How apps are changing the face of accessibility

A blind person using an accessibility app

Photo via Yahoo Accessibility Lab/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Have an iPhone? The world is your oyster.

Last month, Facebook announcement that it’s testing speech-to-text functionality for its Messenger app. Some reporters are simply asking why it’s taken this long. 

Through Siri, Google Now, and now Microsoft’s Cortana, we have been able to interact with our smartphones using speech recognition capabilities for some time. For many, these tools make mobile gadgets more fun and more user-friendly, but for others, they are changing lives. The app revolution has created a renaissance of technology that is permanently altering the landscape for disabled people.

Disability aids have historically been unwieldy and unattractive, making it difficult to participate without standing out. Often bulky, inefficient, and prohibitively expensive, disability equipment frequently overlooked sleek design and innovative user experience in favor of utilitarian practicality. While it got the job done, it didn’t do it artfully. Disabled consumers and app developers are changing that with a variety of technologies that offer the same capabilities as expensive purpose-built equipment at a fraction of the cost and in much more appealing packaging.

Communication aids

Apps that aid communication are perhaps the most revolutionary of the accessibility and assistance software hitting the market. Equipment that in the past required an eye-watering investment of over $7,000, such as touch-to-speak technology, is now widely available at much more affordable prices. Even Proloquo2Go, one of the more expensive (and highly specialized) apps, comes in at $219.99, and alternatives are available for much less.

Proloquo2Go is an iOS app for people who have difficulty speaking. Through its interface—a range of images—users can select the most appropriate symbol, create sentences, and have the software read it out loud. The ability to communicate in this way offers disabled people real independence, and an opportunity to influence the world around them.

Tap to Talk is a free alternative that is available for iOS, Android, Windows 8, Nook, and more. Other options are Touch Voice (Android and iOS, $19.99), iCommunicate for iPad ($49.99), iComm (iPhone, free), and TouchChat HD (iOS, $149.99).

Whether it is worth paying so much for Proloquo2Go, compared to lower-cost and even free alternatives, is hotly debated. The app’s developers point to how much less expensive it is when compared to the equivalent devices before Proloquo2Go’s development, as well as the research, technology and ongoing updates that go into the app. Looking at the suitability of each option is advised, and the Special Apps for Special Needs site recommends seeking advice from a Speech and Language Therapist.

For adults and children who are able to talk, but whose speech is unintelligible to others, Talkitt can translate. The real power behind this is that people can “communicate using their own voice,” says the company. The technology that enables the Talkitt app to do its job is especially impressive because it promises to work in every possible language, thanks to the way it learns the user’s own patterns of speech.

Having raised more than double its goal in a crowdfunding campaign, Talkitt will initially be available on smartphones and tablets, and the company projects that it will also be developing versions for users of PCs, laptops, and wearable devices.

Access for D/deaf and hard of hearing people

For other people, expressing themselves with speech is not a problem. The communication barrier they face is in understanding what others say to them.

Many hearing people assume that hearing aids restore the full audio experience to the D/deaf people who use them. (The distinction between Deaf and deaf is that those who described themselves as Deaf identify with the culture as well as the physical affects.) However, a lot of D/deaf people find using hearing aids a frustrating experience. Whether it is changing fiddly batteries, overwhelmingly loud noises, squeaks and squeals, and real difficulty distinguishing voices from background noise, these aids, though often invaluable, are far from perfect.

This led researchers at the University of Essex, U.K., to develop a mobile-based app that aimed to replicate the biology of the human ear. The researchers’ BioAid algorithms informed the development of the AUD-1 iOS app, which is able to “intelligently modulate the loudness of the sonic environment for the hearing-impaired user.”

This means that settings can be altered to fine-tune the way the audio is transmitted through the device and to a pair of headphones worn by the user, avoiding the extreme highs and lows and the difficulties in distinguishing between foreground and background noises associated with some hearing aids. At a cost of around seven dollars, AUD-1 is a fraction of the price of a conventional hearing aid and the technology behind it is innovative and exciting.

RogerVoice is a similarly impressive app that enables D/deaf and hearing-impaired people to make telephone calls. The app takes what someone is saying to them on the phone and instantaneously translates it into text on the screen.

Unlike more conventional services, such as Text Relay in the U.K., which rely on a third person to translate speech to text, RogerVoice offers a confidential and, ultimately, more empowering way for D/deaf people to communicate with their friends and family.

Like Talkitt, RogerVoice was successful in raising crowd-funded cash to support its development. The app, available for Android devices, is due to be released in March this year.

Apps for visually impaired users

For blind and visually impaired people, it can be hard to manage day-to-day tasks like reading the expiration date on a carton of milk, the instructions on packaged foods, or the departure times on a train timetable. Be My Eyes is an app that connects blind people with sighted people to answer these kinds of questions, via an instant video connection.

Over 135,000 sighted people and over 12,000 blind people have already signed up to this open-source project. The app is available for iOS devices and is free of charge.

For visually impaired people who require assistance with a rather more specific task, the onerous challenge of trying to identify one bank note from another, MoneyReader is a simple, yet effective, tool. The user places a bank note (from any of 21 different currencies) in front of their smartphone’s camera and the app identifies the value of the note and its currency.

The same developers, LookTel, have also developed the rather ingenious Breadcrumbs app, which “helps blind or visually impaired travelers locate orientation points, or ‘breadcrumbs,’ on a route. A breadcrumb can be dropped in your current location by simply pressing the ‘Drop Breadcrumb’ button in the app. Then, when pointing your phone in the direction of that breadcrumb, the device will vibrate to let you know where the breadcrumb is.”

Reminiscent, of course, of the breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, the app could prove invaluable to blind and partially sighted people who want to retrace their steps or tackle longer walks, such as hikes. This app will soon be released for iOS devices.

All of these apps exploit innovation and technology to make the world a less inaccessible place for disabled people. Having new opportunities to communicate with family and friends can change not only a disabled person’s life, but also the lives of the people around them. Enhancements, updates and new ideas can all be explored easily through the flexibility of quick updates, rather than clunky and painstaking adjustments to purpose-built equipment. The ever-increasing prevalence of smartphones and tablets, as well as exciting new developments in wearable technology, signal really positive things for assisted communication software and its users, making accessibility available to all.

Photo via Yahoo Accessibility Lab/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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