The most recent report from the Texas Workforce Investment Council says that at any given time, roughly 12 percent of Texans are living with a disability. The number of people with disabilities second only to California.
Omar Gallaga, with 512 tech by the Austin American-Statesman says that new technologies are improving accessibility for people with a variety of disabilities, and that while some useful tools have been around for awhile, many people who could benefit don’t know about they’re available.
Bookshare, a service that provides books and other reading materials in formats that are accessible to people with reading and visual disabilities, has operated for a number of years, but many potential users don’t know about it, or that it is free for students in Texas. Benetech, the California-based non-profit behind Bookshare, turns printed books into ebooks that can be downloaded to a computer, tablet or phone. Using text-to-speech software on the device, or an app that can enlarge and/or highlights text on the screen, a Bookshare user with blindness or a reading disability like dyslexia can not only hear the book, but also navigate within it, and make notes.
The Texas Education Agency contracts with Benetech to provide free Bookshare access to any Texas student with a reading disability, and funds Bookshare trainers in Texas schools, who show teachers how it works.
Gallaga says several new devices are improving accessibility for people with a variety of disabilities:
– The wearables craze has come to assistive technology. Though smart timepieces like the Apple Watch are accessible to people with disabilities, several companies are producing Braille smart watches. Among the most high-profile and stylish is the Dot Watch, a timepiece with Braille cells on its face, instead of numbers or hands.
– Tobii Dynavox uses a technology called eye gaze, also known as eye tracking, to allow a person with a mobility disability to control a computer with his or her eyes, instead of a mouse or keyboard. In addition to standard productivity tasks, some eye gaze users create art.
– Robotic Mobilization allows some wheelchair users to ‘stand’ with the aid of a device that Gallaga says is a cross between a wheelchair and a Seque.
Gallaga says the cost of assistive technology is often high, but that the ability of manufacturers to integrate accessible devices and software with today’s mobile gadgets has brought costs down significantly.
“It gets cheaper as this stuff emerges and as it uses existing technologies like iPads or iPhones,” Gallaga says. “Then you see the costs driven down when they’re accessible to anyone. A $10,000 device now may be on a $500 tablet.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin & Emma Whalen.