Every four years, the Olympic Games hold their closing ceremonies, and yet for many Olympians, it is only the beginning. The Paralympic Games, which have just wrapped up, often seem to fall off the radar for the majority of the U.S. mainstream media, who have already shifted their focus away from the Games. The athletes who compete in the Paralympics leave me in awe even more than the athletes of the Olympic Games do. Imagining everyday life while depending on a wheelchair, for example, is already difficult — but having the discipline to be a professional athlete despite the impairment triggers pure admiration.
A little more than 30 years ago, my uncle was bound to his wheelchair with a disability similar to MS and was the talk of the town when he cruised by himself around the block in his shiny new electric wheelchair. Fluent in five languages and interested in science and the world, he was a highly interesting conversation partner — and yet, hardly anyone outside of his immediate family understood him with his speaking muscles giving up on him.
Thirty years is not that much time and in the context of the Paralympic Games makes me think again about the impact the smartphone has on people with a physical impairment — it has “positive disruption” written all over.
Just a few days ago, I observed a man in a wheelchair trying to hail a cab on New York’s busy streets — quite impossible without stepping into the street to attract a cab driver’s attention. The smartphone has made it possible. Mobile app developers have pioneered many solutions towards increased independence for those with disabilities and more are continuously being developed.
Throughout the past few years, we’ve seen an emergence of key trends in the mobile industry that make what some might call the “basic needs” of modern life for the able-bodied and disabled, even easier:
Getting places. One fundamental form of increased independence is convenient transportation. In 2014, Uber launched UberASSIST with drivers specifically trained to assist elderly or disabled riders into vehicles and accommodate folding wheelchairs, etc. With older populations becoming increasingly independent, the value of mobile technology allows people to travel safely and without restriction.
Seeing things. Apps such as TapTapSee provide crucial information by helping the blind or visually impaired identify an object or write on an object. Simply take a picture of an object and the app speaks the identification back to you. Identifying the difference between a $1 and a $20 bill becomes possible and allows users to function with even more independence. Identification (or I.D.) assistance technology is also offered through community-based apps like Be My Eyes, which connects blind users with sighted volunteers in situations when help is required in real-time, such as reading the expiration date on a milk carton.
Communicating with everyone. People with motor, speech and language disabilities, such as my uncle, often struggle to be understood by those not familiar with their pronunciation difficulties, making communication in everyday situations challenging. The app Talkitt provides assistance to users by recognizing each user’s vocal patterns and “speaks” their words coherently in any language.
Being informed ahead of time. One of the major disadvantages for those who have to rely on wheelchairs is being met with unpredictable locations that are not wheelchair accessible. For many, knowing which restaurants, cafes, shops, museums etc. are truly wheelchair-accessible ahead of time is crucial and now actually possible through the AXS Map app, a community-based app that allows wheelchair-accessible places to be searched, rated, shared and added.
Huge improvements are still necessary to optimize the existing features and apps that smartphones offer today to empower people with impairments. Already, developers are working to come up with refreshable braille displays, enhanced eye-tracking technology or robots that help out in all kinds of situations. As consumers, we’re always on the lookout for new technologies that help improve our daily experience, no matter who we are and where we are. Mobile certainly plays a big part of it, and as marketers, we’re always looking for more.
For now, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the Olympians who have competed in this year’s Paralympic Games with admiration and enthusiasm.