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How wearable technologies can change the lives of people with disabilities

Four photos featuring various types of wearable technology. Photo credit: technicallyeasy.net

Wearable technology is not a new idea; for example, people have been wearing hearing aids for decades. Technological advancement in the use of sensors, cameras and algorithms are facilitating more capable and useful wearables in all aspects of everyday life, including the workplace. Among the latest inventions are glasses that can identify objects and describe them out loud, as well as clothing that translates spatial data into vibrations.

Some of the most remarkable developments in wearable assistive devices relate to vision for the blind. eSight, the company that makes glasses by capturing video through a high-definition camera, feeding the video to a portable processing unit and displaying the modified video in real-time in front of users’ eyes, allowed a mother to see her baby for the first time. Another device called OrCam, helps visually impaired people in a different way — by reading text aloud to them. First, users attach the OrCam’s tiny “smart camera” and earpiece to their eyeglass frames. When users want to read something, such as a newspaper article or a product label, they point their finger at the item. The OrCam then “speaks” to the individual via the earpiece, which uses bone conduction to carry sound through the bones of the skull to the inner ear.¹

Hackathons taking place during National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) allow local tech firms to compete to create accessible wearable technologies that target a wide range of disabilities. Google Glass, for example, can be paired with a motion sensor to assist individuals with fine motor disabilities. Tasks that were seemingly difficult such as holding objects or pouring a glass of water are now possible and give a sense of increased independence.²  Google is working on improving its head mounted display, Google Glass, to provide reminders to users with Parkinson’s disease, teach autistic children how to react to social cues and enable people with cerebral palsy who have difficulty using their hands to record and send videos, compose messages and browse the web just by nodding their heads.

Along with creating accessible wearable technologies, cost must be considered to ensure access. While many people with disabilities would benefit from using Google Glass, some may not be able to afford the $1000 price tag. In addition, those who are not tech savvy might find these devices somewhat difficult to use. Developers need to get input from the disability community to ensure their devices are user-friendly.³  

Getting input from the disability community is extremely important and it’s something that developer, Andy Lin is taking full advantage of. He is hoping to create a Google Glass modification that will help people with disabilities circumvent the touchpad by synching the device with power wheelchairs. Lin has already successfully hooked a joystick to Google Glass via Bluetooth, allowing individuals to operate the menus via their wheelchairs rather than using the touchpad.⁴ 

Many view wearable technology as the wave of the future as it has the ability to create the greatest impact on one’s ability to perform daily tasks. For individuals with disabilities it not only allows for greater independence but it also has the potential to allow an individual to regain loss function.

Disclaimer: The content of the ICT Blog does not serve as an endorsement of any commercial product or service, but rather an outlet to share information and opinions about accessible information and communication technologies.

¹ Wearable Tech is Changing the Lives of People With Disabilities (accessed November 16, 2015); available from
  http://www.verizonwireless.com/news/article/2015/03/wearable-tech-is-changing-the-lives-of-people-
  with-disabilities.html
² EvoHaX explores accessible wearable technologies (accessed November 16, 2015); available from
  http://www.phillyvoice.com/photos-hackathon-accessible-wearable-technologies/
³ Wearable Tech is Changing the Lives of People With Disabilities (accessed November 16, 2015); available from
  http://www.verizonwireless.com/news/article/2015/03/wearable-tech-is-changing-the-lives-of-people-
  with-disabilities.html
⁴ Wearable Tech For People With Disabilities: How A Tech Specialist Is Modifying Google Glass To Be More
  Accessible (accessed November 17, 2015); available from http://www.idigitaltimes.com/wearable-tech-
  people-disabilities-how-tech-specialist-modifying-google-glass-be-more-accessible
⁵ Google Glass, Wearable Technology, and Accessibility (accessed November 17, 2015); available from
  http://drumbeatconsulting.com/blog/2013/03/18/google-glass-wearable-technology-and-accessibility/

Beatrice Schmidt

Beatrice Schmidt

Corporate Services Specialist

Beatrice Schmidt joined the National Business & Disability Council (NBDC) at The Viscardi Center in September 2014. As a licensed social worker and a graduate of Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, with experience in the field as well as her diagnosis with cerebral palsy at the age of 6 months, Schmidt has extensive knowledge on the service delivery system, individual and family advocacy, as well as inclusive emergency planning for people with disabilities. As a self-advocate, she believes in the motto shared by the late Mattie Stepanek, “remember to play after every storm.”

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