Wearable Tech for People With Disabilities

Alanna Kaivalya, 33, calls herself “the bionic woman.” The PhD student and yoga teacher trainer in New York can answer a phone with her watch, mute a noisy subway ride through an app on her phone and stream music directly into her ears — no cord necessary.

“It’s incredible,” says Kaivalya, who’s been hearing impaired her whole life. In May, she got a pair of Starkey’s Halo hearing aids, which are made to be controlled through an iPhone app. Soon after, she added a Pebble smartwatch to her wearable repertoire when she became a beta tester for a new technology that allows users to control their hearing aids through their watches.

Less than a year ago, Kaivalya would often miss the phone ring and couldn’t talk on it without it being “an excruciating experience.” She avoided adjusting her hearing aids publicly because doing so felt rude or awkward. Now, a ringing phone vibrates on her wrist, she can talk on it anywhere and she can stealthily adjust her hearing aids through her iPhone app or watch.

“For my entire life, I’ve had to kind of pick and choose what situations I could put myself in, because it’s very awkward to go to a crowded bar or restaurant knowing that I’m basically not going to be able to participate in the conversation at all,” Kaivalya says. “Now I can go in with confidence.”

Kaivalya and other people with disabilities make up a group of consumers that’s been frequently overlooked by technology companies , says Jen Quinlan, the vice president of marketing at Rithmio, a startup that builds gesture-based products.

“I think often the investment community views the market to be too small to be truly addressable and viable from a business perspective,” she says. In reality, 40 to 45 million people globally are blind and 360 million have disabling hearing loss, says Quinlan, who presented on wearable tech for people with disabilities with J.P. Gownder, senior analyst at Forrester Research, during this year’s SXSW conference in Austin. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 people report some sort of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Developing wearable technology for people with disabilities is also translatable to the aging population, Quinlan says. For example, a GPS-enabled device that helps someone with visual impairment navigate the streets could also help adult children keep track of their parents with dementia. “There is a large opportunity for the next wave of startups and innovators to launch products that can be financially successful and truly do good,” Quinlan says.

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