Eyes flickering along the alphabet, I can “type” my name without lifting a finger.The sight-controlled keyboard following my gaze is being showcased by the Australian startup Psykinetic as part of the City of Sydney’s Unlimited Possibilities: Disability and Science Fiction Expo. This and other Assistive Technologies are changing the lives of people living with disablilites.Nick Temple, a software engineer at Psykinetic, guides me through the process of calibrating the system. I explode red dots on a computer screen by concentrating my gaze, so the eye tracking system can get to know my habits. After that, I’m able to type short sentences in only tens of seconds. The system, which uses pattern recognition, is part of a new class of assistive technologies that aim to remove barriers for people with disabilities.
Unlike the preponderance of technology companies that force you to change your habits to fit with their platforms, she puts humans at the centre of the process. Her role, as she sees it, is to build empathy and design based on the end users’ needs and emotions.
It’s a perspective honed by her own experiences with technology — most especially, her powered wheelchair.
“When I was a lot younger, I saw a wheelchair more as a burden because it stopped me from accessing places, it stopped me from doing what I wanted to do,” she told me. “But as I got older, and as I started to work and got involved in the disability sector myself, I found that it was a freedom instead.
“It takes me to where I want to go, it gives me an independence to do what I love.”
Tran, along with Peter Horsley, the founder of the technology accelerator Remarkable, which works with disability-focused startups, argue that technology companies should design their products with the broadest range of users in mind.
AbilityMate was one of Remarkable’s first cohort in 2016, along with startups like Sound Scouts, which created a game that can detect hearing loss in kids.
Horsley said there’s a growing push towards universal design — designing technology so it’s best for the largest amount of people.
Although it’s not just about doing good, you should. Horsley argued that if you design for people with disabilities in mind, you open up more markets as well as creating a better user experience all round.
“It takes me to where I want to go, it gives me an independence to do what I love.”Both he and Tran cited the iPhone as a powerful example of this idea: Think of Siri and the smartphone’s ability to read out your text messages as assistive technologies that can help anyone.
“When you’re cooking, to be able to have something that can read the recipe out to you as you’ve got stuff all over your hands. That’s a great assistive device,” he said.
“I think the iPhone is a really awesome example — it’s a universal design, to be honest,” Tran added. “It’s used by everyone, but it can also become one of the most powerful assistive technologies to someone who has a disability.”
There are more prosaic reasons why universal design is important.
Tran warned that the customisation and personalisation necessary to make existing technologies work well for people with disabilities often come at a high cost.
“People tend to wait a long time before funding,” she said. “Accessibility is one of the major pain points.”
If more devices are built with people of all abilities in mind, price points could lower.
Horsley also suggested that cost, as ever, remained a barrier in terms of letting people become fluent with technology.
“People who have a disability tend to be left out in terms of digital literacy,” he said. “Some of the figures from Australia show that families that don’t have disposable income to buy those assistive technologies, to buy iPhones … get left out.”
The Australian Council of Social Service reported that in 2013-14, 510,900 adults with a disability in Australia were living below the poverty line.
Ultimately, designers and engineers who don’t think broadly and inclusively about who their technology can work for will miss out on a whole world of inspiration.
“I think people who have a disability have such a unique perspective on life, and that itself is really a drive towards innovation,” Tran said.