Why Assistive Tech Needs to Improve Now
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The quality of hearing aids and other assistive devices has been slow to improve over the past 20 years. The perfect example came in the form of a small (but moderately expensive) device that was created in the early 1990s. Designed for people with hearing loss, the device vibrated in response to loud sounds in that person's immediate vicinity (i.e. police sirens, smoke alarms, friends shouting hello across a street, etc.).
(Image source:Furenexo, PBC)
Current technology’s two decades behind
By today’s standards, the technology behind that device would have been considered commonplace. But the same components were much pricier then, and the unit as a whole was moderately difficult to build and maintain, requiring much more hands-on assembly work.
As a result, the "mom-and-pop" shop that made those wearables inevitably folded under the weight of the underlying maintenance and production costs. The people who had purchased those devices were able to benefit greatly from them for a short time after. However, by the early 2000s, most units had aged out of use and couldn’t be replaced by a casual user. Other assistive devices have come and gone under similar circumstances - often as a result of the same economic forces.
There has been some advancements in assistive technology for the hearing impaired since then (telecoils, noise reduction, directional mics, and even app connectivity are a few notable examples), but they have been incremental by comparison. The capabilities of consumer focused technology including laptops, wearables, self-driving cars (and, of course, cell phones), on the other hand, have increased dramatically. Object, facial and voice recognition, machine learning, natural language processing and translation are just some of the many innovations in recent years that are changing how we interact with our environment (ask anyone that's addicted to Pokémon Go).
The convergence of these advancements combined with the commoditization of the components needed to build/sustain them has created a real opportunity to affordably take on the challenges of hearing loss and other disabilities in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Connecting an object-recognition camera, for example, to a system that can communicate what is “seen” to people who have no use of their eyes is no longer in the realm of science fiction.
Hearing aids can potentially be developed to “learn” and amplify the specific voices of people it has heard before or even the sounds of a pet who wants to go outside. They could also potentially translate an unknown language for a user. It’s definitely not insane to think that a sense of sound can be provided to people who have no hearing at all… think: voice recognition connected to a “Google Glass”-like display (though one that doesn’t stand out like alien battle headgear). The possibilities are endless, limited only by our imagination.
So why haven't there been more/greater advances in assistive devices to date? The fact of the matter is that despite years of technological advancements in consumer tech and the availability of the components to build/maintain them, the price of assistive devices simply never came down. With little true competition among device makers and medical insurance/government grants subsidizing these inflated price tags, assistive tech innovation has remained stagnant with little to no motivation to change the status quo. It's evident when you consider some of the ridiculously overpriced “magnification readers” for people with low vision, or hearing aids that still cost as much as a reasonably priced used car (and some new ones).
In fact, The World Bank estimates about one-seventh of the world’s population experiences a disability. In the U.S. alone, the number of people who have deafness and/or are hard of hearing is in the tens of millions - not small numbers.
Untapped markets beg urgent attention
Major corporations like Apple and Google have come to the realization that there is both a moral financial imperative in unlocking these “markets”. But more companies need to realize that the time to improve assistive technology is now. Designing for disability should no longer be an afterthought, as it can and will enhance mainstream product development and help to unlock revenue streams that had been previously overlooked.
We have come to a crossroads where we need to decide: should we continue to focus on conveniences and novelties like the latest 'Uber for Dry Cleaning', or take the steps needed to promote the advancement of technologies that can address the everyday challenges of people with disabilities around the world?
There are millions of potential technologies that can be built and shared across communities to help change the conversation and the perception of what it means to be disabled.