For the Disabled, Consumer Electronics Aren’t There Yet
It’s a new world for the differently abled thanks to software patches, but hardware needs to be designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that 15% (37.5 million) of Americans over the age of 18 have some hearing loss, and nearly 29 million US adults could benefit from hearing aids. Improving TV sound quality is one of the most-requested features among hearing aid users.
To this end, Amazon recently launched Audio Streaming for Hearing Aids on the Fire TV Cube, which works with compatible Bluetooth hearing aids from Starkey. This makes the second-generation Fire TV Cube the first-ever streaming media player to support Audio Streaming for Hearing Aids (ASHA). Starkey is one of the largest hearing aid brands available today.
We live in a streaming world now. Some holdouts clinging to broadcast television or Blu-ray discs still exist, but once everything goes the way of streaming, at least some ASHA will be in place. More hearing aid brands such as Widex, Signia/Siemens, and Oticon must collaborate with streaming services to make their contribution to an inclusive world.
Unfortunately, it still leaves out other streaming devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops. Decades passed with people thinking they didn’t need subtitles or felt old or ashamed that they didn’t hear everything. Now, research shows that subtitles increase viewership. The potential ubiquity of ASHA could help erase the stigma around hearing aids in the same way. It’s just one example of how software can improve the day-to-day life of the disabled, even when the hardware has yet to catch up.
The Wonders of Software
It seems every day a different company is adding accessibility tweaks to make the disabled user experience better. These over-the-air updates can be embedded options, such as Live Captions on Google phones, Assistive Touch in Apple Watches, or services that offer to update your website so that it’s ADA compliant. The inclusive focus of these patches is a worthy undertaking that not only future-proofs our society but also recognizes the needs of the disability community.
Of course, you can always go to wherever you get apps if you want to feel like you’re part of a cutting-edge sci-fi. Google’s Relate app is excellent for those with speech difficulty, and the Look to Speak app uses a phone’s camera to see which word or phrase your eyes are choosing on the screen. Although impressive, these apps need to continue to be strengthened. As does the Ava app , which transcribes group conversations for the D/deaf and hard of hearing, as well as a favorite of the blind and visually impaired TapTapSee.
Some might think it’s overkill to have so many accessibility options, but this multiplicity is crucial because of the cornucopia of disabilities. Assistive Touch might be great for someone who has one arm, but what about somebody who can’t move their arms?
Advances in Gaming
On the gaming side, the software has also come a long way. Whereas 2018’s Forza Horizon 4 was criticized for releasing with shoddy subtitles that were fixed in a patch, this year’s Forza Horizon 5 made accessibility a key focus, as Xbox Game Studios released it with clear subtitles, ASL interpreters for cinematic scenes, and a new feature that allows a player to adjust the game speed to their liking.
Some might think it’s overkill to have so many accessibility options, but this multiplicity is crucial because of the cornucopia of disabilities.
Similar to the “default closed captions” setting on the Fire TV Cube, Sony’s recent PS5 has a system-wide accessibility option that lets players always set a game’s difficulty to easy, medium, or hard. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have to go into the settings of every game to change the difficulty, it can be physically tedious, time-consuming, and prevent the game from just working as it does for most people.
Even Nintendo, who is notoriously late on accessibility, released a patch in 2020 so Switch owners could remap buttons. The convenience for engineers and developers to make a simple update to their system and offer more accessibility options to millions of people is fantastic. In some ways regarding accessibility, we are only held back by our imaginations.
But software can only get you so far. New hardware available today can increase accessibility, but most of it is too expensive for most people.
For example, the Pixel 6 Pro has a better screen, refresh rate, and cameras for those with low vision. But for those with dexterity issues, it’s big and unwieldy compared with its cheaper sibling. Apple’s AirPods are nice, but why do you have to pay for both if you can only hear out of one ear? Why must the disabled pay for a more expensive laptop so they can have more ports to plug in a Braille keyboard? Even the headphone jack, which is necessary so that there is no latency for screen-reader users, is missing from some of the latest laptops. When it comes to hardware, there is still a jungle to hack through.
A growing number of companies are using the roadmap of talking to the disability community first, so that their product works for everybody before going to market.
Even so, some companies send products such as earbuds to disabled testers with the sole purpose of finding out how to make it easier to unbox them. And a new 8BitDo controller comes out July 15th with the intention of providing more affordable, accessible options for gamers. Hardware improvements are occurring, albeit slowly.
A half-decade ago, it seems that hardware was built with the attitude of “get the technology first, then retrofit it so it’s accessible.” Whereas today, a growing number of companies are using the roadmap of talking to the disability community first, so that their product works for everybody before going to market.
A Mixed Bag in Wearables
Wearables such as heart monitors, sleep trackers, and hearing and mobility aids are everywhere these days. Each year, they can do more and more. But although the disabled are getting a say in modern tech design, “tryborgs,“ able-bodied people who want to be cyborgs, are still the dominant voice in the world of tomorrow. The disabled need wearables to function daily—tryborgs do not.
While the difference is accurate, it’s also true that wearables have saved lives. Someone with an Apple Watch might see that their heart rate spiked and rush to get life-saving care at a hospital. How many devices have measured a fall and notified friends or family members miles away? These are wonderful tools for anyone to have.
The disabled are the OGs of coming up with hacks to get through their day. But the able-bodied have solutions and ideas that the disabled don’t consider. Their collaboration is why we have ASHA, and advances such as upcoming AR spectacles that can use Google Maps to display the most accessible route for a journey. It’s why it might be possible for companies to create a fully accessible autonomous future.
The biotech industry is expected to be worth $140 billion in 2022. In many ways, this is a virtuous development—curing Alzheimer’s for example, preventing debilitating diseases, and drugs that can improve a person’s quality of life—but something that gets glossed over when discussing CRISPR and gene editing is what it means for the disabled.
Discussion of ethics and CRISPR are always in relation to able-bodied couples, their children, and their peers. But what would a world without the disabled be like? What innovations would the world be missing out on? Would we be depriving ourselves of the next Stephen Hawking, or would the next great mind be inspired to act?
What would a world without the disabled be like? What innovations would the world be missing out on? Would we be depriving ourselves of the next Stephen Hawking, or would the next great mind be inspired to act?
Besides the medical advancements that seem within grasp, ultramodern upgrades that could unlock minds are being made in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Herein lies the future for the disabled and others. This wondrous technology could put into action what people think: An individual could turn on appliances on or off with their mind, navigate their phone or computer with no hands, play video games, regulate chemical levels in the body, and possibly even send electrical signals to limbs they can control.
BCIs come in the invasive form like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which proposes to surgically implant a microns-thin, nickel-sized computer chip into your head. (Before you laugh, Neuralink has partnerships with established labs like BrainGate at Massachusetts General Hospital.) Or, if you prefer a less invasive approach, companies such as Neurable and Kernel have headphones and funny caps to read your brainwaves. The advantage of the invasive approach, according to Musk, is that your electrical signals would be in a clearer, high definition as opposed to the standard definition of non-invasive BCIs.
But before that day comes, we must continue to produce technological advances like ASHA, and build accessible hardware that’s easy to use—so we can all live more comfortably while building the infrastructure for the wild future to come.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.