Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movie Theaters Face Caption Lawsuit

A group of Washington state residents have filed a lawsuit to force movie theaters to make closed-captioned movies available more frequently to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Washington State Communication Access Project, who filed the suit, says more accessible entertainment should be available under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Movie theater oweners disagree, saying that they only need to provide access to the theater, and not to the films. This is a diplomatic way of saying they don't want to spend the money. I know because I wrote about this issue in 2001 for BusinessWeek; not much has changed eight years later. Movie theaters, backed by the Motion Picture Association of America, are reluctant to spend money to burn open captions onto films, which they say they could "drive away" hearing viewers. The current solution, rear-window captioning, requires a piece of Plexiglass that sticks into the soda cup and projects open captions onto the device from a special projector in the back of the theater. It is one of the silliest technologies I've ever used. Read about my experience at Jurassic Park 3 here: Read Any Good Movies Lately? As recently as six months ago, I tried to attend a rare, captioned movie at an AMC theater in New York City and waited patiently on line at the customer service center for the free Plexiglass piece. Nobody could find it. It took 15 minutes until someone figured out where the device was stored. I had to turn in my driver's license as collateral. Needless to say I was late to my seat and had to sit in the front row, where the captions didn't work at such an awkward angle. So I got a refund and left. Ironically, when I spoke to General Cinema spokesperson Brian Callahan back in 2001 he said this: "No one is in a position to spend $10,000 on a technology [rear-window captioning] that might be obsolete in a few years." Well, it has been eight years, Mr. Callahan, and we're still using them. It's time for an upgrade.

World's First 'Travelocity' For Disabled Travelers

Craig Grimes today launched the world's first instant online booking engine for disabled travelers: Grimes, who is a seasoned traveler and a paraplegic, has spent the last few years living in Nicaragua navigating the country's inaccessible roads and stores via a wheelchair. It hasn't been easy for Grimes, who broke his back 12 years ago. But, if anyone can do it -- Grimes can. The British-born advocate already operates the travel-guide websites and, two ventures that he began after realizing the dire lack of information about accessible adventurous vacations.

The need is definitely there. It's a $13.6 billion annual market in the US alone, according to a study by the Chicago-based advocacy group Open Doors Organization. A separate study by the group revealed that 21 million US adults with disabilities traveled for business or pleasure in 2003-04.

Grimes hopes that will serve as a "Travelocity for disabled travelers," according to an article in The Christian Science Monitor. The booking engine will allow travelers with disabilities to search handicap-accessible hotels by city, price, and levels of accessibility, then book their rooms directly online. Users can also book airport transfers in specially equipped vehicles, mobility equipment, guided tours, and museum passes, among other services. The site will list in-depth information and hotel descriptions for people with disabilities, and will eventually allow visitors to view virtual maps of hotel bathrooms to make sure the dimensions and specifications meet their needs.

At first, will start by offering booking options for eight cities around the world: Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Oslo, Paris, Prague, San Francisco, and Melbourne. Once the page starts generating revenue, Grimes hopes add at least one new city to each month.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kindle 2 Fails Accessibility Test

Amazon introduced on Monday a new version of Kindle, its electronic book reader. The Kindle 2 has several new features, including a text-to-speech function that allows readers to listen to books with a computerized voice. Though CEO Jeff Bezos didn't say so, Amazon partnered with a key assistive technology company, Nuance Communications, the maker of RealSpeak software. RealSpeak is the same technology that enables text-to-speech on Nokia cell phones and Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen readers to make them accessible for the blind and visually impaired. Nuance also makes Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech-recognition program that's popular among workers with mobility impairments who can't type on PCs. But Amazon didn't take advantage of Nuance's full accessibility features, such as its menu of custom voices. Kindle 2 users can only choose between a male or female voice, which makes the speech function adequate for reading a recipe or a short article, but not a longer novel. However, Amazon calls the text-to-speech function "experimental" -- so perhaps they'll upgrade to more sophisticated voices in future versions. As with Kindle 1, Amazon noticeably failed to consider accessibility in the new device's design and function. For example, a person with a learning or reading disability would benefit much more if the text could be highlighted and spoken at the same time. Amazon cited "improved ergonomics" for holding the Kindle 2, but didn't address how the device might help readers with physical impairments who cannot hold traditional books. For those with limited vision, the Kindle 2 offers six fonts, but only up to 18 points, which isn't sufficient for a person with more than an eye-strain issue. Likewise, images -- but not text -- can be zoomed to full screen size. There's also the issue of how the books are formatted. Bezos says his vision is to have "every book ever printed, in every language" available on the Kindle. But he neglected to say in which formats. There is no Braille support, no large-print support and no speech capability for operating the Kindle if you can't see the buttons. Overall, Amazon missed a huge opportunity to market this new device to people with disabilities. Perhaps Amazon doesn't think the disabled can afford the $359 price tag, but people with disabilities are apt to spend twice as much on technology that will improve their lives. Unfortunately the Kindle 2 isn't one of them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Google Latitude: A Killer App for the Disabled

The latest innovation from Google is Google Latitude, which pinpoints the location of your friends and family on a map. This application excites me to no end because of its possibilities for aiding the disabled, like the deaf and hard of hearing. I think back to the early ‘00s, before I had my cochlear implant and relied on a hearing-aid. I was unable to hear on the telephone and SMS (text messaging) was available only if you and your friends used the same service provider. A typical Friday night: "We’re at McFadden’s!" my friends would scream into the phone. "The corner of 49th and Second avenues!" In the midst of noisy Manhattan, I can’t decipher what they’re saying and I don’t know where to direct the cab driver. I give up and go home. Beyond drinking adventures, the deaf and hearing-impaired can, conceivably, use Google Latitude if they lose their group at an amusement park or concert where it can be hard to hear on the phone. Yes, SMS is ubiquitous these days, but what if your friends don’t know the address, or can’t pinpoint their location? Plus, GPS and WiFi is real-time, more integrated, more detailed and free to use. For the blind, Google Latitude also has immeasureable application. When I was at SATH last month, Carlos Garcia of Human Network Labs showed me a prototype of a "situational awareness" device that would help blind parents keep tabs on their children. The device uses data-tracking technology, not GPS, and will require the parent and child to wear a communications device about the size of an iPod to speak the remote locations of a child, his or her distance from the parent, and explain how to reach the the child at this location. Using Google Latitude with speech capability instead, a person who is blind can achieve the same results if both they and their children are carrying mobile devices -- and what kid isn’t these days? Google Latitude will work on most color Blackberries, most Windows Mobile 5.0 devices, most Symbian S60 devices, and phones powered by Google’s Android mobile software, such as the T-Mobile G1. It will soon be calibrated to work on the iPhone and iPod Touch, too. (The iPod Touch has built-in speech with VoiceOver.) This is a seriously killer app with life-enhancing benefits for the blind and deaf.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Duckworth to Join VA

President Obama has chosen Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and a veteran of the Iraq war, to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the role, she will be responsible for the VA’s public affairs operations and programs for homeless veterans. I had wrongly predicted that Obama would pick Duckworth as VA Secretary, but he chose Gen. Eric Shinseki, who has more experience in Washington and was removed from the then-impending Illinois senate scandal. Before former governor Rod Blagojevich was charged with trying to sell the Illinois senate seat, Duckworth had been mentioned as a possible choice to replace Obama. Her chance never materialized, though it's likely she wasn't influential enough for Blagojevich's ambitions. Duckworth, who lost both her legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in 2004, ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2006.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A New Dawn for Assistive Technology

Before I start blogging about the gadgets and devices that I discovered at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, I wanted to write about something I have been chewing on for the last 24 hours, which has ultimately altered the way I am going to approach my upcoming book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology (due out in late 2009). While there were lots of cool, new technologies exhibited at ATIA, I also had the chance to attend a half-dozen seminars that, when tied all together, painted a fantastic yet mostly under-reported picture of the future of assistive technology and the driving forces that will allow people with disabilities -- whether they are born with one, have been injured during a war, or are experiencing the effects of aging -- to live longer and more fruitful lives. Here are five trends that today are shaping the assistive technology environment:

1. Globalization of access. A young boy in an African village uses an old cell phone, which provides the majority of Internet use among poorer people in Africa, to download books to teach himself to read and learn English. He also uses a global commodity trading site to benchmark daily prices of chickens and goats to sell and trade in his village. Whether this boy has a disability matters not, because he is still able to educate and employ himself using the power of the Internet that began in wealthy nations and is trickling down to the third world. Globalizing information to make it available and accessible to everyone, with or without a disability, regardless of whether they have a computer, is a philosophy that has recently been coined among a group of researchers as "Raising the Floor." This team is working to develop a free, open-source model among researchers and developers by which users anywhere in the world can log in to their profile, which has been customized for their Internet accessibility needs. The concept is similar to Google Language, but for accessibility and disability. With enough resources and dedication, its impact across the world will be astounding.

2. Universal design is the next green. Universal Design is a framework, in particular, for technology that is created to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. For instance, a computer or mobile phone that has built-in access features for anyone with a sight, hearing or mobility disability, which can easily be turned on or off (similar to Microsoft OS Accessibility Options, which have improved substantially in Windows 7.) The Institute for Human Centered Design compares universal design to green design, saying that green design focuses on environmental sustainability, while universal design focuses on social sustainability. Universal design MUST be how companies design -- and consumers interact with -- technology in the future. Having assistive technology built into the process, not just the product, will effectively eliminate the need to distinguish between disabilities -- which is a cornerstone of global disability classifications -- and will also add more sustainability to products as users age or develop a disability.

3. Web-savvy grandmas. When our grandparents were senior citizens, they spent most of their time doing the typical activities: cutting coupons, traveling, finding the early bird specials, enjoying time with family, taking care of health matters, and so on. This hasn't changed, but the computer age has changed how we -- and the next generation of older Americans -- are doing it. The examples mentioned above all can be conducted online now, on websites like Redplum,com,,, Meanwhile, programs like e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and Skype help us keep tabs on our family and friends. With 78.2 million baby boomers, there's a real need to make high technology accessible. Not only will this generation demand it, they will require it in order to continue their livelihoods. The aging population gives another dimension to the disability technology issue; this group will crack open the market for high-tech assistive technology, and create incredible opportunities for companies like Dell, RIM, Nokia, Google, and others to design technology without accessibility limitations.

4. iPhones of the future. As devices and gadgets become more sophisticated, technology will be more of a harbinger of productivity than ever before. Apple's iPhone, for example, allows you to be a multi-tasking savant: Find the cheapest gas station and a recipe for risotto while learning Spanish and booking a golfing trip? No problemo. (One of the newest iPhone apps is iSpectrum's Color Blind Assistant.) The only way to make these cool gadgets more accessible is to push for and utilize advancements in technology that are still in their pioneering stage, especially for mobile devices, like tactile multi-touch, alternative mouse formats (eye-controlled iPhone, anyone? Apple already put out a speech-enabled one), speech recognition, text to speech, closed captions, screen magnification, and the list goes on. New technologies work best when they're built in from the start, not retro-fitted.

5. America's disability agenda. Barack Obama is the biggest disability celebrity since Casey Martin, who successfully challenged the Supreme Court to use a golf cart on the PGA Tour. President Obama knows the facts: Under his watch he has 54 million Americans with disabilities, two million American children ages five to fifteen with special needs, and 60,000 U.S. service members who have been wounded or become mentally ill from battlefield experience. He has already laid out his agenda for helping people with disabilities succeed, which can be read here, and it includes boosting education and employment opportunities by providing resources such as assistive technologies. What's more, President Bush in September 2008 signed an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act that more strongly ties the ADA to Section 504, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires schools and companies to provide equal access through accommodations and modifications, such as -- you guessed it, assistive technology.

Assistive technology is the hope on which the future hinges for large sections of American society as well as those in developing nations. Assistive technology, it can be argued, is as important to humankind as the protections we are putting in place for the environment as it protects people's creativity, productivity and intelligence from diminishing under artificial barriers. Assistive technology will level the playing field, raise the floor and open the doors. Millions of people will be knocking, and assistive technology will let them in.