How a decoder ring is changing the conversation on disability tech

With the FingerReader, people with disabilities no longer have to be the blind person at the table.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Jul 18, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 10:41 pm CDT

A team of students from MIT’s Media Lab has developed a fascinating new piece of assistive technology: The FingerReader, a wearable device blind and vision-impaired people can run over any text in any environment for text-to-speech functionality. The device uses computer vision technology to scan the text, and reads it back in a synthetic voice. While it’s still a prototype, and its performance isn’t optimal just yet, it has tremendous applications for a world where text is often inaccessible for people with low vision.

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Fewer Americans are learning Braille, and the use of Braille is also falling. While you can still find printed Braille books (and Braille printers and styluses), along with mandated Braille signage, the text that surrounds us every day is largely inaccessible to blind and low vision people. That’s one example of why the explosion of accessible technology in recent years is so revolutionary—and so important. In a society where disabled people have historically been isolated from society by ableism and inaccessibility, technology is bridging gaps and making it easier to participate in society on equal footing.

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The FingerReader is one among a huge assortment of devices and applications designed to address the needs of blind people and those with low vision. These include magnifiers for screens from cell phones to desktop computers, more natural reading voices for ereaders like Kindles and Kobos, and a huge variety of text-to-speech technology. The FingerReader, however, provides a natural way to pick up text in any environment, allowing the reader to digitize and convert any text the device is capable of reading.

Like other digital scanning devices, it will have a learning curve—it’s likely to struggle with ornate fonts and worn or messy text, and in the video demonstration, it’s clear that the electronic voice struggles with the pronunciation of some words. But, overall, it’s a demonstrably useful prototype of accessible technology. The MIT students identified a clear need and created an actionable response, illustrating a key feature of the assistive technology initiatives at the University.

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One of the biggest problems with developments in assistive technology is the tendency for engineers to develop solutions for problems that don’t exist, to reinvent the wheel, or to overthink the needs of disabled people. While these initiatives are well-meaning, they involve a tremendous waste of intellectual talent, energy, and resources, all used to develop prototypes of equipment that’s not useful for disabled people and will never be adopted.

This is a common issue for the disability community, where activists often repeat the slogan “nothing about us without us.” Disabled self-advocates fighting to play an active role in their self-determination and independence are fighting back against centuries of attitudes from the non-disabled community about who knows best when it comes to the needs of disabled people. Even as the disability community is speaking out on the issues it’s identified as most critical, non-disabled people speak about disability, and about disabled people, as though actual disabled people aren’t in the room, ready and willing to take an active role in the conversation.

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At MIT, students are actively encouraged to work directly with disabled people on the technology they develop. They talk with members of the community about problems they’ve identified and they work together on possible solutions, creating concrete assistive technology that will have immediate uses. They’ve developed apps for a huge variety of needs that are widely applicable, and, critically, their work is replacing the terribly clunky, unwieldy, and often useless options disabled people have to work with historically.

Text-to-speech equipment, for example, was historically bulky, imperfect, and highly expensive. New apps released for free or at low cost both by disabled developers and developers working with the disability community have changed the face of text-to-speech technology radically. Frustratingly, insurance companies and government benefits programs are not keeping pace with new developments in text-to-speech and other assistive technology.

If an iPhone can be loaded with apps that help a blind woman navigate the world or provide a method of communication for a nonverbal person with intellectual disabilities, it makes an ideal form of assistive technology. It’s lightweight, easy to handle, and easy to teach people on. It also provides supplemental features that people find helpful including those designed into its basic functionality, like the ability to text (911 is starting to be available by text in many areas). It’s also, when compared to purpose-built accessible technology, quite inexpensive: $600 as compared to $6,000, for example.

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However, insurers insist that they can’t cover the purchase of such equipment even when it’s more suited to the needs of a patient than purpose-built equipment is. Why? Because of those extra features—which they claim violate federal insurance guidelines. Thus, instead of saving significant amounts of money on technology that better suits the needs of disabled clients and provides much more flexibility (it’s a cinch to upgrade an iPhone to a new app, or to test out a new application to see if it provides better features), insurance companies are still sticking with outdated, heavy, ponderous equipment.

It’s not just about the fact that the new generation of assistive technology is miles above the previous, either. It’s also unobtrusive, allowing disabled people to seamlessly meet their accessibility needs in a way that doesn’t draw attention or mark them out as unusual. For disabled people trying to avoid being immediately flagged as “abnormal,” the ability to blend in is key, as it allows them to go about their daily business without having to navigate comments and interference from nondisabled people.

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Take, for example, a device like the FingerReader, which could be stylized to look like a chunky ring, turning it into a fashion statement and an assistive device. A blind person going out to dinner could discreetly use the device to quickly read the menu instead of having to rely on assistance or attract attention from the waiter—and she could focus with having fun with her friends, instead of being marked as the blind person at the table.

Photo via lissalou66/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 18, 2014, 9:00 am CDT