Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Better Living Through Technology: matching people’s needs with technological solutions

End of September 2022, Miroslav Vrankić from the Faculty of Engineering Rijeka and founder of E-Glas, invited an audience of 200-300 people to attend the Assistive Technology and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ATAAC) Conference in Zagreb, Croatia. Most of the in-person attendees were practitioners working with people with disabilities and many with children with disabilities. They came to learn about new and old technologies available in the market, that can support independent living and increase the freedom and functionality of people with disabilities. 

Assistive technology and augmentative communication have tremendous potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities. But finding the right or even best solution for an individual is difficult and depends on the interplay of a person’s physical, cognitive, and sensory skills in relation to their goals and what they want the technology to help them achieve. This is further influenced and steered by personal factors such as the culture and beliefs of both themselves and their environment. It is also difficult to know how to assess if we found the best of the available solutions and if the chosen solution is the best acceptable to the person.

In his lecture, Charlie Danger, from The Children’s Trust and Ace Centre in the UK, shared his learnings from over 23 years of experience in matching children and adults with a wide range of skills and needs with technology that could help them. Indeed, our constant companion the smartphone already offers a wide range of accessible and assistive features. It can to some extent translate unclear speech to clear speech as Google’s Project Relate shows – an app custom-trained on people’s unique speech patterns. There are Touch Accommodations in iPhone and iPad, and apps that learn the pattern of customers’ keyboard use and predict what they will type in the next message.

Charlie showed us many examples where the mobile phone or tablet becomes the platform and is further enhanced with AT as the centerpiece to a whole technology set-up that can include voice, keyboards, touch, mouse & mouse alternatives, eye-gaze, switches, and brain control interfaces.

It was the perfect prelude to our presentation on the 2021 GARI research project which looked at the extent to which mobile phones can be considered assistive technology based on the functions they provide. The analysis of the key features that support accessibility for smartphones and tablets showed that these features focus on making the device more usable for people with disabilities and from this aspect do not directly fall under the definition of assistive technology. However, a comparison with international standards revealed that 25 of the over 130 features listed in GARI are assistive in nature and match the requirements laid out in the standards applicable for assistive technology.

There are situations where the device is enhanced with a range of third party products, including emerging technologies and innovative software, where the complete package can be more clearly identified as assistive technology. In the conclusions, the researchers, therefore, argue that AT provision should be based on purpose and outcomes rather than an increasingly blurred distinction between accessible and assistive products.

David Banes complemented the discussions by looking at emerging technologies that have the potential to make a difference in providing access to assistive technology. He looked particularly at how low-cost emerging technologies are making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities.

The impact of digital technologies can be framed around the reduction of the cost they bring and the fact that a single – sometimes mainstream – device can provide the basis for multiple forms of assistive and accessibility functions. Furthermore, these devices often have multiple features integrated that provide access to content and can be enhanced with low-cost access devices such as switches and expanded with wearable technologies.

Lots of people use wearable tech already (fitness trackers, smart watches, go-pro cameras). They use those devices to monitor health, and falls, control other devices (in smart homes and IoT), receive information, communicate, and receive alerts and notifications. Such a setup can provide additional independence and environmental control. It is still not cheap but compared to what we had before significantly cheaper, and there are more low-cost applications of smart homes and IoT coming along.

Not yet so far distributed but certainly on the horizon are 3D-printing, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). Already, we use AI for automated complex tasks, such as YouTube captions and image descriptions, and AI supports a range of other emerging technologies in communication, mobility, cognition, and emotional support.

Beyond the cost and availability of these technologies, there are several important questions we need to address:

  • What are the benefits and dangers of offline vs online AT provision?
  • What are the implications and dangers of limiting access to technology or giving technology as a reward, as is currently often the case?
  • How can we counterbalance the sometimes wrong notion of too much screen time with clearly proven benefits of digital technologies in supporting children with disabilities?

We did not find any definite answers to these questions but should keep them in mind for our discussions going forward.

ATAAC 2022 conference program: