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New Technology Could be Key in Helping Americans with Disabilities Get from Point A to Point B

01-03-2020
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The US Department of Transportation is committing $50 million towards improving access and mobility for all Americans with a disability. 

The new initiatives work to expand access to transportation for people with disabilities by focusing on innovation in technology.

Getting from point A to point B can be the easy part, the real challenge for many disabled persons is all the steps we don't think about. Getting out of the car, onto the curb and through the door at a destination. Technology is working to change that. 

New technology like the "We Walk" smart cane is helping visually impaired people navigate the world. 

"We Walk" connects to Google Maps and even detects overhead obstacles.

Another gamechanger for some 10 million visually impaired Americans is Aira's Smart Glasses, which connect to operators who "see" for those who can't.

There's even a smartwatch that uses Braille to convey messages.

"If you are going to lose your vision at any point in history, this is a good time," said Juleann Lieberman, an assistive technology specialist at TechOWL based in Pennsylvania. 

"There's a lot of tools out there than there were even ten years ago, it's a very fast-moving environment," said Lieberman.  

For the deaf and hard of hearing like Tom Diagostino, there are "talk to text" apps for smartphones that help those with hearing loss see what people say. 

Whether it's "assistive tech or just tech, in general, it is what works best for you," said Diagostino, an outreach and training coordinator who works with Lieberman at TechOWL.

But for all the advances, Lieberman, who is legally blind, says there are still gaps in the system. 

"Even if I call somebody and they could look through my camera on my phone to read a sign to me the cellular location may disappear so that can be a challenge indoors," she said.

Technology is helping to fill in those drop off points, but there's still a long way to go. 

"You can't get from point a to point b in this country without running into barriers as a person with a disability. It just doesn't happen. It doesn't happen on a short trip and it doesn't happen on a long trip," said Kelly Buckland, the director of the National Council on Independent Living.

Speaking at an "Access and Mobility for All" summit in Washington, Buckland said, "technology is probably one of the most promising things and at the same time I think causes some of the most problems." 

To that end, the Transportation Department is awarding $5 million for technology that improves the accessibility of light-duty passenger vehicles.

In October, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a $40 million "complete trip" program over the next four years.

"By working together, we can help ensure that the dream of a new era of freedom, inclusion, and mobility becomes a reality," said Chao.

For now, however, that "complete trip," according to Buckland, "really doesn't exist."

Buckland says new technologies like autonomous chair lifts and autonomous vehicles hold great promise if done right. 

"We have to think about a universal way of addressing all of the different kinds of disability issues and making it accessible," he said. 

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