairment to make phone calls, or for vulnerable people to stay in touch when they are out.”

Hidden entrance

“Social media and crowdsourcing is also playing a role. People using wheelchairs can use mobile devices to access online communities while they are away from home, for example. They can find out which tube stations have wheelchair access, and where the accessible entrances and exits are.”

She added: If that capability was combined with up and coming geo-location technology then their apps could even pinpoint a precise area of pavement with a lowered kerb where they could cross the road easily.”

Mary Lumkin, a research group leader in BT’s Research and Innovation, is part of a team exploring how people interact with technology including the data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) sensors.

Bigger data

Said Mary: “We’ve seen a number of potential benefits coming from the concepts of IoT, especially in relation to the greater amount of data becoming available.” Mary’s team has been exploring how sensor-collected data could be refigured and repurposed to meet an individual’s precise and personal needs. This could be for anybody – a young person, an elderly person or someone living with a disability.

“An example would be home control and automation. A user’s smartphone app would be able to control temperature or lighting using sensors,” said Mary.

“So if somebody had a disability and they found it hard to use their central heating system at home, the technology would allow a carer to control everything remotely – even automatically alerting the carer if the person’s house was too cold or too hot.”

Flexible terms

Added Mary, “the important thing for us as researchers is that we are not trying to find specific IoT apps for people with disabilities. It’s more to do with examining the potential for increased levels of engagement with data, including accessibility and inclusion, which is enabled by the flexibility of this technology. The IoT almost certainly opens the doors to a new world of possibilities for people including those who may currently be restricted or excluded in some way.”

Nicola Millard, meanwhile, is clear on why work to develop accessibility-boosting technology must continue.

“The population is aging. We’re all going to live longer and many of us will need work into our seventies, eighties and beyond. But of course, our eyesight, hearing and manual dexterity will probably start to diminish. We are going to rely on innovative technology to give us access to our daily lives.”