Leveling the Playing Field

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
From wearable sensors to accessibility apps, smart technology is transforming the lives of seniors and people with disabilities.

Advances in technology are meant to make us more productive and efficient. But for some users, technology doesn’t just make life more convenient; it changes the game entirely. By focusing on the individual’s abilities, specially devised devices as well as familiar apps are helping break down the physical, social, and attitudinal barriers that have traditionally made access to state-of-the-art tools an insurmountable challenge. Here are some innovative solutions designed to leave no one behind.

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Think Out Loud 

WHO: People with autism, cerebral palsy, ALS, and other verbal communication challenges 

WHAT: The Smartstones team is developing a groundbreaking way to give a voice to those unable to speak by connecting the company’s :prose mobile app to EMOTIV’s wireless EEG headset or a handheld sensory device to translate movements and brain waves into spoken phrases and commands. 

Equal Access 

WHO: Wheelchair users and people with mobility challenges 

WHAT: With the Access Earth app, wheelchair users can locate and rate accessible locations and share that information with other Access Earth users. 

Sign of the Times 

WHO: People communicating with users of sign language 

WHAT: Graduates of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., developed the ASL App to introduce and teach conversational American Sign Language (ASL). Dubbed "ASL for the people," the program aims to bring together the Deaf and the hearing communities with more than 800 signs, as well as instructional videos and useful phrases. 

Jogging Memory 

WHO: Those with dementia, memory loss 

WHAT: The GreyMatters tablet app is a customizable inter-active storybook designed to stimulate memories, encourage communication, and improve quality of life for those with dementia and their loved ones. Accompanied by voice narration and favorite music selections and games, it allows users and caregivers to relive personal experiences by uploading and storing photos.

Word Gets Around 

WHO: People with visual impairments 

WHAT: By snapping a photo with the touch of a button, the KNFB Reader app for iOS and Android devices translates nearly any printed document—from books, mail, receipts, memos, and class handouts to signs and menus—into speech almost instantaneously. 

Travel Far 

WHO: Elderly residents of long-term care communities 

WHAT: Developed by MIT graduate students to minimize feelings of isolation and depression and encourage engagement among the elderly in long-term care facilities, the virtual reality Rendever headset enables wearers to travel the world or even return to their childhood home via three-dimensional, 360-degree Google Maps films.

Command Center

WHO: People with physical disabilities and visual impairments 

WHAT: Hands-free voice-recognition tools like Amazon Echo and Google Home offer those capable of giving voice commands the ability to manage tasks like playing music and audio books, sending text messages, listening to the news, accessing computer searches, and controlling a smart device. 

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Read Off

WHO: People with visual impairments

WHAT: Screen readers like TalkBack for Android and Apple’s VoiceOver make it possible to access your device even if you can’t see the screen, enabling users to do every-thing from sending and receiving texts, reading emails, and checking battery level to selecting apps. Customizable screen magnification eases use for those with low vision.

Easy Street

WHO: People with physical and visual impairments or motor challenges

WHAT: A pair of designers in the UK have developed an urban prototype they call Responsive Street Furniture, which detects pedestrians’ needs via signals from their personal electronic device. Users specify the services they require, and sensors respond automatically: brightening street lights, allowing more time to cross the street, unlocking benches for sitting, calling out names of businesses. 

Clear as a Bell

WHO: People with hearing impairments

WHAT: Hearing aids have evolved from simple sound-magnification tools to personal "hearables" that can interact with connected Android and iOS devices. Models by ReSound, Oticon, and others stream sound wirelessly and enable users to better hear sound coming through them.

Ready to Roll

WHO: Wheelchair users

WHAT: Apple Watch’s Workout and Activity apps now offer manual wheelchair fitness tracking and wheelchair-specific workouts, with "roll" goals and sensors that take into account factors like pace and terrain type.

Smell Test 

WHO: People with dementia, memory loss

WHAT: To offset the diminished appetite and weight loss that afflict many people living with dementia, Ode introduces a menu of olfactory stimuli before mealtimes. Ode harnesses the sense of smell and the role it plays in emotions and memory to encourage proper nutrition and spark mealtime interaction in seniors in residential settings.

Safe and Sound

WHO: Seniors living alone; individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s

WHAT: Wearable sensors and smart watches like those from Lively, CarePredict, and SafeWander wirelessly connect those living alone to emergency help 24/7, offer medication reminders and daily step counting, and enable caregivers and family members to monitor everyday activities, like sleeping and eating. 

Wake-up Call

WHO: People with hearing impairments

WHAT: The TCL Pulse is a Bluetooth-enabled vibration and audible alarm. Users can adjust the degrees of vibration, sound, or both.