There are millions of consumers in this world eager to pay for technology that would make their lives easier. The problem is, no one will make it for them.
I am one of those millions. It’s easy to spot us, because we are all confined to wheelchairs, stuck in our rolling seats while a new world of technology passes us by. For the able-bodied population, this world sits snugly in the palm of their hands, evolving by the millisecond on the ubiquitous smartphone that offers endless communication possibilities with a simple swipe.
According to statista.com, 5 billion people will be using mobile phones by 2017. But I will not be one of them.
Nine years ago, I fell off a ladder and in a crushing instant, went from being able-bodied to living as a quadriplegic. With no leg mobility, severely impaired hand functions and barely able to move my head from side to side, my limitations were obvious. The trach tube in my neck compromised my speech and, in turn, cut me off from simple, daily communications.
As a former navy commander and electrical engineer, I rallied my solution-driven nature and began to invent gadgets to make my life easier. My motto was that if no one else was going to do it, I was. Yet when it came to regaining my ability to communicate ‘normally’ like everyone else, I was left behind.
Inclusion is the term thrown around a lot about people with disabilities. We are like you...and you....and you.
We want to be able to send our friends text messages, see and share photos on Facebook and Instagram, play video games on our phones. We want to express intimacies with our loved ones in a private phone call. We want to be active members of society, not outsiders. But, we have limitations that are being ignored by today’s technological advances.
Wheelchair-bound people were the original technology adapters. Long before the rest of the population was using apps to download music, plan vacations and chat with friends, we were relying on technological aides to complete the most basic tasks just to get through the day.
Smartphones today are so much more than just a way to call people. They are a portal into modern society and all it offers -- a world of virtual social interactions, a way of more easily accomplishing tasks like emailing and shopping, a means of expanding our horizons through podcasts and millions of apps.
And that’s just the starting point. The Internet of Things (IoT) and the emergence of the connected home means the smartphone is quickly becoming the remote control of our everyday lives. A smartphone designed for the disabled population would allow us to take control of basic tasks that we are already using technology to help us accomplish, like turning on the lights and TV at home, or regulating the air conditioner.
One day about three years ago, I watched a mobile gaming developer, Oded Ben Dov, demonstrating a hands-free video game on TV. Hands free! This was a game-changing invention for me and other quadriplegics, people suffering from ALS, Parkinson's disease, Multiple Sclerosis, severe Arthritis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and others that have limited to no use of their hands. The engineer in me immediately understood that this technology could be used to develop the smartphone that I knew would change my life. I tracked down Oded and convinced him to launch a startup with me focused on developing the world’s first completely touch-free smartphone, Sesame Enable.
My dream is slowly coming true. But there is so much more to do and too few entrepreneurs and startups dedicated to opening doors for people with disabilities. I’m hoping that 2016 will be a year of change, where more companies commit to taking the lead in advancing technology that can help turn us from disabled to enabled.
So far, too few have made such a commitment. A3I remains the first and only accelerator dedicated to ability technology and I don’t know of any organizations outside of TOM that organize “makeathons” to encourage developers and engineers to use their brainpower for this goal. I’m not talking about charity or non-profit work here -- there is huge market potential for such technologies. Just look at ReWalk or MotionSavvy for living proof.
For now, technology companies like ours -- who lack the crucial support of venture capitalists -- are forced to rely on angel investors and the generosity of companies like Google, which just partnered with Beit Issie Shapiro to grant $1 million in order to donate the Sesame Enable technology to every individual in Israel whose life could be improved by such a phone. This amounts to 5,000 Israelis -- Jewish and Arab -- literally every single disabled person in Israel who stands to benefit from the unprecedented freedom this technology fosters.
But just as we fight to be mainstreamed, I’d like to see the technology and business communities mainstream ability innovations as well.
For now, I am grateful to have finally joined the smartphone revolution. My smartphone... has a nice ring to it, no pun intended.
I am more independent now. I control numerous IoT functions in my house. When I'm hot, I turn on the air conditioner; when it gets dark, I turn on the lights. And on our anniversary, I order flowers for my wife. These might seem like small inconsequential tasks to you, but they have changed my life.