At a time when technology is increasingly being labelled as detrimental to our health and society, it’s important to highlight the positive impact that technology is having. Areas such as assistive technology in app design go some way in showing that the benefits could outweigh the downfalls. Smartphone apps in particular often bring with them negative connotations of people spending hours glued to a screen, damaging their health and turning into brainless zombies. However if you know where to look, you will find an abundance of positive and even life changing apps that demonstrate technology at its most innovative and beneficial. I have specifically highlighted some examples of apps that have had a significant impact, looking at how far they have been developed, whilst also celebrating the unacknowledged heroes that created them.
With just under 20% of people in the UK living with some form of disability, it is likely that a lot of us who don’t have a disability ourselves, probably know someone who does, whether it is visible or hidden.
The most common types of disabilities in the UK include physical disability, such as mobility, dexterity, hearing, vision and breathing, as well as cognitive disabilities such as limitations in memory function, learning, social and behavioural development, and of course mental health; the only type of disability to have increased from 2017/18 to 2019/20 in the Family Resources Survey. All of these disabilities unfortunately bring with them barriers that people without disabilities don’t have to worry about in day to day life, such as employment discrimination, increasing expenses (for equipment and care), loss of independence, prejudice, negative attitudes towards disabilities, social barriers, and transport and environments that are inaccessible.
The most remarkable benefit of assistive technology is that they are empowering users and allowing them to regain some form of independence. With apps being convenient and widely accessible, they potentially provide people with disabilities with the power to live and learn independently and on their own terms, whereas before they would have relied on other people to get the assistance that they needed. In this respect, they can also help friends, family or carers, or even people who would just like to learn more about disabilities and be more accommodating, such as learning sign language to be able to communicate effectively with anyone you encounter who may be deaf or hard of hearing.
Assistive technology has made considerable advancements over the years and is still rapidly increasing; predictions by Coherent Market Insights estimate that the global assistive technology market is expected to reach $26 billion by 2024, which would be doubling the 2015 figure of $14 billion, giving you an idea of the money being invested in this sector. This figure encompasses all assistive technology, including equipment such as hearing aids, prosthetic devices and stairlifts. Even focusing specifically on apps alone, it wouldn’t be practical for me to go through the whole range, due to the sheer amount of them. Of course, it’s incredible that there are so many, and it shows how many people are dedicating their time to bettering the lives of people with disabilities.
Before we get into apps, it is worth mentioning that there are already features in place that have made smartphones and tablets more accessible and easy to use. Both Apple and Android devices have an accessibility section in the settings, with features such as screen magnifiers, spoken content, audio descriptions, voice control and hearing aid compatibility, that are all in place to make the device more accessible.
A common barrier that people with disabilities face everyday is not being able to go everywhere they want, as not all places are accessible or wheelchair friendly, as well as not knowing about the places that are disability-friendly, potentially missing out on them. There is now a range of apps aiming to map out all the places that are accessible/ wheelchair friendly or offer other disability-friendly services, meaning people can go to places with confidence, without the worry of not being able to get in or not having facilities such as disabled toilets.
Wheelmap is a particularly excellent example of this type of app, a user generated map that not only shows places that are accessible, but also those that offer some accessibility features but not others, as well as places that don’t offer any accessibility. Based on OpenStreetMap, an open and editable open source map of the world, it allows for users to add places and the current database includes information on over 2.3 million places. The idea for this app was developed by Raul Krauthausen, who together with his cousin, set up German non-profit organisation, Sozialhelden, a team of activists who develop creative projects that draw attention to social problems and offer solutions. Having grown up with disabilities himself, Krauthausen is particularly inspiring with his attitude towards both life and his work. In an interview with New CITYzens, he spoke about his love for challenges and things that force you to think ‘outside the box’ and explained how he was always motivated to do something different. When asked what his message to young people would be, he said “everyone can be a hero, and it’s not about starting a big revolution… every hero starts with a small step and everyone can do it.” He has not only helped people with disabilities with his own work, but hopefully also inspired them to think outside the box and not limit themselves with what they can achieve.
Another area that assistive technology has proven especially beneficial is apps for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Apps that help users to learn sign language have been around for years and these apps are not to be overlooked, as they offer a means of learning sign language at the users own pace, whether that’s the person that has hearing loss or family, friends or carers.
Recently these apps have managed to go one step further by providing the ability to transcribe live conversations from a group of people. This involves all group members downloading the app on their phones and the phone microphones pick up on their conversation and then transcribes it to text on screen for the user who needs it. This offers an alternative to sign language, which can be hard to learn as you get older and it can also be limiting, as you can only communicate with people who also know how to sign. This clever way of utilising tools already built into the phone has proved highly successful and by helping the user to feel more involved in conversations, it ultimately makes life a little bit easier for them. Examples of these kinds of apps include Ava, Live Transcribe and RogerVoice which offers live transcription of phone calls.
Cognitive disabilities cause certain limitations in mental functioning, such as Intellectual impairment, memory loss, Autism, Dyslexia, ADHD, Dementia and Alzheimers. This means it has an effect on the way people think; it can change the way they learn, behave and socialise, as well as causing memory loss. As this is a complex group of disabilities, there are a wide variety of apps that have been created to help each area of mental functioning, for example there are many apps that focus solely on memory loss. However, there is now a wide range of more general ‘brain training’ apps that are created to help mental functioning for people with any cognitive disabilities. They have been developed to offer personalised learning, games and tasks that are based on an individual’s needs, rather than offering the same linear course to everyone.
CogniFit Brain fitness is considered to be one of the best examples of this kind. Developed with neuroscientists, it highlights the power of collaboration and using it regularly is proven to give measurable improvement in the performance of a user. Described as ‘scientifically validated brain fitness solutions,’ Cognifit offers educational games, brain exercises, mental agility challenges for coordination and planning, and memory games, tailored to suit the needs of each user. However, this app has a monthly subscription priced at $19.99 (around £14.40 at time of writing) and since rising costs are one of the setbacks that people with disabilities have to manage, adding more monthly subscriptions could set them back quite a lot. There are one or two free apps (but with subscriptions for advanced courses), such as Elevate & brain Yoga but if you’re wanting an in-depth or tailored course, it will cost.
Despite the costs involved in making an app, it is still disappointing to see that the monthly subscriptions for a lot of assistive technology apps are priced around £10-£15, especially on top of the higher cost of living that comes with having a disability. According to recent data by Disability Rights UK, nearly half of everyone living in poverty has a disability or lives with someone who does, meaning that these high-cost subscriptions are simply out of the question, and we want to try to eliminate barriers, not create more. App technology could potentially still be cheaper than alternatives, such as hiring a tutor to learn sign language/ braille, but it would be great to see them becoming more affordable and therefore more accessible in the future. A low-cost, or even free, app that is developed by a charity that is knowledgeable on disabilities would be a great way to make technology more in tune with disability and the needs of those who live with them.
Despite this, with more money being invested into assistive technology, we are heading the right direction and this article showcases just a small example of what app design is achieving and the positive impact it is having on the lives of those living with disabilities. So, when being lectured about how technology and apps are damaging to society and turning us all into zombies, be sure to remind people of the good that is coming out of app developments and that assistive technology is bettering lives and helping people to regain their independence.
Chloe is a content creator with a passion for writing, photography, graphic design and making music. She loves experimenting with creative media and has a desire to work in the music and media industries in the future.