How a wave of new tech products are making life easier for people with disabilities

Retiree Douglas Wakefield is a tech enthusiast.

The 76-year-old begins a typical day by donning his Apple Watch and listening to its synthesized voice deliver the weather. Over coffee, the Arlington, Virginia, resident catches up on overnight news on his iPhone X and consumes books read out loud on topics like coding – his goal is to write apps for the iPhone.

Blind since birth, Wakefield has been taking advantage of features on the most popular tech devices and platforms that have made them more useful to people with disabilities.

These have meant big changes in the way he goes about his daily routine. A former broadcaster for the Department of Agriculture and later a computer specialist working in government, he uses Microsoft's Seeing AI app for the iPhone to, among other purposes, scan barcodes that let him distinguish the groceries that are delivered: packages of crackers, or the Chardonnay his wife prefers to the Pinot Noir he favors.

Previously, someone would have to tell him and his wife, who is also blind, which bottle was which.

Thanks to narration tracks on Netflix and Apple TV, he can take in a movie, following audio that depicts the scenes, from what characters are wearing to their facial expressions. In 2016, Netflix reached a settlement with advocates for the blind community to add such "audio descriptions" tracks to more of the content.

One of the biggest shifts in Wakefield's day-to-day routine comes from the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod; he owns all three voice-activated smart speakers. For example, he can summon the assistants to turn on household lights by voice.

"I often say if all these tools were around when I was going to school, God, it would be a breeze," he says.

Over the last few years, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have leveraged artificial intelligence, computer vision and advances in voice recognition to deliver tools to assist blind individuals and people who are deaf, have motor impairments or other disabilities. At the same time, new technologies such as voice-activated speakers and more captioning on websites and in social media have widened access to some internet services.


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