5 innovations in accessibility and assistive technology from 2019

Web browsing, travel, gaming and more became more accessible through innovation in 2019. Here’s how

A group of young adults with visual impairment sit in a large office space.

Young adults with visual impairment visited Google's Cambridge office through Perkins' Pre-Employment Program.

December 12, 2019

In 2019, there was no shortage of innovation in the fields of accessibility and assistive technology. 

Throughout the year, a number of exciting and welcome advances were made by leading tech companies, universities and cities, which made their products or services more accessible to people with visual impairment and other disabilities. And in so doing, they inspired us and gave us a look at  possibilities that may be on the horizon. 

Here are a few of our favorite examples of exciting innovation from the past year. 

Google builds out Chrome’s visual accessibility features

Screen readers are instrumental to blind web users. However, when images aren’t properly labeled, the assistive technology is unable to tell the user what, exactly, is being depicted on their screens.

In 2019, Google set out to fix that problem. The search engine giant’s new visual accessibility feature borrows machine learning technology from other Google products to better recognize information contained in unlabeled images. According to Android Authority, that means, whether an image is labeled or not, Chrome is now better able to scan images online and tell the user what they’re looking at. 

The technology isn’t perfect, the website notes. But the idea is an exciting one, and we’re eager to see where it goes from here!

Amazon introduces ‘Show and Tell’ for blind Echo users

This September, Amazon announced the launch of ‘Show and Tell,’ a new feature of its flagship digital home assistant device designed to help users with vision loss more effectively navigate their own cupboards. 

Amazon notes: “With Show and Tell, blind and low vision customers can hold up an item to the Echo Show camera and ask, ‘Alexa, what am I holding,’ and Alexa helps identify the item through advanced computer vision and machine learning technologies for object recognition.”

Devices like Alexa already make great accessibility companions in the home, as they can connect to communication devices, like iPads, or quickly and easily relay important information to the user. Advancements like this make them even better!

Watch this video to learn more:

Microsoft goes ‘Eyes First’ on gaming

Gaming doesn’t always require cumbersome handheld controllers. Need proof? In 2019, Microsoft introduced a suite of “Eyes First” games, which are playable using only eye movement.

“People with speech and mobility disabilities can face limitations in communicating and using computer technology to play (games), collaborate, engage, be productive,” the company said. “With innovation in accessibility technologies, such as Windows 10 Eye Control, these limitations can be addressed to unlock the potential of their powerful minds.”

The games encourage skill building for use with other eye-controlled technologies, but as importantly, they create new possibilities for people with disabilities to have fun and become a part of the gaming community.

Harvard Astronomy Lab brings beauty of space to visually impaired

For years, Harvard’s Clay Telescope has given visitors a surreal view of faraway skies and planets. Now, the Ivy League school is focused on bringing that beauty to those who can’t see it in a traditional manner. 

As reported by the Harvard Gazette, the school is offering cutting-edge technologies to visitors with vision impairment, capable of translating light into sound. This, the Gazette notes, gives them the chance to quite literally listen to the stars they can’t see. 

“Astronomy is a very visual science, and it’s important to be able to include a person with a visual impairment in our labs,” says  Allyson Bieryla, Manager of the Astronomy Lab and Clay Telescope. 

We couldn’t agree more! Check out this video from Harvard to learn more:

New York City pilots new accessibility measures for public transit

Not all accessibility-minded innovation need revolve around technology. New York City, for instance, is testing a number of new low-tech features at a Brooklyn subway stop in an effort to learn more about how public transit can be made more accessible to riders with disabilities. 

From the New York Post: “The MTA will test out... Braille and ‘tactile’ signage, interactive station maps and multiple cell phone apps aimed to assist the visually impaired navigate stations. Diagrams will also be posted throughout the station informing riders who rely on elevators and escalators how to exit in case of an outage.”

These types of initiatives are critical to ensuring people with disabilities are able to get around as independently as their fellow travelers without disabilities. They also serve as a great reminder that tremendous progress and innovation can happen with pre-existing technology!