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University of Washington professor Richard Ladner.
University of Washington professor Richard Ladner.

Inside a small office on the sixth floor of the University of Washington’s computer science building, Richard Ladner starts talking about Google’s self-driving cars. The longtime professor is so excited about the innovation that he lets out a big laugh.

But Ladner isn’t joking around — rather, he’s jazzed up about a better future for people with disabilities.

“This is an accessibility tool,” Ladner explains. “Can you imagine a blind person taking their cane, walking to the car, telling it where to go, and it goes there? I think that’s going to happen.”

Using technology to help people with disabilities isn’t a new phenomenon, from the advent of speech recognition systems, to hearing aids, to power wheelchairs — the list goes on and on.

But Ladner and his colleagues say there’s been a recent increase in attention to the assistive technology, which is encouraging, because they also think that there’s much more that can be done.

“There is a lot of room for this space to grow,” said Ladner, who’s dedicated more than a decade of his life to accessibility research.

That’s the same sentiment shared by Jenny Lay-Flurrie, a senior director at Microsoft who leads a team that focuses on accessibility, privacy, and online safety. Last week, Lay-Flurrie was in Washington D.C. where she was among ten people from around the nation who were honored as the 2014 “Champions of Change” — people helping to make workplaces more accessible and creating job opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Is there more technology can do? Yes — and that’s what is so exciting about being in the tech industry,” she told GeekWire. “The sky really is the limit.”

 Jenny Lay-Flurrie leads the Trusted Experiences Team at Microsoft. Photo via Microsoft.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie leads the Trusted Experiences Team at Microsoft. Photo via Microsoft.

Ladner and Lay-Flurrie represent two pillars when it comes to the creation and implementation of accessible technology, from research at places like the UW, to the products built by companies like Microsoft.

But Ladner, who grew up with deaf parents, noted that these innovations haven’t always been of great importance for researchers and companies. For example, Ladner explained that though the first iPhone was a massive advancement for most of us, it left out people with disabilities — particularly those with vision impairments who had relied on physical mobile phone keyboards and were all of a sudden left with a flat touchscreen.

But a couple years after the first iPhone release, Apple decided to get serious about making the iPhone accessible. The company developed voice-enabled tools and other innovations that made the device more usable by people with disabilities.

“It was a company commitment to accessibility,” Ladner said. “That was a turning point, I think. No company had ever done that before.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella takes the Ice Bucket Challenge. (Photo by Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures, via Microsoft)
Microsoft Satya Nadella takes the Ice Bucket Challenge from the “Ability Eye Gaze” team. (Photo: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures)

Today, most of the big tech companies — from Google to Yahoo — have teams dedicated to building out technology that is accessible to everyone. Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf, leads the Trusted Experience Team (TExT) at Microsoft that focuses on accessibility, while she also chairs the Microsoft Disability Employee Resource Group.

This past July, the winning team of a company-wide hackathon at Microsoft was the “Ability Eye Gaze” group, which leveraged technologies including Microsoft Kinect and Surface to create a series of new features to make it easier for people with ALS and other disabilities to control a tablet with their eyes.

That team worked on the project with Steve Gleason, the former NFL player who has ALS, who also appeared in Microsoft’s first Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. Lay-Flurrie said she’s spent a lot of time with Gleason recently and recited a phrase from him when asked about the power of technology helping people with disabilities.

“One of the things he says a lot is, ‘until there is a cure for ALS, technology is a cure,'” Lay-Flurrie said. “It really brings home the power of technology.”

So what more can be done? For starters, Ladner said there needs to be more people with disabilities pursing careers as coders, engineers, and designers — people who know exactly what a disabled person may need in a product.

“They will understand the value of what they are doing,” said Ladner, whose research includes MobileASL and the Tactile Graphics Project. “They will see the nuances.”

For that to happen, Lay-Flurrie said more awareness about disability employment is needed. Companies need to have a strong understanding and approach to hiring people with disabilities, she sai

“That means creating a safe environment where people can self-identify and be honest about their disability and what they need to be successful,” Lay-Flurrie explained. “Then empowering and encouraging them to do more, be more and bring ‘all’ of themselves to work every day. If you empower people to be successful, they will bring that perspective to work and use it to create great products.”

Ladner also noted that more and more researchers are starting to ask disability-related questions when the latest gadgets come out. How would a blind person use Google Glass? How might a deaf person interact with a virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana?

And with the aging baby boomer generation, Ladner said there’s a huge market to tap into for companies — in fact, there are more than 1.2 billion people with some type of disability today.

Geordi La Forge. Photo via Wikipedia.
Geordi La Forge. Photo via Wikipedia.

“I feel like there will be a huge surge in interest for this kind of research just because there’s more customers,” Ladner said.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some of these accessibility innovations actually end up benefitting the entire population. Lay-Flurrie recalled how technologies like talking books or even door handles were at first created for people with disabilities.

“Some of the best products have been designed with disability in mind,” Lay-Flurrie said.

When asked what she’d like to see happen over the next decade in the disability field as it relates to technology, Lay-Flurrie brought up Star Trek. She grew up watching the show and seeing Geordi La Forge — a blind character — use technology to get a leg up on his peers.

“His visor basically gave him the ability to see more than anyone else on the crew — imagine that,” she said. “That’s got to be the goal of technology. Disability is a strength — believe that, and the rest will follow.”

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