The Internet of Things (IoT) is a great tool for those with disabilities, experts say, but government and industry can do more to ensure that IoT devices are accessible by all, through the implementation of universal design.

“From the perspective of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the Internet of Things is a wonderful thing,” said Christian Vogler, associate professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

“It will create important new benefits for people with disabilities,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), explaining that IoT can improve medical treatment, more easily enable disabled persons to engage in daily activities, and improve communication.

“The Internet of Things offers opportunities to increase independence by reducing the need for personal assistance at home,” Castro said, adding that smart pill bottles, sensors in the home, and advances in assistance robots would enable people with disabilities to live at home or alone while still ensuring quality care.

“The Internet of Things has the ability to not only improve the health and fitness of individuals, but also enable early diagnosis and prevention of certain diseases and illnesses,” said Castro, adding that standard wearables like Fitbit and more advanced wearable medical devices can help doctors monitor their patients, reduce costs of inpatient care, and provide a wealth of data for researchers to study. In fact, Castro said that more medical device manufacturers should design with the collection of communitywide data in mind.

“These technologies have potentially enormous benefits for people with disabilities, but these benefits are by no means guaranteed. There’s the user benefit and the broader network benefit, and we need government to help close the gap so that we invest fully in all of the benefits of the Internet of Things,” said Castro. “We need a regulatory environment that encourages data sharing.”

In addition to closing the gap in personal versus widespread benefit, Castro and others advocated for government and industry consensus on product compatibility, so that systems controlling IoT devices through disability-accessible means can communicate with each other and with all types of Internet-connected devices.

“Clearly universal design should be universal, it should be everywhere,” said John Godfrey, senior vice president of public policy at Samsung Electronics America.  “It’s more economically sustainable to think of it as a system.”

Vogler added that devices should be designed with all disabilities in mind so that, for instance, a blind person could use sound-based controls for the device or system, but a deaf person could also use visual displays or vibrations to get the same result.

“We need to encourage universal design for smart devices,” said Castro. “You should not be getting a degree in software computer engineering if you have not had exposure to people with disabilities.”

Castro added that the government should act as an early adopter of universally designed devices, “to de-risk some of the innovation.”

Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and senior adviser for science for the Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council, explained that IoT devices with universal design benefit more than just people with disabilities.

“Worrying about universal design winds up improving functionality for everyone,” Kalil said.

IoT and big data will be the central topics at MeriTalk’s third annual Big Data Exchange Brainstorm on November 16. Register today.

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Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Cybersecurity, FedRAMP, GSA, Congress, Treasury, DOJ, NIST and Cloud Computing.