With wearable technology, a new measure of independence for people with disabilities

With wearable technology, a new measure of independence for people with disabilities

By Hayley Tsukayama, Published: August 6

It’s been 18 years since Tammie Lou Van Sant held a camera. But nearly two decades after a car accident left her paralyzed from the chest down, Van Sant is shooting again — thanks to a device that could be part of technology’s next big trend. Google’s Glass headset, which connects to users’ smartphones and displays information on a screen that hovers above one eye, is the first of what analysts say may be a new trend of wearable technology — headsets, watches, fitness trackers and other devices that are worn, rather than slipped into a pocket. Analysts say growing interest in wearable tech could translate into big money for technology firms, with projected sales of up to 9.6 million of such devices worldwide by the end of 2016.But the new technology also has raised new concerns about privacy. Lawmakers in Europe and the United States have asked Google to clarify its privacy policy in relation to Google Glass. For example, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) last month pressed the company for information on how it will protect the privacy of passersby who may not realize they’re being filmed. Google has told lawmakers it’s “thinking carefully” about the privacy issues that have arisen along with its plans to bring Glass to the wider market.

But for some people with disabilities, the rise of wearable technology has given them a new measure of independence.

For Van Sant, 52, being an early Google Glass user means a return to a much-missed photography hobby as well as the ability to answer her own phone calls, respond to text messages and take small trips on her own using the headset’s access to Google Maps.

“I just go out into the world now,” she said. “I can take pictures or do anything I want.”

Until now, wearable devices to help people with disabilities were — by and large — developed by medical companies or garage hobbyists who gave little thought to a wider consumer market. New consumer interest in wearables, however, means that people will have access to cheaper, more versatile devices that can run specialized apps developed specifically for the needs of people with disabilities, said Greg Priest-Dorman, who works with Google on the Glass project and has been making his own wearable devices since the mid-1980s.

Researchers at Georgia Tech, working with Google, already have turned to smartphones to teach sign language to the parents of deaf children, and they are experimenting with how a wearable device can speed up the process by eliminating some of the time it takes to load a lesson, since the screen can be so much closer to the face. Others have used similar technology to help the visually-impaired crowdsource everything from whether an outfit matches to whether their child’s rash needs a doctor’s attention.

Priest-Dorman, who designed his own wearable devices to help him deal with a reading impairment, points to moments like these when he hears concerns that devices like Glass will make a tech-obsessed society even more disconnected. He’s found wearable devices to be useful tools for getting through the day and less distracting to normal life than the current crop of smartphones and tablets. For example, he has used his own inventions to help him read bedtime stories to his daughter at the end of a long day when he couldn’t quite focus on the words in front of him. Now he uses Google Glass to do many of the things he used to do with his own rigs — which often weighed in excess of five pounds — to help him read, write and communicate more efficiently.

Those small moments of self-reliance may sound trivial to some, but they can mean a lot to someone with disabilities, he said.

“We don’t need them to live — they’re not breathing machines,” he said. “But it’s also an amazing feeling when you don’t need to be dependent on someone.”

Alex Blaszczuk, 26, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2011 car accident, said that the little things Google Glass lets her do are some of the most remarkable — such as joining in when her friends whip out their cellphones to look up the definition of a word or an actor in a movie.

Blaszczuk said that she does get some strange looks from passersby, particularly those who can’t tell if her Glass headset is related to the other devices she uses as a result of her disability or those who wonder whether or not she’s filming them. But that, she joked, comes with its own benefits as well.

“I wore it on the plane, and they were all very careful about answering me,” she said. “I think it helps keep the staff in line.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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