Smart Phone, Smart Apps
The online pitch for the smart phone app “foursquare” promises that users can keep up with friends, discover what’s nearby, save money and unlock rewards. But to John Morris, apps like foursquare have great potential to enable people with disabilities to lead fuller and more active lives.
“It’s intended for young people to hang out and check in with each other when they’re at a club or restaurant,” says Morris, program manager for the Research Engineering and Rehabilitation Center for Wireless Technology (Wireless RERC). “When you open the app, it uses GPS to locate your cell phone and know where you are. You can invite friends and family into your foursquare network, which can be especially empowering if you have a disability. It lets you go out into the world, and if you get lost or confused or stuck somewhere, you friends and family know where you are.”
Conducting research and developing apps for people with disabilities is one mission of the Wireless RERC, a collaborative effort between Shepherd Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). Its mandate goes beyond Shepherd patients who need assistance with mobility, dexterity and cognitive issues to include people with vision, hearing and speech impairments, as well.
A 2009 survey estimated that 10 percent of the U.S. population – about 30 million people – has a disability, a number that Morris believes is lower than the actual figure. He also notes that a recent Wireless RERC survey reveals that close to 90 percent of people with disabilities use wireless technology – a rate that is comparable to the technology adoption rate of the general population. Regular cell phones offering call, text and camera functions are useful to people with disabilities, but the popularity of smart phones and the explosive growth of apps make them the obvious focus of Wireless RERC’s efforts. The smart phone can be adapted to meet a variety of needs.
“You can add and subtract a lot of things, and that’s been a problem for people with disabilities,” says Jim Mueller, co-director of a Wireless RERC project called the App Factory. “There are certain things they’d love to adapt, but can’t. Smart phones have that accessibility.”
But finding apps that are useful to people with disabilities can be bewildering and frustrating. For example, neither of the two major application vendors, iTunes’ App Store and Google Play, have specific categories for users with a disability. And when iTunes created a category that had useful apps for people with speech impairments, they were lost in the shuffle.
“The choices were limited,” Morris says, “and they were mixed with things like ‘Learn Spanish in Five Easy Steps.’”
Without discrete categories, Morris says: “The best ideas won’t necessarily rise to the top. If you build a better mousetrap, people may not come because they may not even know about it. If there are 500,000 apps on the App Store and another 500,000 on Android’s store, how do you find one that helps a blind person navigate a city street? If you know its name, great. But if you’re looking to compare features, functionality and options, it’s difficult.”
Further complicating the issue is that there are no standardized keywords when searching for apps. “Is foursquare an assistive app?” Morris asks. “Yes. But, there’s a lot of ambiguity about what apps qualify as assistive technology in the app world. And that presents a challenge.”
The App Factory was created, Mueller says, “to develop apps for people of all ages and disabilities, including senior citizens and those who may have age-related loss of function.”
Wireless RERC uses a variety of online technologies to update consumers and industry about its App Factory apps and other projects. Those technologies include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, email newsletters and its newly revamped website, wirelessrerc.org. Developers and industry leaders use these resources to learn about unmet needs from content posted by advocacy groups, user groups and members of Wireless RERC’s Consumer Advisory Network, which has about 1,000 members.
Wireless RERC’s YouTube channel also offers a variety of app tutorials, and its Facebook page encourages consumers with disabilities to share their experiences using wireless technology.
Conducting research and developing apps for people with disabilities is one mission of the Wireless RER C, a collaborative effort between Shepherd Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The App Factory uses that information as guidance in developing applications for unmet needs and niche markets that commercial developers neglect.
“The deaf-blind community is one of those,” Mueller says. “We want to be open to address solutions that address their population. Generally, we’re trying to level the playing field across all disabilities.”
One of the App Factory’s recent applications, Braille Touch, allows blind and visually impaired users to type messages on a smart phone without looking at a keyboard. “Typing the Braille alphabet on a smart phone using Braille Touch can be very fast,” Morris says. “This app also could inspire sighted people to learn Braille because it’s very easy to use and facilitates learning the Braille alphabet.”
Mueller says that as technology improves, new needs can be addressed. “People want more independence,” he says, “and as they become more independent, they want to live on their own, not in institutions. Technology has the opportunity to fill that void.”
Apps for People with Disabilities
The Wireless RERC doesn’t endorse the apps listed below, but acknowledges that the apps could benefit a wide range of people with disabilities.
- foursquare: enables people to send text and photos to each other while moving about. Also locates restaurants and other urban features. Compatible with iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm, Windows Phone. App Store and Google Play: Free.
- Google Latitude: allows users to report where they are on a map and choose which friends and family members know it. Compatible with iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. Google Play and App Store: Free.
- Parking Mobility: users photograph cars illegally parked in disabled parking spots. Parking Mobility forwards the information to city authorities, who can ticket violators and donate a portion of the fine to a charity of the user’s choice. Compatible with iPhone, Android, BlackBerry. App Store and Google Play: Free.
- FEMA: information on disasters, interactive checklist for emergency kits, emergency meeting locations, advice on staying safe and recovering from a disaster, and location of FEMA recovery center and shelters. Compatible with Android, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (4.0 or later). Google Play and App Store: Free.
- Ready Georgia: state version of the FEMA app sends local weather warnings and public health alerts along with evacuation routes, Red Cross shelters, etc. Compatible with Android, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad (iOS 3.1 or later). Google Play and App Store: Free.
- Smart-ICE: allows a pre-recorded message to be played for emergency personnel (ICE stands for In Case of Emergency) detailing important medical information at push of a button. Includes buttons that dial emergency services and sound an alarm if patient is unconscious and sends location to dispatchers. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (iOS 3.2 or later). App Store: $.99
- Emergency Button: sends a distress signal, user’s GPS location and a personalized message. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- Close Calls: primarily for locating clients and businesses, but allows users to create a wallpaper image with name, emergency phone number, allergies, medications, etc., and displays it on-screen whether phone is locked or not. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch. App Store: Free.
- Alyacom Emergency: alert button calls emergency number and allows user’s location to be tracked using GPS coordinates. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- iSOS: SOS button sends an email or SMS message with user’s name, date, time and location according to GPS coordinates. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (iOS 4.1 or later). App Store: Free.
- My Weather Mobile: reports detailed weather conditions anywhere in the world and advises registered users of weather alerts. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad (iOS 4.0 or later). App Store: Free.
- American Red Cross Shelter View: locations and details of 60,000 Red Cross shelters in the U.S. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (iOS 3.0 or later). App Store: Free.
- S.O.S. by American Red Cross: step-by-step video demonstrations by Dr. Oz demonstrating how to respond to emergencies. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- Pill Identifier Lite: A database of pill images for more than 14,000 U.S. medications searchable by imprint, drug name, color and shape. Requires an internet connection. Compatible with iPhone only. App Store: $.99.
- Pocket Pharmacist: summaries of the 1,100 most-used prescription drugs in the U.S. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (iOS 5.0 or later). App Store: $1.99.
- iPharmacy: includes ratings, dosages, warnings, and contra-indications of medications as well as a pill identifier, medication reminder, prescription discount and weekly pharmacy deals. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- A Special Phone: Users with visual impairments can dial numbers by simply shaking the phone. Also, touching the screen activates a voice announcing each number and allows eyes-free and speed-dial dialing. Compatible with iPhone (iOS 3.0 or later). App Store: $.99.
- Eyes-Free Shell: Moving a finger over the screen enables eyes-free access to all applications. Lifting finger activates the app. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- Barcode Scanner: uses camera function to read barcode and identifies prices and reviews to reader. Also shares apps, contacts and bookmarks via QR (Quick Response) code. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- Color Identifier: one of many color identifiers (others: Color Visor, Color Reader, Color Edition, Hue Vue, ColorBlind Tools) that allow users with visual impairments to use the camera to detect and announce colors. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (iOS 4.0 or later). App Store: $1.99.
- Eye Note and LookTel Money Reader: Use a camera to read currencies and announce the denomination in real time. Eye Note reads only U.S. currency; LookTel Money Reader reads US, Euro, British, Canadian and Australian currency. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad. App Store: Eye Note, free; LookTel Money Reader, $9.99.
- iAugComm: allows users with speech impairments to program multiple recordings for upcoming events such as going to a restaurant or a ballgame. Compatible with Android. Google Play: $4.99.
- Alexicomm AAC for Android: turns phone or tablet into an augmentative communication device using more than 1,200 pre-made pages and 7,000 images. Pages are imported and customized and new ones can be created. AT&T’s Natural Voices allows text-to-speech in 20 voices and five languages. Compatible with Android. Google Play: Free.
- Zello Walkie Talkie: turns phone into walkie-talkie for instant communication with friends or family without typing or reading. Works on any network and Wi-Fi, although users report bugs. Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad (iOS 4.2 or later), Android. App Store and Google Play: Free.
– John Christensen
For more information on the Wireless RERC, a collaboration between Shepherd
Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology, see www.wirelessrerc.org.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.