New Mobile And Wearable Inventions Break Down Barriers For Disabled Americans

Jul 31, 2015

A hands-free mouse that responds to head rotation and facial movements; an app that transcribes conversations to text for the hearing impaired; a wearable Bluetooth tool that speaks for you: These were a few of the winners of the Connect Ability Challenge announced this week in New York City in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 27.

Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act opened up services and opportunities for people with disabilities. Today, technology is the next frontier for breaking down barriers to access, according to Senator Chuck Schumer from New York, who gave a speech at the awards presentation. “Technology offers amazing ways to make things better for those who are disabled,” he said.

"This kind of technology can be life changing."

Sixty-three people or groups from around the globe entered the competition, which was sponsored by AT&T and New York University. The challenge gave away $100,000 in prizes to nine winners.

“We can create things that not only work in theory but actually have an impact on the future of someone’s life,” says Xian Horn, a writer from Manhattan with cerebral palsy who consulted with developers on their contest submissions. “This kind of technology can be life changing.”

Contest entrants had three months to develop software using existing mobile or wireless technologies to address barriers faced by people living with four categories of disabilities: sensory, mobility, social and emotional and cognitive/communication.

For Horn, the priority is hands free technology. She has poor balance and muscle control.

“The fact that I walk around the world with shiny blue ski poles means that my hands are occupied,” Horn explains. “Anything that would allow me to use my phone maybe without taking it out of my purse would be great.”

During the three-month challenge, hackathons across the country brought together developers and people living with disabilities who were available to provide feedback. One was organized by the Plano, Texas group, LaunchAbility and held at Tech Wildcatters.

Mohammed Azmat Qureshi was one developer there. With his partner Oluwatosin Oluwadare he was working on his submission, a device called “EyeCYou” to help the visually impaired “see” people in front of them with a device that describes the world around them.

Quereshi says that just as buildings constructed decades ago weren’t designed for people with disabilities, many of the high tech gadgets and apps created today leave out a segment of the population.

“There’s a huge potential of using the technology that is out there in a different way for the differently-abled people,” says Quereshi.

The EyeCYou prototype uses plastic safety goggles with a camera attached that snaps photos. The device speaks in a robotic voice: “The description of the person in front of you is as follows,” it says. “Person one is wearing an orange dominate shirt, has a light-skinned complexion.  She is a female adult.”

So far, the device reports age, complexion, shirt color, and gender. Oluwadare admits this personal assistant in the early phases, but feedback from people who live with disabilities, such as Horn, is helping to shape the technology.

“Unless you talk to the people that you’re trying to help, you’re not going to know — even with your best intentions — how to help,” says Horn. 

Complete list of  the winners

Grand Prize & Best Mobility Solution: Kinesic Mouse is a hands-free mouse that lets people control their computer with their head movements and facial expressions.

Best Solution for People with Sensory Disabilities: Ava (Transcense) instantly transcribes group conversations into texts, helping people with hearing disabilities keep up with the chatter around them.

Best Social/Emotional Solution: LOLA which stands for Laugh Out Loud Aid helps people living with autism, ADD/ADHD, and learning and emotional disabilities to strengthen their interpersonal and daily living skills with humorous reminders, challenges and rewards. It was developed by Tech Kids Unlimited, with help from kids.

Best Solution for People with Communicative and Cognitive Disabilities: Drumpants (Taps) helps people with limited motor control. It’s a wearable device that attaches to clothing, allowing users to tap large buttons to trigger commands on their phone.

Best Solution Impacting Policy and Society: Enlight is an app that uses Bluetooth technology to allow people with vision disabilities to scan indoor spaces and get voice directions to help them navigate the area.

Best Practices Collaboration Award: MySupport connects people with disabilities with in-home health aides and service providers to help them be more independent.

Best Practices Caregiver Award: InstaAid is an iPad app that makes it easier for people with neurological disabilities to call for help quickly.

Best Practices Universal Design Award: The Braci Smart Ear is an app that detects sounds such as smoke alarms, doorbells, crying babies and more and notifies users via their phones or other devices.

Large Organization Recognition Award: AccessiblePeakMeter is a device to support visually impaired people working in the field of audio engineering.

Lauren Silverman is health reporter based at KERA, Public Media for North Texas. An earlier version of this story was produced by KERA and appears on their website.