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  by Joy Mistovich:   November 30, 2017 Edition  
     November 2017: Sometimes, when we think about the past, we wonder how humankind was able to survive without the rapidly expanding era of technology. All individuals regardless of ability use the technology they possess to the best of their knowledge: whether it is a high-tech or low-tech device. Technology is a crucial asset to our daily lives, but we must all find the balance between technology and the physical interactions with others. Also, we must examine the devices/ companies that are making significant inroads on individuals with and without disabilities and urge those who are not to step slowly but forcefully on the appropriate path.
      For those with disabilities, technology has unlocked countless doors for the beginning of equal and full participation into society. In this month’s column, I will discuss two companies—but there are numerous others that are taking steps in the right direction to positively work to strengthen the bonds between those with and without disabilities to demonstrate their full potential.
      Apple has been a team leader in demonstrating what is possible for all individuals regardless of ability by continuing to remain on the cutting edge of technological advancements and continuing to make all of their products accessible. Every piece of Apple technology—the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and Apple Watch have the same assistive technology features built into these devices to seamlessly transition from product to product, and unlike some Windows based technologies, there is no need to pay extra money to receive the accessible features. The National Federation of the Blind was one of the most influential organizations that assisted the tech giant in increasing the ease of access for blind individuals and all other disability groups. In the past during an Apple keynote presentation, especially when the universal access symbol and features were released: magnification, screen reader, closed captioning, subtitles, and text to speech to name a few, numerous individuals without disabilities were familiar with these features, but this is where everything came to a halt. These features were included in the devices, but the biggest obstacle that had to be overcome was showcasing how those with disabilities were using the products to benefit their own lives, whether it was in a work environment or in their spare time. Just this year, Apple released a series of videos on their website detailing some of the most common features and how certain disabled people are positively impacting their communities by using Apple technology. Throughout all sectors of the Apple corporation, there is a push to increase hiring for the disabled community to make them both more visible and aiding in the most effective teamwork possible accomplished by disabled and non-disabled individuals alike.
      A second company, which was created in 2015 and is rapidly expanding it’s reach is called Aira; the name stands for Artificial Intelligence Remote Access, and the concept was originally co-founded by a young software engineer in San Diego. The concept of Aira is extremely similar to that of Uber and Lyft, which also have a tremendous impact on the disabled community. A blind individual uses an app either on their iPhone or Android phone in combination with a pair of Google Smart glasses or smart glasses from an Austrian company along with a Mifi device that provides free Wifi data wherever the individual travels. The smart glasses include a camera on the front that relays visual information to the sighted person on the other end; these individuals are called agents, and they relay the visual information to the blind consumer—Aira Explorers-- via their phone or headphones. The Aira service can be used for various tasks including shopping, reading printed material, traveling, and providing walking or transit directions, etc. There is no limit to what is possible with using the Aira technology, and in the near future, this service will be expanded to other disability groups and non-disabled people. However, this service doesn’t replace the use of a guide dog or a cane. In order to become proficient, the blind individual must possess sufficient orientation and mobility—cane travel skills or via a guide dog to successfully use this technology. As with the use of Apple devices or any other accessible devices, an individual must obtain the skills they need, since one concept will build upon another.
      The explanation I’ve just mentioned incorporates the balance of technology, human interaction, and finally, assisting to expand the identity of people with disabilities and not forcing them to play the role of a non-disabled individual. As consumers, we can choose how much information we gain through technology or other means, just as a newly disabled person will learn that embracing in the disability culture is crucial for non-disabled individuals, since the disabled population has positively influenced numerous aspects of life. We must continue to advocate for equal access locally and elsewhere, so that one day, all places, digital information, and visible written signage can be accessible and used by every individual.
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