Some products used by blind and deaf or hard-of-hearing (HOH) customers are specifically designed for such use, a class of deaf-blind resources commonly called “assistive technology.” Others, generally called “accessible technologies,” provide value for all customers, including those with visual and hearing impairments. In either case, businesses that build or use products useful to the deaf and blind are engaging a smart business practice, one that increases inclusivity and builds inroads to a larger market than they could have reached otherwise. Read on for examples of accessible technologies that offer a compelling mix of mass-market appeal and utility for deaf or blind customers.
1. Transformative Power in Your Pocket
Text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies are better and more accurate than ever. This continued improvement has particularly benefited deaf/HOH and blind customers, who can access these powerful tools on their smartphones without having to haul specialized tools to work, the classroom, and other places they frequent.
Deaf/HOH customers can harness speech-to-text in a few surprising ways. Imagine the difficulty a person who relies on lip-reading might have following a group conversation, for instance. Numerous apps use speech-to-text APIs to provide automated transcription, displaying each participant’s name in a different color to ensure the user doesn’t lose information or context. Adaptations like these go hand-in-hand with visual voicemail and other tools that turn audible data into a text-based format.
On the other hand, blind customers may naturally find more value in text-to-speech solutions. For these customers, screen-reading tools make everything from text-based communication (SMS, email) to basic navigation easier. With text-to-speech in place, the phone can read options aloud, and the user can access them with vocal command. Optical character recognition (OCR) takes this idea even further, reading the text on any printed material, from a street sign to a handwritten note, and converting it to audio format, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.
2. Mass-Market Blockbusters Become Deaf-Blind Resources
Home assistants have become technological mainstays, and their speech-recognition and -playback capabilities make them a helpful tool for the blind community. This technology removes steps from everyday processes. Previous resources also helped the visually impaired perform unit conversions in the kitchen or navigate complex media libraries, but newer models require only a quick vocal command.
Home assistants are becoming more helpful for the deaf/HOH as well. Screens on higher-end models from Amazon and Google, for instance, can now display the devices’ spoken replies on a visual medium. Additionally, third-party workarounds allow users to hold full-text conversations with their home-assistant devices. Though not an official solution, this workaround can help devices better understand hearing-impaired people’s vocal commands.
3. Bringing Comms Everywhere
Cloud-communications tools such as voice over IP (VoIP) and video conferencing came onto the scene and immediately began creating new markets with their unique offerings. Their benefits as deaf-blind resources can be grouped into two high-level categories: access and adaptability.
First, consider how a call can originate. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and PCs can call over cellular and traditional data networks, and other comms can be held over internal business networks and the like. This variety of options helps deaf/HOH users — who may have relied on dedicated text telephone (TTY) hardware in the past — take their critical communications anywhere they go for important business and personal use.
VoIP and video conferencing offer similar flexibility on the software side through their ability to integrate with other solutions. As deaf-blind resources, they can effectively be fitted to whatever function a hearing- or visually-impaired user may need, paving the way for companies to create accessible tools without building a communications platform to go with it. In this sense, cloud-communications tools aren’t impressive because of one function; they’re impressive because almost anything — including an array of deaf- and blind-focused improvements — can be built on top of the communications they provide.
4. Wearables: Good Now, Great Later
Whereas the other items on this list provide value now, wearables such as smartwatches are a few years away from realizing their full potential. When they do, expect their diverse combination of hard and soft tools to provide a groundbreaking consumer-market experience for deaf and blind users.
A lot of the utility of wearables will stem from their ability to simplify navigational tasks other users may take for granted. For example, blind users will soon be able to use a “smart necklace” that reads the room in front of it and reports its findings in speech format, according to Google’s blog, The Keyword. This function complements the functionality of smartwatch-based tools blind consumers already rely on, such as spoken-word, turn-by-turn directions. Solutions for deaf users will follow a similar trend. A watch that automatically registers various noises and vibrates with a text-based alert could signal ringing doorbells, chirping oven timers, and crying children, for example.
These examples only scratch the surface of what wearables will soon be able to do. As internal hardware grows more powerful and user-facing capabilities become more sophisticated, deaf and blind users will undoubtedly become a core user segment for device manufacturers and software makers alike — reflecting the tech world’s evolving commitment to disabled customers and the impressive list of tasks their creations can perform.