The Future of Accessibility Innovation
FP Global Demographics Student Essay Contest, presented by AARP: As the global population ages, new technology is helping improve quality of life.
The 2015 FP Global Demographics Student Essay Contest, underwritten by AARP, invited college and graduates students from around the world to participate in an intergenerational discussion about the opportunities presented by a rapidly aging world. Dozens of students from nearly every continent shared their ideas with FP. The winning essay is presented below.
The development of accessibility innovation products and services is the greatest opportunity presented by the aging trend to the global community. Not only is the market opportunity tremendously attractive, but the resources available to entrepreneurs and innovators — ranging from start-ups to small- and mid-size enterprises to multinational corporations — to develop products and services aimed at people with disabilities have never been better. Age directly correlates with disability: As overall personal health declines with the development of acute and chronic diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory problems, disability rates increase. Seniors with a mobility disability may have difficulty walking up and down stairs, standing in one spot for prolonged periods, or moving from one room to another. Agility disabilities include difficulty bending down, dressing or undressing, getting in and out of bed, or grasping small objects. Hearing and vision disabilities include problems hearing or seeing other people, even in close contact. The primary goal and benefit of accessibility innovation products is to allow the aging global population to continue participating in the social and cultural life of their local community.
The major categories that present the greatest market opportunity for accessibility innovation are educational/instructional devices, hearing impairment devices, vision and reading aids, and mobility aids. There are numerous products already on the market that are designed with accessibility standards in mind. Handheld computers and tablets, sensory integration devices, learning software, training software, scanning/reading pens, and speech-recognition software all assist seniors with digital learning. Sophisticated hearing aids with digital microprocessors for audio impairment, and Braille translators, displays, screen magnifiers, and speech recognition tools for the visually impaired, are increasingly common. Home lifts, stair climbers, and door openers can be found in most seniors’ homes and retirement residences. Innovation in this industry is driven largely by private sector research laboratories and nonprofit institutions, which continuously develop new products.
Leading American accessibility institution MIT AgeLab USA in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has recently unveiled the Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES), a robotic suit that can be worn and has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, and strength requirements of a person in their mid-70s within retail, transportation, home, community, and workplace environments. Another example is the renowned iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research-Toronto Rehabilitation Centre, which has focused on winter-footwear injuries related to falling on ice or snow, a growing problem as the population ages. Toronto Rehab has designed winter boots and anti-slip devices with specialized insoles that enhance balance by heightening sole sensation for seniors. These novel, sophisticated products are the result of countless hours of research, studies, and testing, but as the number of elderly people approaches 2 billion globally, the growing demand means that more labs and institutions, with greater funding, will be required to keep pace with changing needs.
Besides needing shorter timelines for implementation in the future, accessibility products are also needed in developing countries, which are acutely underrepresented; they must be made more affordable to elderly people who do not have sufficient disposable income; and they must be produced using economies-of-scale production principles. Komodo OpenLab is an ideal example of what a feasible accessibility firm can look like in the future. Komodo develops inclusive technologies to facilitate the daily lives of people with disabilities. The company’s first product, Tecla, developed through open-source collaboration, involves a set of operating system tools that helps make mobile devices more accessible. Tecla allows people with disabilities to control their mobile device using interfaces they are already familiar with, such as wheelchair-driving controls or adapted switches. The set consists of a hardware component, sold online at a reasonable price, which makes it possible to connect switches or wheelchair-driving controls to the mobile device and subsequently interact with a software component. This software app can be downloaded freely using a smartphone or tablet.
Tecla’s global success can be attributed to several key factors. The first is that it is a very specialized, niche product that very few firms produce, but it can be transferred across the general accessible-technology market. A second factor is that Komodo OpenLab steers around funding agencies and marketing firms that decide whether a product is necessary or desirable, directly targeting the actual end user and consumer.
Investing in accessibility innovation for an aging population is not only a morally and ethically appropriate public policy, but it’s the smart thing to do for the future. People with disabilities are highly motivated to spend money in areas that significantly improve their quality of life or that contribute to their independence and social connectivity. Many seniors with disabilities have significant disposable income, as they no longer care for children and may already own a home. The potential value of designing and creating innovative products and services that address the needs of people with disabilities makes it a massive market opportunity.
Filip Borovsky is a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.