Commentary: How Smart Homes Are Empowering People with Disabilities

Imagine being at home, when all of a sudden you hear your doorbell ring. Unless you were expecting someone, like a mail or food delivery, you might not know who it is if you cannot see. Similarly, unless someone who is blind or visually impaired has a talking thermostat, the majority of these appliances currently in the market are inaccessible. We therefore might require assistance from a sighted friend to change the thermostat, which is not always convenient.

The evolving concept of smart homes is becoming a game changer for people with disabilities, including individuals who are blind or visually impaired. This story from NBC News shows how Apple’s technology, along with smart home accessories, are transforming accessibility for people with disabilities. Todd Stabelfeldt is quadriplegic, and has no movement below his shoulders. Thanks to new technology, he can use an iPhone and Siri to open his garage door, turn the lights on and off, open and close the blinds, adjust the thermostat and monitor his security system independently. You can see Todd interacting with this technology in this video. These are all things that were impossible for him and other people with disabilities to do independently prior to the advent of smart home technology.

Just as smart home technology has allowed people with physical disabilities to be more independent, it can do the same for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. We can now change the temperature on the thermostat by using our smartphone or tablet. It is also possible for us to know who is at the door by asking them before even opening. Moreover, we can control our security system independently, something that was not always easy because of accessibility challenges. Turning our lights on and off and locking our doors is also easier, and all of this will give us more peace of mind knowing we are safe.

As with anything else, there are cons to this technology. One of the biggest concerns is the risk of getting information – including personal details and passwords – stolen. This is a valid concern, but is something that is already being addressed. Facial recognition technology, for example, allows computers to identify users by taking a photo of their face. It is therefore important to make smart home technology, like switches, cameras and mobile apps, secure and accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

There’s no doubt that smart homes are changing the way we control our household appliances. People without disabilities enjoy the convenience of controlling their homes with a smart phone or tablet. For people who can’t see or have other disabilities, it goes beyond convenience. This technology allows us to be more independent in our own homes, something that everyone wants and deserves.

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Built-In Accessibility in Mainstream Products: A Benefit for All!

When I first heard in 2009 that Apple’s latest iPhone would be accessible to the blind and visually ipicmpaired, I was very skeptical. I had seen the iPhone’s touch screen, and could not figure out how on earth I could use it without being able to see. A lot has changed since then, and using touch screen devices has become more common among the blind and visually impaired. Best of all, people no longer have to purchase special software or hardware to be able to access the devices. Companies like Google and Apple are working tirelessly to make sure their products can be used by everyone.

Touch screen devices have become accessible to blind and visually impaired users thanks to screen-reading technology. This software speaks out loud the apps and reads emails and text messages. Apple’s Voiceover and Google’s Talkback are among the most popular screen-reading programs designed for mobile devices.

Before 2009, the majority of blind and visually impaired cell phone users had to purchase screen-reading software in addition to their phone. These programs could cost a minimum of $300, and were only compatible with certain devices. Two of the most common programs were Talks and Mobile Speak. Prior to these programs, blind and visually impaired people were not able to read or send text messages independently. Not everyone could afford both the phone and software, and many of us settled with having a phone that had buttons that were easy to tell apart. At least that way we could answer the phone and make calls.

I finally got my iPhone in 2012 after hearing from my blind friends how accessible it was. To say that I was thrilled with the phone’s accessibility is an understatement. For the first time I could browse the internet, send and receive text messages and even know who was calling me thanks to the built-in accessibility! Best of all, I loved the fact that the phone was completely accessible right out of the box. By simply turning Voiceover on I could begin using it – I no longer had to buy additional programs just to be able to use my phone.

More products have become accessible out of the box ever since 2009. In addition to the screen-reading capabilities, people with low vision can make text larger and even change the screen colors for better visibility.

Individuals with physical disabilities are also benefiting from built-in accessibility. Thanks to programs like Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now, they can do things like dictate text messages and even open specific apps without having to physically touch their phone or tablet. While Siri and Google Now were not originally designed for people with disabilities, they have been tremendously helpful to this community. Additional built-in accessibility features also help people who are deaf and those with learning or cognitive disabilities use their mobile devices independently.

Designing devices to be accessible out of the box is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. Just like anyone else, people with disabilities will by products that are usable and that meet their specific needs. I applaud companies like Apple and Google for their continuous efforts to make their products accessible for everyone, and I hope more manufacturers will follow their lead.

This accessibility has opened more opportunities for people with disabilities in many ways. In future blogs I will discuss how these features combined with other apps have allowed disabled individuals to use mobile devices for many purposes. What off the shelf products have you found accessible as a blind or visually impaired person? Do you have additional suggestions for readers? As always, thanks for your comments and feedback!