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Digital Accessibility in the Physical World: 5 Use Cases

Jan 17, 2019

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a full 25 percent of U.S. adults are living with a disability. Whether they’re visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive, disabilities can create large and small complications and difficulties for the people who have them.

In some instances, technological developments have made the daily lives of people with disabilities easier than ever before. Here are five ways that people with disabilities can use digital technologies in the world around them.

1. Ride-Sharing Apps

People with visual, motor, and cognitive disabilities may not be able to obtain a driver’s license, and may not always have reliable access to someone who can drive them to work or school. These challenges can be a significant impediment in car-dependent cultures such as the U.S.

Uber and Lyft, the two most popular ride-sharing mobile apps in the U.S., have both made commitments to better serving people with disabilities.

  • The Uber and Lyft mobile apps have been developed to be accessible for people with visual disabilities.

  • Uber provides a guide for drivers who serve riders with disabilities, including a reminder that service animals must be accommodated.

  • Uber’s uberWAV service and Lyft’s accessibility dispatch help people who use motorized wheelchairs and scooters find accessible vehicles. The service is available in the New York City area for Uber, and in Phoenix, Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Portland for Lyft.

Unfortunately, ride-sharing apps still have a long way to go before they can be considered fully accessible to all people with disabilities. One study in New York City found a success rate of only 26 percent when requesting a wheelchair-accessible vehicle on Uber and Lyft. Nevertheless, the rise of Uber and Lyft has been a game changer for many people with disabilities who need car transportation to conduct their daily business.

2. AI for Blind People

Developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled computers to “see,” interpreting the contents of images and videos. Mobile apps such as Microsoft’s Seeing AI can provide voice narrations for people with visual disabilities, helping them interact with the world around them.

After users download the Seeing AI app, the phone’s camera captures images of items such as documents, people, and product barcodes. It then analyzes these images and reads the results to the user. The app can voice texts and documents, recognize familiar faces, identify paper currency, describe the surrounding environment, and more.

3. QR Codes

QR codes are a type of square barcode consisting of a black-and-white pattern. They can be read by any mobile device with a camera and a QR code reader app. Each QR code uniquely identifies a piece of information up to 7,089 characters long.

URLs, text, and geographical coordinates are just a few common uses for QR codes, and there are many potential applications for people with disabilities. For example, QR codes can be used to rapidly access a website, listen to audio narration, or download a route to the desired destination. One mobile app called Digit-Eyes can even scan products in your pantry to determine if they are past their expiration date.

4. Internet of Things (IoT)

Mobile apps are just one example of accessibility for the Internet of Things. The IoT is an immense network of all devices and technologies that can communicate via the Internet, from traditional computers to industrial sensors and self-driving cars.

“Smart home” devices such as lights, thermostats, and speakers can help people with visual and motor disabilities manage their domestic environment. Instead of requiring physical contact, these systems can be controlled using voice commands or mobile apps, and even automated using timers.

5. Kiosks and ATMs

Automated kiosks are everywhere these days, from self-checkout lines at the grocery store to check-in machines at the airport — not to mention ATMs. Kiosks have historically presented significant accessibility challenges, but momentum may be shifting the other way as organizations are becoming increasingly-aware of how to make kiosks accessible to people different types of disabilities. 

For example, many ATMs have Braille writing on the keys, and are able to play audio narration when users attach their headphones. In addition, settlements have recently been reached with companies such as PrestoPrime and eatsa to improve kiosk accessibility at dine-in restaurants.

Are your digital capabilities improving real-world accessibility?

The five use cases above are just a few of the innovations that can occur when digital and physical accessibility cross paths. To learn more about how digital accessibility improves the lives of people with disabilities, be sure to subscribe to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility blog for the latest accessibility news and updates.

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