As a society, we must always find ways to grant people equal opportunities for health, happiness, and satisfaction with life. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) helped inspire progress for the disabled in many areas, mandating that public places and buildings be accessible to those with different abilities, but it’s not until recently that we’ve been able to create new opportunities for the disabled with technology, empowering them to work, learn, and find satisfaction in newer, more integrated ways.
Some technologies have given disabled people career paths they might not have otherwise considered. For example, there’s Manakit Thawlom, a tetraplegic with the use of only one arm who can utilize intuitive software like Lumion to continue pursuing a career in 3D architecture. Thanks to the increasing opportunities for remote work, and the increasing simplicity of key software platforms, it’s becoming easier for people missing limbs, or without fine motor control, to engage in careers and responsibilities that previously required far more physical commands.
Computers and the Internet have given us practically unlimited access to information globally, not to mention countless opportunities for communication and engagement. But what about people who don’t have the limbs or motor control necessary to engage with the device the way abled people do? For starters, there are technologies like Eyegaze, which tracks the distance between the center of your pupil and the reflection of a special LED on your cornea, translating tiny shifts in your eye movements to navigational controls. There’s also HeadMouse Nano, which uses a similar concept to track the movements of a reflective dot on a user’s forehead to control a cursor, and a "sip-puff" mechanism in the mouth to make selections.
Sights and Sounds
So what about the 39 million blind people in the world, 90 percent of whom have at least some sensitivity to light detection? Over the years, we’ve done a decent job of starting to optimize our environments for the blind, from sound-based crosswalks to an increased prevalence of Morse code, but Stephen Hicks is trying to take things further with smart glasses, which use a complex algorithm to take in visual information about a user’s surroundings, and enhance them for the visually impaired. For example, it can recognize key areas of light and darkness, and exaggerate those areas, so an otherwise visually impaired person can make out the shape of things like other people, cars, and other objects.
Additionally, high-tech cochlear implants are making it possible for some deaf people to "hear" sounds — although they may not be able to hear in the same ways.
Modern prosthetic limbs have also advanced significantly from the days of their stiff, barely-functioning counterparts. Thanks to a combination of 3D printing, advanced materials, and better research into biomechanics, it’s now possible to get artificial limbs capable of better fits and more flexibility for daily functioning. And researchers aren’t stopping there — soon, we may have access to prosthetic limbs that are capable of being independently controlled by the human brain. Precision prosthetic limbs are already helping disabled people engage in activities previously off-limits to them (such as Olympic sprinting, or typing on a keyboard). It may only be a matter of time before we’re capable of replicating full human limbs with near-perfect accuracy (and minimal time necessary for readjustment).
We still have much to learn about the true nature of learning disabilities, and how to work around them. Because the spectrum of symptoms for learning disabilities is so broad and so subjective, and because we haven’t properly identified the underlying mechanisms responsible for those disabilities, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a comprehensive solution for any one branch of disabilities.
In the meantime, there’s an emerging field of assistive technology (AT), designed to aid children with learning disabilities either by enhancing effective areas of potential learning, filtering out unhelpful distractions, or providing new environments where a child with a learning disability can be comfortable.
These technologies are the end result of the past several decades of research and engineering, but they certainly aren’t the end of the line. Technology tends to advance on an exponential scale, so with greater capabilities and more people interested in improving the lives of the disabled, we may see the development of a much more accessible world in the span of a few years to a few decades.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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