Wearable Tech for People With Disabilities

Tracking steps is nice, but helping people with disabilities navigate their worlds with ease and confidence is nicer.

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.

Fortunately, plenty of individuals and organizations are already doing that. Google Glass, for example, has helped people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities take pictures, browse the web​​ and perform other tasks hands-free. Haptic and GPS technologies are finding their way into shoe soles and vests​,​ helping people with visual impairments be more independent.

Here’s a look at some of the others:

Activity Tracking

M. Dolores Cimini​, a psychologist at the University of Albany, has lost 10 pounds since she got a Fitbit two years ago. She uses the fitness tracker to count her steps, monitor her sleep and compete with her friends online. “The device motivates me because it gives me immediate feedback on what I’m doing,” says Cimini, who’s had a visual impairment since her teens. Although she can’t read the Fitbit’s screen, she can use the device to its full potential since it’s compatible with the voice technology on her phone and computer.

“In the past decade, there has been progress in leaps and bounds in terms of offering access to persons with disabilities to a variety of different apps,” Cimini says. Still, there’s more to be done. “What I would hope to see in the next 10 years is for anyone who is developing an app, wearable tech and websites and computer programs to consider disability access as they design these devices and items,” she says.

Rithmio is one place where employees including Quinlan are thinking just like that. The company is building technology that can be trained to track any type of motion on any body.

“We can leverage Rithmio’s gesture recognition technology to interpret the movement of someone having a wearable on their arm and wheeling a wheelchair – and that’s activity tracking,” Quinlan says. “Not everybody can do steps, and not everybody can go up stairs.” She’d like to see fitness trackers that can help this population monitor their fitness, too, perhaps by giving them feedback on their circulation or allowing assisted living communities to swap their clipboards for real-time data of where and how often their residents are moving.

“Once this becomes a little bit more programmatic, which is what we’re working on, you will see motion sensors on everything from walkers to wheelchairs and customized based upon everyone’s bodies, not just the perfect body athlete, which it seems like a lot of the products today are catering toward,” Quinlan says.

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