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Accessibility and the Internet of Things

Dec 15, 2018

We live in an exciting age: technological development is advancing at a breakneck pace, and seems to be getting faster every year. Yet as new technologies enter the mainstream, it’s important to consider how they can be made accessible for use by people with disabilities.

By promising to change the way we live, work, and travel, the Internet of Things is projected to have a dramatic impact in the very near future.

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a relatively new term for the vast network of technologies and devices that can communicate and exchange information via the Internet.

As defined, the IoT includes familiar computing devices such as laptops and smartphones — however, the term can be used for any technology that uses an Internet connection in order to send and receive data, especially objects that have been enhanced with Internet connectivity. Smart cars, wearable heart-rate monitors, sensors for manufacturing equipment, and automated thermostats are just a few examples of new IoT technologies.

How many devices are connected to the Internet of Things?

While the IoT is already here, it’s projected to grow rapidly in the near future. There are more connected devices than people on the planet, and recent growth pales in comparison to projections. Most estimates forecast about 30 billion devices will make up the IoT by 2020, and Intel's projections are much higher: 200 billion devices that use wireless technology by 2020.

Internet of Things and people with disabilities

IoT devices have the potential to greatly enhance the quality of life for some people with disabilities.

For example, Microsoft has launched an app called “Seeing AI” that helps people with visual disabilities interact with the world around them. Using their camera, Seeing AI users can hear their phone describe the objects that it sees around them, read written documents, scan product barcodes, recognize faces, and more.

Read: Free Accessibility Tools and Assistive Technology You Can Use Today

Smart home devices, too, may make it easier for people with physical disabilities to control and navigate domestic environments. IoT lights, thermostats, speakers, and appliances can all be controlled from your smartphone or via voice commands. Virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo can help you set reminders, look up information, or communicate with friends and family.

Perhaps the most revolutionary IoT development — for everyone, including people with disabilities — is the impending arrival of self-driving cars. When they become available for consumer use, self-driving cars may help people historically limited in their ability to drive a car achieve more independence and self-sufficiency in traveling.

The importance of IoT accessibility

Although some IoT technologies are specifically designed for the needs of people with disabilities, others don’t go far enough to accommodate them. Just as websites and mobile apps should be accessible to everyone, so too should IoT devices have an accessible user interface.

To begin with, IoT devices should be designed with a wide variety of disabilities in mind: visual, hearing, motor, cognitive, and others. For example, a device that displays output visually (such as with text or images) should also have an alternative output method, such as text-to-speech or vibrations.

As the population ages, accessibility might be especially important for IoT devices associated with health and aging. Features such as larger screens, text, and buttons, and alternate input methods such as voice, are needed to ensure IoT accessibility for the elderly and people with reduced motor control.

Currently, most IoT devices operate on their own “wavelength”: for example, to control five different devices, you may need to install five different mobile apps on your smartphone. Interconnectivity and interoperability are crucial in order to make the IoT more accessible and inclusive.

The Web of Things is a proposed framework that extends the Internet of Things to include additional layers for accessing, finding, sharing, and composing information. By making different IoT devices more interoperable, the Web of Things could make it easier for assistive technologies such as screen readers to work with IoT systems.

Your digital accessibility partner for tomorrow's advancements

Like web accessibility in the present, Internet of Things accessibility will continue to grow as a hot topic in the future, as organizations discover how IoT devices can assist — or without thoughtful design, exclude — people with disabilities. To learn more about all the ways we can help, contact us for a free 30-minute consultation. Or, get started with a free and confidential website accessibility scan.

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