The Internet of Things Could Empower People with Disabilities

Ubiquitous sensors are one of the driving ideas behind the Internet of Things.

The ideas is that we will put on and wear more and more sensors until they become pervasive — enabling everything we interact with on a daily basis to have the potential to offer us greater insight or context for our activities.

It's not hard to see how many of the devices already available are impacting our lives, even in small ways. There are thermostats that can learn from our habits and even be controlled remotely through our phones, window shutters that adjust automatically, depending on how much sunlight is coming through and objects fitted with RFID devices, which let us know when they pass through checkpoints.

All of these devices make life a little easier. But one segment of the population could potentially benefit even more than the rest from IoT technologies: People with disabilities — not just at home, but at the office and everywhere in-between.

Quality of Life Issues

The IoT could have immeasurable impact on people with disabilities and help create dramatic improvements in quality of life.  As connected devices become even more pervasive, the potential on people with disabilities becomes even greater.

One of the first and most obvious ways for IoT to impact the disabled is to extend their reach. In all likelihood, the easiest way to do this with connected devices is to enable their control via a mobile app. This would allow people with physical limitations that otherwise prevent them from direct interaction with certain things or objects in their typical locations the ability to interact with and control them through their mobile phones or other devices.

Developers of such apps would have to spend considerable time on the user interface (UI), of course. A clunky UI or one that might require complex gestures could make use by some individuals with disabilities difficult. But simple and intuitive UIs would be keys to success in this space.

Another technology that has potential to empower those with some type of vision impairment is one that I have written about on CMSWire before: iBeacons.

When used in a retail setting, iBeacons could assist vision-impaired shoppers by alerting them when they come in close proximity to items on their shopping lists. In many cases, iBeacon technology can also be used to assist with indoor navigation by giving audio instructions to those with vision impairments, enabling them to move into proximity of their desired items.

Walk On - Easier

Another great application of IoT technology that could dramatically impact the lives of those with disabilities are these set of connected insoles developed at MIT Media Lab. They are designed to work with a mobile device to help the user navigate a city without looking at a smartphone for directions. The insoles do this by vibrating to let the wearer know where to go, and also to make recommendations for specific locations based on the wearer's learned behavior.

A connected device such as these insoles could go a long way in assisting those with vision and hearing impairments to get around on their own, at work or at play.

A Global Issue

While the Internet of Things has spawned technology that is aimed at keeping us healthy and simplifying our lives at home and in the office, this same tech can easily be applied to empowering those with disabilities.

More than a billion people including children (or about 15 percent of the world's population) are estimated to be living with some form of disability, according to statistics from the M-Enabling Global Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.

That makes this a pretty sizable market segment.

It's also an area in which a lot of good could come from a moderate amount of innovation. As researchers Louis Coetzee and Guillaume Olivier at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) noted in a 2012 research paper:

The precise form and function of how IoT can break the accessibility barriers are not known yet. What is known is that inclusive design needs to be a fundamental element in the creation of IoT-enabled smart environments Adopting a philosophy of creating an enabling environment through IoT, which embodies inclusiveness rather than just a smart environment, will go a long way towards ensuring inclusion in our technological futures.

Title image of a wheelchair designed for beach use by FedeCandoniPhoto / Shutterstock.