CEO Guide to Assistive Technology

The IPad's Secret Abilities


Jonathan Avila uses his iPad in ways most people might not realize are possible: The device reads e-mail to him while he’s traveling to work, tells him which way to walk when he is lost, and even lets him know if there’s a sidewalk on the other side of the street. Avila needs these features because he’s visually impaired.

"Work bought it as a testing device, but I’ve claimed it as my own since it makes me more efficient," says Avila, chief accessibility officer for SSB Bart Group, a firm that helps companies implement technology for people with disabilities.

Apple (AAPL) has added features that make the iPhone and iPad easily accessible, not only to visually impaired people but also to those with hearing loss and other challenges. The iPhone 4 and the iPad 2, for example, come with VoiceOver, a screen reader for those who can’t read print, as well as FaceTime, video-calling software for people who communicate using sign language. Apple has said that iOS 5—due later this year—will contain improvements to VoiceOver and LED flash and custom vibration settings to let users see and feel when someone is calling.

More such devices as the iPad and iPhone will make their way into the workplace to assist people with physical challenges in the next five years. Disability and aging go hand-in-hand: As baby boomers work past age 65, companies will increasingly face this issue. The incidence of disability in the workplace is 19.4 percent at age 45 and rises to about 50 percent by age 70, according to Jennifer Woodside, chief executive officer of the Disability Training Alliance. Those disabilities can include vision and hearing loss, issues with mobility and dexterity, and learning and cognitive challenges—as well as communications problems.

A Boom in Assistive Technologies

The global market for assistive technologies, including those used in the home, is projected to reach $40.9 billion in 2016, up from $30.5 billion this year, according to a report from BCC Research that’s scheduled to be released this month. In addition to Apple, Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), Google (GOOG), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) make workplace technologies that are accessible to people with a range of abilities.

"Boomers will demand products, services, and workplaces that adapt to their needs and desires," says Rich Donovan, chief investment officer at WingSail Capital. Crossover technology such as the iPad, which works well both for people with disabilities and the broader consumer market, are the "holy grail" of business and disability efforts and will drive growth in disability-related capital spending, he says. Donovan, who has cerebral palsy, just received his first iPad as a Father’s Day gift. "I love it, it’s simple to use and it’s the ideal accessible technology," he says.

Companies such as Apple are motivated, at least in part, to create products that work for people with disabilities because the population is aging, says Dorrie Rush, marketing director of accessible technology at Lighthouse International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting vision loss.

At the age of 33, Rush was diagnosed with early-onset macular degeneration. Twenty years later, her visual acuity is low, although she retains some peripheral vision. "I used to be on the bus and I would see people reading the newspaper and I’d be so jealous," Rush says. Then she bought an iPhone and downloaded the New York Times (NYT) app. Her phone now reads the news to her on the bus each morning.

Rapid Technological Improvement

In the past two years, particularly since the release of the iPhone 3GS that came equipped with VoiceOver, Rush says she has noticed a vast improvement in the technology available to visually impaired users. "Previously, I was using and being offered a lot of technology that was obscenely expensive and at best, mediocre," she says.

For people who need to read office memos or other printed materials, Freedom Scientific sells a scanning and reading appliance for $1,800. Alternatively, there’s a free app called SayText that uses the camera from the iPhone 4 to take a photo of a document, prompting the app to read the text aloud. The same app can be used to take photos of business cards, after which the contact info is automatically scanned and uploaded into the phone’s contact directory. Similarly, ZoomReader, an app from Ai Squared that sells for about $20, reads the text in images from the iPhone 4 camera.

Identifying money can be a challenge for visually impaired or blind people because a $1 bill comes in the same size and color as a $100 bill. Reizen sells a portable money reader on Amazon.com (AMZN) for $99.95. In March the LookTel Money Reader app was released for the iPhone, selling for just $1.99. In April the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing released EyeNote, a free money reader.

Workers who find it difficult to speak because they have cerebral palsy or have suffered a stroke once needed to spend thousands of dollars on speech-generating devices. Instead of shelling out $3,000, they can now buy an iPad for $500 and an app called Proloquo2Go from AssistiveWare that sells for about $190, says SSB Bart’s Avila.

IT Departments Lag in Adapting

As prices decrease, many people with disabilities are discovering the benefits of various apps on Apple iPhones and iPads. Yet information-technology departments have been slow to allow these devices into the workplace. Donovan at WingSail Capital says one of his visually impaired clients brought her iPad to work and was told that the company didn’t support it yet. "There’s this dichotomy between what is accepted as assistive technology and what is actually working," he says.

"There’s a perception that the iPhone or iPad is going to be used for games," says SSB Bart Group’s Avila. Yet people who need these devices realize how much more independent they are with them. "The people I work with at the Veteran’s Administration are trying to push to get iPhones into the hands of blind veterans," Avila says.

Rush says that her office at the Lighthouse is PC-based. There are plenty of Windows-based apps for visually impaired people, but they tend to be relatively expensive. Rush says she couldn’t do her job without ZoomText screen magnifier and reader, which costs up to $995. JAWS, another popular screen reader, costs $1,075 for a single professional license.

The iPad isn’t going to suit everyone, Avila says. He finds it a good way to take notes in meetings; previously he would have needed to buy an expensive device. The iPad also lets him easily read e-mail messages and zoom in on items he needs to see more clearly. The best part might be that he’s using "the normal app that everyone else is using," he says. He’s not using a special browser and he can use AOL Instant Messenger, just like anyone else. "That," says Avila, "is a huge difference."

Rachael_king
King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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