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4 everyday innovations you probably didn’t know came from the disability community

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By: Perkins Access


These technologies were created to solve real-life accessibility challenges for people with disabilities, but ended up making the world better for everyone.

DisabilityTech (innovative products and services that improve the lives of people with disabilities) is projected to be a $40 billion industry by 2030 and was already valued at ~$25 billion in 2022. There is huge market potential, as people with disabilities and their family and friends account for $13 trillion in annual disposable income. Building technologies for this growing group offers enormous opportunity — for people with disabilities, tech companies, and the population at large.

Perkins is home to the Howe Innovation Center, which serves as an incubator for the DisabilityTech space.

Did you know that these technologies (and the start-ups innovating on them) came from the disability community?

1. Audiobooks

Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) was established in 1931 to distribute braille and audio books using postage-free mail. In 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind launched the “Talking Book Program.” The program aimed to make literature accessible through recording books onto 12-inch vinyl records. Two years later, the Perkins Library began offering Talking Books.

Today, audiobooks and audiobook apps such as Audible have become widely popular. The Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library offers over 75,000 digital and cassette titles. The audiobook industry is growing as well — according to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales reportedly increased by 10% in 2022, reaching $1.8 billion in the US alone.

2. Closed captions

While first created to make television more accessible for people with hearing impairments, closed captions enhance the experience for everyone. WGBH, a public broadcasting organization in Boston, was a pioneer of closed captioning. The Caption Center at WGBH was established in 1972 to “provide the widest possible access to television and video for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.” In 1972, PBS aired “The French Chef” with Julia Child with open captions (captions that cannot be turned off), making it the first regularly-captioned TV program.

The closed captioning space has many innovative companies, including:

  • Ava is a startup leveraging cutting-edge AI for professional-grade live captioning. Their captions can be used for making online work, school, healthcare appointments, as well as live shows and presentations more inclusive. Their text-to-speech technology enables non-voicing Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to engage in two-way conversations through the use of natural-sounding voices. Ava’s solutions are over 99% accurate and have been used by over 150,000 people.
  • Voiceitt is a startup aiming to create fully accessible closed captioning and audio output for people who want to make their speech easier to understand, including people with brain injuries and Parkinson’s disease. Voiceitt has built an AI voice for people with speech disabilities and aging adults. Their next-gen technology is currently being used to help people with disabilities fulfill their potential in the (remote) workplace and classroom.

3. Automated doors

In the 1970s, the first access doors for people with mobility disabilities were built. By the 1990s, automatic doors with motion detectors had become widespread. Automated doors can now be found everywhere, from schools and supermarkets to stadiums.

Today, the next generation of accessible doors has arrived. We Hear You is a start-up company developing innovative technology to increase doorway accessibility. By leveraging Bluetooth, the Push™ App will allow users to remotely open accessible doors with the tap of a smart device screen or voice command. The app aims “to give even more autonomy and provide the power to open doors with voice activation for more ease of mobility.”

4. Text-to-speech (TTS)

In 1976, the National Federation of the Blind unveiled the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first technology that converted printed characters into synthetic speech. By the 1990s, Apple was developing a speech synthesis and recognition system called “PlainTalk.” In 1995, text-to-speech went mainstream with the addition of TTS technology to the Windows 95 operating system.

Today, almost all digital devices have built-in TTS tools, helping people access messages, websites, social media, and more. iPhones, mobile assistants, GPS apps, e-readers, and smart TVs have TTS functionality, so users can access the device without needing to see the screen. Apple’s Siri, which was introduced in 2011 and utilizes TTS, can be used to set reminders, manage calendars, and read texts aloud.

TTS technology continues to revolutionize the reading experience for people with disabilities. With the VoiceDream reader app, users can upload any e-book or Word document to the app, which then reads the text, shows it on the screen, and allows users to pause at any time. Intended for people who are blind or have low vision, VoiceDream Reader is an alternative to textbooks.

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Perkins Access