(TNS) — When there's an emergency, a deaf person's primary way of calling 911 is still a clunky machine that looks like it should've gone the way of the fax machine and typewriter.
For Aaron Bangor, the lead accessible technology architect at AT&T, the archaic-looking device — called a teletypewriter or TTY device — symbolizes the hurdles that some face when trying to use even the most basic technology.
Bangor and his team at AT&T will soon offer a simpler, more modern solution: Real-time texts that send a message immediately and without the push of a "send" button. The recipient can see a word as soon as the sender types it. It's just one of the projects at AT&T's Corporate Accessibility Technology Office, which designs, develops and reviews projects so they're accessible for people with disabilities.
As technology continues to reshape the world with drone deliveries, new smartphone apps and self-driving cars, the office's staff aims to make innovation available to all. That means making it easier for people to use their smartphones or TV, so they can binge-watch popular shows that everyone is talking about, even if they're deaf or blind.
The goal, Bangor said, is "to not build barriers in the first place."
AT&T's Corporate Accessibility Technology Office opened in 2012, about two years after President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. The law updated federal communications law to make sure modern ways to communicate, such as broadband, mobile and digital innovations, are accessible for people with disabilities.
Last year, the 40-person staff looked at about 8,000 different products and services, Bangor said.
The office is based in Austin, which is home to a large number of advocacy groups and resources, such as Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Texas School for the Deaf. It is decorated with photos of advancements that have improved life for people with disabilities, such as hearing aids, TTY devices and payphone that's designed for wheelchair access. Each has a caption underneath it in both written English and braille.
But Bangor says the company's commitment to accessibility goes back to its beginning. Alexander Graham Bell, founder of Bell Telephone Company, invented the telephone while working at a school for the deaf. His mother and wife were both deaf, which influenced his work.
Bangor has spent his career helping to make technology more accessible. He has a Ph.D. in human factors engineering, an area of study focused on designs guided by people's behavior. He's chair of the Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, an advocacy group. And his work has been fueled by his own visual and physical disabilities.
“We’re not doing technology for technology’s sake," he said. "We’re doing it for the benefit it can provide: meeting the needs of as many of our potential customers as possible.”
About 56.7 million people in the U.S. — or roughly 1 in 5 people — have a disability, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes people who have vision and hearing difficulty or with physical challenges that cause them to use a wheelchair, cane or walker.
Bangor said the lab's mission makes good business sense, especially as Baby Boomers get older and have a higher incidence of disability.
AT&T's real-time text will launch by the end of the year, Bangor said. The Federal Communications Commission paved the way by approving rules for the transition from TTY devices. By the end of the year, the FCC is requiring all companies that provide wireless services nationwide — including AT&T — to have real-time text capability.
In December, AT&T started offering a talking set-top box. DirecTV's Genie set-top boxes allow people who are blind or have impaired vision to independently navigate through hundreds or channels, toggle over to the DVR or hear a synopsis of a show. The talking set-top box also narrates visual nuances of a TV episode that a blind person might otherwise miss, such as "James gives John a disapproving look."
Some of the designs and features end up benefiting a much wider audience than intended. For example, closed captioning helps people who cannot hear, but it also allows people to watch a muted TV at the airport or follow along when a baby is crying, he said. Better contrast and an easier-to-read font on a smartphone help people with low vision, but they also help people to see their screen on sunny day.
"These universal design features are driven by needing to think more broadly and deeply," he said. "They make us come up with a better product for all of our users.”
He compares the end result to curb cuts for sidewalks, which help people in wheelchairs, but also help those who ride bikes, push strollers or pull suitcases.
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