Inaccessible sidewalks are a significant barrier for people with disabilities. People who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs and scooters face rough rides when sidewalks are cracked and broken; in winter when snow and ice make some sidewalks impassible for wheeled devices; and especially when intersections lack curb ramps, which can make sidewalks completely inaccessible.
Sidewalks in disrepair are not just an issue for people with mobility devices, but for anyone walking down the street as well. It was reported recently in the Toronto Star that a simple cracked curb on King Street in Downtown Toronto, was responsible for a senior falling and breaking her wrist, necessitating months of painful recovery.
The situation is worse in suburban communities which often have inconsistent or completely missing sidewalks, forcing users to either share space with vehicles or attempt to navigate areas of grass or shoulders adjacent to the road that are not intended for pedestrians, let alone pedestrians with disabilities. However, adding sidewalks to streets that don’t currently have them is not as simple as it sounds. Residents of Scarborough’s Chine Drive have been fighting a proposal to construct a sidewalk on their street as part of a general street refurbishment project, even though it would provide easier access to a neighbourhood school for children in the surrounding community. Many of these children are currently driven to school due to the lack of sidewalks.
Looking abroad, the City of Los Angeles faces far greater sidewalk troubles: the city currently estimates that 42% of its 10,750 miles of sidewalks are in disrepair, with an estimated cost of $1.5 billion to repair and bring these sidewalks up to modern accessibility standards, including curb ramps at intersections. In addition, the City is currently facing four civil rights lawsuits that have been filed for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
People with vision loss also face barriers when street intersections lack tactile walking surface indicators at sidewalk curb ramps or are not equipped with audible pedestrian signals. In Kitchener, ON, pedestrians with vision loss have argued that they are at risk due to the location of pedestrian crossings at roundabouts, as there is no way for them to tell when it’s safe to cross the street. Traffic experts have argued that while moving the crosswalks to be outside the roundabouts would make crossing the streets easier for people with vision loss, that they would actually put other pedestrians at greater risk.
One potential solution for people with vision loss is a new smartphone application currently being developed at the University of Minnesota. The application is able to tell users with vision loss which direction they are heading, what street they are on, how many vehicle lanes they have to cross at intersections, and also allows users to request a walk signal simply by pushing a button on the phone by tying into existing Accessible Pedestrian Signals.
Advances in technology are changing the lives of people with disabilities, including people with autism. Recently, a “hackathon” was held where smartphone app developers created over 400 ideas for new applications to assist people with autism, ranging from apps that help teach life skills to others that help students with autism visualize information in different ways. Other smartphone apps have also been in the news recently, to help people with disabilities use these now ubiquitous devices.
However, not all autism technological advances are via smartphone. Researchers at the University of Victoria have developed a new software program called FaceMaze, a game which aims to help children with autism improve their facial recognition skills and learn to “speak” the language of smiles and frowns. In the game, children must match their facial expressions with the ones shown on virtual characters on the screen in order to advance through the game. The goal is to help children with autism learn how to participate in and react to social situations, and so far in clinical trials it seems to be working, with improvement found after only 20 hours of game play.
For more information about FaceMaze, or if your child is interested in participating, visit: http://web.uvic.ca/~carte/research.html
Smartphones, such as Android-powered devices, iPhones, and Blackberry’s, have become ubiquitous over the past few years. These phones, which typically embrace large touch screens over physical buttons and keyboards, are now replacing traditional cell phones, having accounted for 1/3 of all phones sold this summer. But what about people with disabilities, whether visual, auditory, or others? Can a person with a visual disability use an iPhone, despite the lack of a physical keyboard? Or how about a user with limited dexterity who cannot easily move their fingers around a touch screen, especially when completing an action like zooming in and out on a webpage typically requires the use of more than one finger? The answer is a resounding yes, they can!
The latest generations of smartphones, such as the new Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” devices, Apple’s iPhone series, and BlackBerry's all come with accessibility features built in. For example, iPhones let you turn the screen off entirely and navigate by touching the screen and receiving voice feedback, or navigating entirely by using voice control. Android 4.0 has a similar feature that lets users slide their fingers across the screen while providing voice feedback. A wide range of accessibility features for BlackBerry phones are also available, including everything from customizable notification vibrations to support for TTY devices.
Other options like magnification and different contrast settings are readily available for smartphones. For users with limited dexterity, Apple’s AssistiveTouch software lets you replace gestures (pinching with two fingers to zoom in, etc.), shaking the phone to undo typing, and other physical buttons (volume up and down, power off, etc), with a finger or stylus tap on the screen. Third party applications (“app”) are also readily available to solve problems for users with various disabilities. One example is an app that scans barcodes on products and reads the product name back to the user.
Software developers are just getting started on creating new and innovative ways for users with disabilities to use their smartphones. As these devices become even more popular, it will be interesting to see how accessible smartphones continue to evolve over the coming years.