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5 ways technology is making the world more accessible

Inventors have been finding ways to help people overcome disabilities for centuries. Ear trumpets boosted hearing in the 17th century. In the 1820s, Louis Braille devised a system that allowed the blind to read through their sense of touch.

Innovations and legislation in the 20th century increased access to employment, entertainment, and information. But one in four US adults currently have a disability that significantly impacts their life. Can new technology provide some 21st-century solutions?

1. Self-driving cars? How about self-driving wheelchairs?

The world’s population is aging fast. The number of people in the US aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. Similar demographic shifts are happening worldwide—and that means a lot of people will face challenges with mobility.

Self-driving wheelchairs use lidar sensors to measure the distance to an object and can build a map after being manually driven around the area where it will be used. Courtesy SMART Comms.

Autonomous wheelchairs could be the answer. That’s why Samsung, MITNorthwestern University, and others are borrowing technology from self-driving cars to develop self-driving wheelchairs. Equipped with lidar sensors that measure the distance to an object by illuminating that object with a laser light, the wheelchair builds a map after being manually driven around the area where it will be used. After that, the user will be able to select where they want to go by clicking on the map.

One company, the Toronto-based Cyberworks has a prototype chair that should be available for purchase in a few years. Self-driving wheelchairs could be the key to independent living for millions of people with disabilities.

2. Helping farmers stay in the field

<strong>Disabled farmers</strong> need help staying in the fields. AgriAbility is a US national program that maintains a database of solutions from harvesting aids to equipment for adaptive horseback riding. Courtesy AgriAbility.When you’re in the grocery store, do you ever think about where your food comes from? According to a recent study, one in five farmers in the US has some type of disability. In addition, the average age of the American farmer is 57. Ailments associated with aging often impair a farmer’s ability to work.

That’s why in 1990 the US government funded an assistive technology program, AgriAbility, to help disabled farmers. Its Assistive Technology Database is an index of over 1,400 solutions to problems faced by farmers such as harvesting aids, calving and calf care equipment, and accessories for adaptive horseback riding. Each solution offered in the database shows the cost of the technology along with the physical limitations the tech addresses. Other resources on the AgriAbility website include online training, links to state projects, and resources on many health care issues.

3. The power of thought

For most of us, the entire world is just a tap or a swipe away on our smartphones. But that isn’t the case for people who have upper body impairments or paralysis. Fortunately, researchers are working on technology that will allow users to control a mobile device with their thoughts.

A brain-computer interface called BrainGate translates brain activity directly into actions on a tablet, allowing participants to check email, search the internet, read news, and stream music using only their thoughts. Courtesy ScienceVio.

In a recent clinical trial of a brain-computer interface (BCI) called BrainGate, researchers implanted microelectrode arrays into the part of the brain that controls hand movement.

The participants thought about moving their hands, and the BCI learned to translate the brain activity into actions on an Android tablet.

Participants were eventually able to use the tablet to check and respond to email, search the internet, read news, and stream music. The researchers believe interfaces like BrainGate may enable people with degenerative conditions like ALS to communicate with others and participate in everyday activities.

4. Reading the signs

In a perfect world, a sign language interpreter would be at the ready any time a deaf or hard of hearing person needed them. But some institutions such as hospitals and courts use Video Remote Interpreting to save money. Unfortunately, the facial gestures and body movements that convey meaning in sign language may be lost when delivered in a video feed.

Award-winning gloves. Sensors on the hand and wrist of SignAloud gloves measure hand position and movement to transliterate sign language into text and speech. Courtesy Lemelson MIT.

That’s why research is underway to develop a tool that can convert sign language to speech in audio or text format. Two University of Washington students have developed a system that lets people fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) communicate with non-signers. SignAloud uses gloves designed to recognize ASL gestures. The gloves send data to a computer for processing. Then the word or phrase associated with the gesture is spoken through a speaker.

With a similar glove-based product called BrightSign Glove, users record and name their own gestures to go with specific words or phrases. The product aims to sidestep the need for facial cues and body motions. Another version of BrightSign will send translations directly to the glove wearer’s smartphone. The phone can then vocalize the words and phrases.

5. This AI will help you “see”

Since the end of World War I, people who are blind or visually impaired have been using the “white cane,” or “long cane” to detect obstacles and scan for orientation marks. Now, thanks to Google AI, there’s an app for that.

The Lookout app is designed to help people who are visually impaired by giving real-time spoken cues about objects, text, and the people around them. Courtesy Google.

Google Lookout is an app that runs on Pixel devices in the US. It uses image recognition technology similar to that of Google Lens to assist users in learning about a new space, reading documents, and completing activities like cooking and shopping. The app detects an object, guesses what it is and tells the user about it. Google recommends that users attach the device to a lanyard worn around the neck, or in the front pocket of a shirt. Once opened, the app requires no further input. Google says it hopes to bring the app to more countries and platforms soon.

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