Home PublicationsCommentary The Internet of Things Means a More Accessible World

The Internet of Things Means a More Accessible World

by Joshua New

For people with disabilities, the Internet of Things offers an unprecedented opportunity to improve quality of life. “I do wake up wondering why I can’t connect better to my house…” Paul Schroeder from the American Foundation for the Blind told policy experts at the Center for Data Innovation’s December 2014 event, “How Can Policymakers Help Build the Internet of Things?”. Policymakers and the public alike rarely discuss the added social benefit that connected technologies offer the 56.7 million people with disabilities in the United States. In particular, the Internet of Things has the potential to significantly reduce barriers to living autonomously by automating home control, simplifying navigation, and facilitating communication. Policymakers, advocacy groups, and activists should seek to speed adoption and expand access to the Internet of Things to further develop these benefits and ensure that people with disabilities can take advantage of them.

The integration of the Internet of Things in the household allows a myriad of home functions to be controlled by connected devices that might otherwise present too great a challenge for people with disabilities. People with disabilities use smartphones at almost the same rate as the general population—in 2013, 54 percent of people with disabilities owned or used a smartphone. Smart thermostats such as Nest let users adjust the temperature with just a few taps on a smartphone. Services such as those offered by Alarm.com and Loxone let users lock their doors and windows, turn on lights, and adjust blinds via a smartphone, or program them to do so automatically. For those unable to use smartphones, the Microsoft Kinect and other motion sensors could grant people with disabilities more control over their home. Though the Kinect is primarily known for its use with video gaming, it can be programmed to recognize gestures and open doors, adjust lights, or perform other tasks. As the technology to recognize more subtle gestures develops, those without the fine motor skills to physically interact with their home will be able to have more control over their daily lives and thus live more independently.

For people with vision impairment, there are several connected technologies that make navigating the world substantially easier. Microlocation technology relies on networked beacons installed in objects or landmarks that communicate their location to a connected device. The technology uses small, inexpensive Bluetooth-enabled devices often called iBeacons (one company sells bundles of 10 beacons for $99) that broadcast their location to nearby smartphones. Spaces with these beacons, such as college campuses, grocery stores, or malls, can allow visually impaired users to navigate these areas with audio directions given by their phone. Another method of aiding sightless navigation is through products like LeChal and SuperShoes that can wirelessly connect to a user’s smartphone’s navigation app and detect when a step is taken to notify the wearer about directions, such as by vibrating the left shoe when it is time to turn left. This technology is particularly useful for those who can neither see nor hear and thus cannot rely on audio directions to get where they are going.

Drivers with disabilities are often frustrated by the low availability of accessible parking spaces, particularly in urban areas, preventing them from going about their normal lives until they can find a safe and accessible place to park. With cheap networked sensors, cities and private businesses can monitor accessible parking spaces and easily inform drivers with disabilities about their availability before they even leave the house. These drivers can plan their schedule around when they can expect to be able to park at their destination, identify spots they might be unaware of, and even reserve an accessible parking spot in advance to ensure the spot will be available. Such a system is a simple method for making cities more accessible and equitable for their disabled residents. In addition, cities could monitor the demand for these spaces and create extra temporary accessible parking spaces as needed.

The Internet of Things can also make it easier for people with disabilities to communicate with people around them. Sensor-laden gloves are a promising, relatively inexpensive technology (expected to cost around $200) that would allow wearers who speak sign language to communicate with those who do not. The gloves can be programmed to recognize letters and words in sign language and have a paired smartphone “speak” the message. The gloves use an accelerometer, gyroscope, and various other sensors that can identify subtle gestures and allow for corresponding software to broadcast the speech in real time.

While the Internet of Things offers great benefits to all, people with disabilities stand to benefit considerably from connected technologies. The technology used to build smarter cities and smarter homes can help create a more accessible environment for people with disabilities and offer them the opportunity to live more independently. Achieving this goal of a connected and accessible future will take some work. Private sector innovators will have to continue developing apps and connected devices that can be affordably adopted en masse. Additionally, accessibility should be a consideration from the beginning of the design process for new products. Policymakers should play the important role of investing in the development of these technologies and crafting policies that accelerate adoption, such as by integrating the Internet of Things into existing public services and ensuring these products and services are easily accessible to people with disabilities. Importantly, to ensure that progress is made in the best possible fashion, such changes should be done in partnership with the populations they are designed to help. People with disabilities understand the challenges they face better than even the most well intentioned lawmaker or engineer, and their needs should ultimately define these policies.

Image: flickr user na0905.

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