Redefining Accessibility and Assistive Technology: A Retrospective

What does accessibility mean to you as it relates to technology? As I reflect on this question, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the technological advancements, as well as the companies behind them, are not only redefining accessibility but bringing it into the mainstream. I’d like to take you on a journey through my extensive experience with adaptive technology and accessibility features to express my reasoning behind this bold statement better.

As we approach the 7th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 17th and as I prepare to speak at an Assistive Technology Professionals Learning Community meeting on May 18th, I want to take time to document for you my journey with assistive tech and how recent innovations have made it possible for me to replace adaptive equipment with consumer products, as well as how these consumer electronics have surpassed my previous equipment in terms of creating an accessible environment for living and working.

My Journey Towards an Accessible Life.

To understand my journey, we must start at the beginning. Due to complications at birth, I was born with a disability called Cerebral Palsy (CP). CP affects my muscle movement, which made activities of daily living extremely difficult. As I entered elementary school, my parents and therapists recognized that my greatest chance of success was for them to help me become proficient with a computer. Some of my earliest memories were getting my first Macintosh at my school desk, and then a few months later, my dad bringing home a Power Macintosh 7200. In addition to the second school desk needed to hold such a massive desktop computer, I required specialized equipment and software to operate it. My interface of choice was a joystick with a button guard and an onscreen keyboard with Co:Writer, a predictive text software. After a year of using the onscreen keyboard, I graduated to the Intellikeys keyboard with a keyguard. The Intellikeys was a large surface that had keyboard overlays with several layouts. My preference was the standard qwerty layout.

Although this became my setup until my high graduation, I was always a willing ginny pig for my therapists when it came to new technology. I tried devices ranging from Apple Newton to early versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking to feeding machines and Dynavox, a communication device. I settled on the Dynavox for a while but found that it was faster for me to say what I wanted to say, as most people find my speech intelligible. During college, I ditched all the adaptive equipment for a standard mouse and keyboard, paired with text prediction, when I could find a free trial. Did that make the thousands of dollars my family, state, and the school spent on adaptive technology a waste? Absolutely not! With every new desktop, laptop, pre iPad era tablet, and assistive device that I tried, it not only built my competency with a tool that aided in helping me become a productive member of society, but it also improved my motor skills so that I could progress to a more normalized setup.

Redefining Accessibility and Adopting Consumer Electronics

Until a year ago, I had a very narrow view of what accessibility was and a love-hate relationship with the product developers. My idea of accessible technology was hardware and software created specifically to help individuals with disabilities but often made unavailable to them due to ridiculously high prices. This ideology began to fade away when I saw Apple host a week devoted to accessibility at their headquarters in Cupertino last May. During this week, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, remarked in interviews with Youtube Creators with disabilities that accessibility is essentially democratizing technology, so it’s easily used by everyone. Cook went on to talk about how he views Apple Watch and Homekit with home automation as accessibility features. This idea not only piqued my interest but set me on a course of redefining what accessibility means to me.

Shortly after I encountered that short series of interviews on Youtube, I began to move into a home office, which allowed me to design my ideal set up. As I began researching and planning my new workstation, my priorities were performance and ease of access. Due to the revelation in the video, I started to look at what consumer products would positively impact my workflow and activities of daily living. Let’s begin the heart of my current set up, the 2017 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Although the internet trolls love to dismiss the Touch Bar as half-baked or entirely unnecessary, I knew it would be a game-changer for me! The Touch Bar had finally made text prediction a native feature and put it right at my fingertips, as they had done on my iPhone. I no longer need to search for a free trial or pay another $300 for text prediction software that covers a portion of my desktop. This feature also allowed me to use some of my state services to pay for a new work computer.

In addition to my laptop and desk setup, I also have three devices that I keep close to me at all times. The first two, I will talk about in conjunction, as they run the same system software. I use an iPhone Plus model as well as a 12.9 inch iPad Pro. In 2015 when Apple announced the iPhone 6 Plus, I was thrilled as up to that point; my options for phones were a flip phone or a Galaxy Note. Due to my lack of fine motor skills, I can’t effectively use a touchscreen that is less than 5.5 inches. I often use my iPhone and iPad to communicate when I am on the go. The iPad Pro has been great for responding to emails, taking notes during meetings, reading Kindle and iBooks, and displaying my speech outline when speaking to companies. The other device is a wearable device. Although I had a lot of skepticism when the Apple Watch was first released, I adopted the Series 2 because of a Groupon special a year ago. My interest was sparked by meeting other people with cerebral palsy who were able to use the watch. I am now on the Series 3 watch, and I love it. If I don’t have it on, I almost feel naked. The ability to look at my wrist and accept or deny calls, screen text messages, and decide if I need to pull my phone out of my pocket has been an enormous help. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to take the phone out of my pocket.

Next, let’s explore my implementation of smart home devices and home entertainment, as these systems have impacted multiple aspects of my life. Currently, the core products in my smart home set up are Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot, Logitech’s Harmony Hub, Phillips Hue, and an August Lock. Although Alexa can only understand my speech about 20 percent of the time, the routines available in the app are worth the investment. I’ve also used a text-to-speech app on my iPhone 8 Plus to communicate with Alexa, which would be very useful for people who are non-verbal. By using routines in the Alexa app, I am able to schedule my Phillips Hue lights to turn off and on automatically at certain times of the day or when I leave the house. The implementation of Phillips Hue has allowed me to use all kinds of lamps and switches that were not accessible to me before. Because of my limited hand function, I could not turn or grasp most switches on standard lamps.

My Logitech Harmony Hub has also integrated with lighting throughout my house, particularly in my bedroom. With the recent addition of the smart light and plug button on the Harmony remote, I can control all my lights in my room with a touch of a button. Prior to the ability to do this, I often would knock over my bedside lamp when I would turn it on or off, due to my often jerky movement. In addition to controlling lights, the Harmony Hub has also allowed me to manage all of my entertainment devices on a remote with decent size buttons.

While we are talking about home entertainment, one product that I consider to be a big player in my ability to be independent is Plex. Plex is a media server software that allows you to store and stream your media from a dedicated server on your network. Plex has allowed me to have all of my movies and TV shows that I have collected over the years on Blu-ray and DVD, at a touch of a button via a streaming device, in my case, an Apple TV. Before Plex, I destroyed many discs just by attempting to insert them into a player. Moreover, if I didn’t break the disc, it would be a workout to insert them, to say the least. With my Plex setup, I am able to have my family or my assistant insert the disc for me one time so that I can transfer the file to my media server.

The last device in my home setup, as well as the newest,  is the August lock. I have never been able to put a key in a door. In fact, during college, the university had to change all of the doorknobs to my on-campus housing to allow my house to be unlocked. It definitely wasn’t the safest solution; however, it was the only solution available six years ago. The ability to unlock my door with my phone has been not only convenient for myself and my family but also safer as we can now lock the door when I am out by myself.

In conclusion, my experience with assistive technology has been vast and has served me well over the years. Although my prior thought process about technology was accurate ten years ago, I am thrilled with my new view of consumer electronics being accessibility products as well. I applaud companies such as Apple and Google, who are being intentionally mindful of people with different needs and abilities. I have always been a tech geek, but I can honestly say that I am excited to see what these companies will release in the next several years to improve the quality of life for myself and other individuals with disabilities.

What’s in My Desk Setup?

Not Pictured

What’s your experience with accessibility and consumer electronics? Let me know in the comments or Click Here to send me a message.

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