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Accessible Designs Could Help Us All — But Only If Firms Bite

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Accessible Designs Could Help Us All — But Only If Firms Bite


Accessible Designs Could Help Us All — But Only If Firms Bite

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A couple of stories now about technology and the potential to help people with disabilities. Computer technology offers all of us abilities that we could only once dream about: instant access to reams of information, the ability to perfectly navigate the streets of an unfamiliar city. And for the disabled, especially, digital technology holds incredible potential to make the world more accessible, if products are designed with that in mind.

As NPR's Steve Henn reports, many companies have yet to recognize the commercial opportunity in making products for the disabled.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Here are the basics about Alex.

ALEX BLASZCZUK: My name is Alex Blaszczuk. I am 26. So I live in Manhattan. I have a 20-pound cat. I go to law school at Columbia. I'm 26. I'm just starting my third year. And I had a spinal cord injury a year and a half ago.

HENN: She sometimes jokes that she wishes she'd broken her neck bungee jumping. At least then should have a better story.

BLASZCZUK: I think it was in the rehab floor that I was on. I was the only woman because everyone is usually injured by doing some kind of fun extreme sport or diving.

HENN: Instead she was rear ended by a car. Spinal cord injuries are quirky. And in many ways, Alex says she's lucky. She isn't on a ventilator. She can move her shoulders. Still the accident left her unable to do some of things she used to take for granted, like taking pictures, turning the pages of her law school textbooks, writing with a pen, walking.

BLASZCZUK: I'm not that techie but I have a lot of friends who are. And especially since my injury, I feel like I get 15 emails a day being like: Have you heard about this crazy, new thing that might help you?

HENN: And some technology has been liberating, like when she got her first iPhone

BLASZCZUK: And, you know, it opened the world for me because the touch screen technology is the only way I read books, the only way I read anything.

HENN: Apple has made a huge effort to make all of its products - from the smallest iPod nano to the Mac - accessible. And for Alex that's made an enormous difference. When Google started selling its high tech Google Glass to a select few explorers, Alex's friends came over and insisted that she try to get a pair. She did and it's been good.

BLASZCZUK: Right after I got it, I went to London and I went for a wedding. And I actually caught the bouquet at the wedding. And I had Google Glass on when I was - well, the bouquet landed in my lap.

HENN: Using Google Glass, she filmed the entire thing. She uses Google's Internet-connected glasses to talk on the phone with her grandmother and search the net using voice controls.

BLASZCZUK: Voice-activated technology has a long way to go, including Glass.

HENN: Still...

BLASZCZUK: If I could say, like, OK, lamps turn on.

HENN: It would be awesome. But when Alex fantasizes about the kind of technology she really wants, item number one is a robotic limbs.

BLASZCZUK: There is a lot of cool stuff that is already happening in robotics, I think, that allows people who don't have use of their limbs to use robotic limbs.

HENN: While it's possible that an affordable system might soon allow Alex to talk to her lamps or her stove or other appliances in her house, robotic limbs seem like a distant dream. They're just too few people who both need them and could afford them to make a product like that commercially viable.

CORBB O'CONNOR: People with disabilities are going to continue to be a very small percentage of the marketplace.

HENN: Corbb O'Connor is a consultant who works with companies to improve accessibility for the blind and other users with disabilities.

O'CONNOR: Companies don't see people with disabilities as a big piece of their market share.

HENN: While that's true, Corbb O'Connor says ignoring accessibility issues completely is a multi-billion dollar mistake.

O'CONNOR: The National Federation of the Blind and I keep pushing these companies to say, look, Apple clearly is still a profitable company. They're not losing money on all these blind people buying their iPhones. And as they've seen actually, the accessibility features of an iPhone aren't limited to blind people, right? You have quadriplegics who can use them. You have people who are autistic finding ways to use them. You have people how have hearing impairments that are using iPhones, all with just a little bit of extra software that's is already built into every single Apple product.

HENN: And Corbb says that's just beginning. Making technology accessible often makes it better. Siri's voice seemed novel to millions of us just a few years ago.

O'CONNOR: Well the voice was Karen. Blind people have been listening to Karen's voice for at least 25 years as robotic speech.

HENN: Corbb says more often than not the technologies that really blow us away - that have the potential to change the way we live - are accessible by design. Just think about a self-driving car and what it promises to do for Corbb, who's blind, or Alex in her chair. These innovations will be awesome for them. But Corbb says it will also be pretty awesome for the rest of us, too.

Steve Henn, NRP News, Silicon Valley.


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