To mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), Samsung invited a group to try its latest assistive technology features.
The day itself aims to get more people to engage with digital access and inclusion, and to show that beyond the gloss of futuristic, sleek tech branding, these products and services can help ordinary people with disabilities and impairments live their everyday lives.
It’s good to see this true-to-life approach, rather than brands relying heavily on the superpower or superhuman narrative – which few disabled people relate to.
On display were the types of gadgets I imagine are artfully placed on every Succession set to exude wealth. Present for every slanging match, tasteful and unassuming.
There were fridges that know what you have in them – tracking expiration dates and recommending a curated list of recipe suggestions – TVs designed to blend into walls, a wardrobe which sanitises and cleans, and a few robotic hoovers.
And there was a space for accessible video games, although no accessibility feature could save me from ramming a virtual car into a virtual wall. It’s, at least, cathartic.
I was also reliably informed that Samsung’s King’s Cross concept store was home to the best accessible bathroom in all of London – although for me a working lock is enough, and not always the case.
Disabled users can pose many questions when it comes to accessible tech.
How can machines or apps really make everyday life easier for disabled people? How can they continue to evolve and develop as technology progresses so rapidly?
On the business side, is it just a tick-box exercise for companies? Is the industry doing enough to make their products and the world accessible? And are companies doing enough to educate disabled people about what’s out there?
Often, solutions for people with disabilities can be incomplete, flawed or sometimes wholly non-existent. For example, amputees can get prosthetics, but it can be complex. Even popular entertainment, like video games, can exclude those with disabilities. Although this is changing – to mark the day, Sony announced a new accessibility controller for PS5.
Historically, accessibility has been perceived as an afterthought, and disabled people had to get used to needing specialist devices with prohibitive price tags.
But more can now be supplied for a fraction of the cost by tablets or smartphones using mainstream applications rather than expensively produced specific software.
For example, modern voice dictation allows disabled people to post on social media, organise calendars and check the weather – the mundane tasks and habits that make up our daily routines.
My life bears testimony to the immense changes this technology has brought over the last 30 years – we’ve grown up together. I have always struggled with the act of handwriting, and when I did, to conserve my limited strength, I often agonised over every word, weary of waste.
Dictaphones changed that, and while digital recording machines have long since taken over from the bulky cassette-using ones, I’ve kept mine for sentimental reasons – although it’s gathering dust.
Now I most often rely on a single seamless app on my phone. I can pull it up to capture any off-the-cuff comment or fleeting thought. Nothing needs to be quite so well-rehearsed. I can use speech-to-text software for hours and chatter in a voice note. That unthinking freedom is what makes accessible tech so vital.
I became emotional when I saw Samsung’s Live Transcribe feature. It lets you immediately capture sounds or speech and see them as text on a screen. This feature will remove so many labour-intensive steps as words appear on a screen without additional effort – without thinking twice.
As Professor Stephen Hawking noted, which is valid for many disabled people, especially in our working lives, ‘I was lucky to have been born in the computer age. Without them, my life would have been miserable and my scientific career impossible.’
Many disabled people have to face being disabled in the small moments when accessibility fails, but those moments of tough reminder – when you have to sit with your emotions – become more infrequent when tech works well.
For example, every line of this article was written using voice-to-text software, and that process is getting easier every year. It’s becoming less about getting your head down and persevering until your voice cracks.
And developments for those who need assistance are becoming more nuanced, growing to fit the lives of disabled people more fully.
For instance, Samsung’s Smart TVs also allow you to change an avatar sign language interpreter’s size, speed and position. It’s straightforward common sense to make them more visible, and not relegate them to the early hours.
Some also include Gesture Interaction, (yet to be rolled out in the UK) which allows you to use gestures to control your TV – exceptionally useful for many disabled people. And if Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that this type of power also has mass appeal.
Unfortunately, often people aren’t aware these features exist. Tech should please the user, and we should all experiment with our settings and determine if something can work for us.
Samsung Galaxy Watches have a feature that detects when a person falls hard, sending an alert. As someone who falls often, this feels safe, and we’re all searching for simple safety that doesn’t override our independence. I have had to drag myself across the floor to get help, this removes the fear that something terrible and unexpected could happen and I would be stuck.
A device I hope to try is the Galaxy SmartTag – one genius idea is to use it to track your wheelchair on a plane. It’s an essential reassurance in the face of recent press reports of both disabled passengers being trapped on board and accounts of the damage that many wheelchairs have sustained in transit.
As a full-time wheelchair user, the idea of being parted so fully from something I can’t move without has stopped me from travelling – I have visions of it being returned damaged beyond repair.
The world wasn’t built with non-disabled people in mind.
Still, assistive technologies are slowly tackling some of the barriers that disabled people can face, so that existing as a disabled person is less about persevering and keeping your head down and more about not having to give it a second thought.
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