Erick Ponce works in a government communications department in northern Ecuador. The 26-year-old happens to be deaf — a disability he has had since childhood. Communicating fluidly with his non-signing colleagues at work, and in public spaces like the supermarket, has been a lifelong challenge.
In 2017, Ponce became one of the first users of an experimental app called SpeakLiz, developed by an Ecuadorian startup called Talov. It transforms written text to sound, transcribes spoken words, and can alert a deaf or hard-of-hearing person to sounds like that of an ambulance, motorcycles, music, or a crying baby.
Once he began using SpeakLiz, Ponce’s coworkers — and his family — were able to understand him more easily. “You cannot imagine what it feels like to speak with your son after 20 years,” his father told the app’s engineers. Now a part of the Talov team, Ponce demos new products to make them better before they hit the market.
The startup has launched two subscription apps on iOS and Android: SpeakLiz, in 2017, for the hearing impaired, and Vision, in 2019, for the visually impaired. Talov’s founders, Hugo Jácome and Carlos Obando, have been working on the apps for over five years.
SpeakLiz and Vision are, by many measures, successful. Their software is used by more than 7,000 people in 81 countries and is available in 35 languages. The founders won an award from MIT Technology Review and a contest organized by the History Channel. Talov was named among the top 100 most innovative startups in Latin America in 2019.
But the startup is still struggling. Venture capitalists aren’t knocking on its door. Jácome and Obando sold some of their possessions to raise enough money to launch, and the team has next to no funding to continue expanding.
Although the last few years have seen significant advances in technology and innovation for disabled people, critics say the market is undervalued. A growing scene of startup founders and innovators in developing countries — from Ecuador to India — are coming up with solutions that work. But for companies like Talov that have made an impact in their customers’ lives, success, in the classic Silicon Valley sense, remains elusive.
Assistive technology is an umbrella term for the products and services that help improve a person’s functioning and independence. The industry encompasses the development and manufacture of products like wheelchairs, hearing aids, prostheses, and, increasingly, tech-based solutions like chatbots and AI interfaces on phones and computers.
The market for this technology is massive. Over a billion people are estimated to have a disability, 80% of whom live in developing countries, making them the world’s largest minority. And unlike many other markers of identity, disability is a fluid category — it’s something that can happen to any person at any time.
Still, access lags behind demand. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, over two billion people will need at least one assistive product but that only 1 in 10 people in need have access to assistive technology today. For many outside of the U.S., high costs, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of formal policies that mandate accommodations remain persistent obstacles to access.
Amy Gaeta, a researcher in disability studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, noted that big companies often shroud their accessibility initiatives in a rhetoric of pity. Their main motivation, Gaeta said, is “the social capital they get from looking woke. You don’t see that as much in non-Western countries.” Having a small project meant to keep engineers happy and maintain a sense of “doing good” is a different design motivation than, say, one driven by the necessity of making tech more accessible from its inception, said Gaeta. In many cases, she says, disability becomes an add-on to existing technologies rather than something integrated at the very start.
In Gaeta’s view, “Big Tech is definitely not doing enough when it comes to disability.” Companies “are really not incorporating the voices of disabled people,” she said, “and a lot of the interventions that I’ve seen, such as the wheelchair that can help people stand, are not really assistive technologies so much as they are corrective technologies.” In other words, the interventions attempt to change disabled people to conform to the world around them rather than the opposite.
Gaeta said that the best way to judge the commitment of a startup or a tech company to assistive technology is to ask if they hire disabled designers. Do they actively seek out the voice of disabled people in their iteration process without tokenizing them? Then: how well do those solutions work? What are the reviews from users like? According to Gaeta, having a relationship with the community and incorporating feedback is key. Tech companies must work with the community rather than producing for them. The most successful solutions, she argues, come when disabled people are invited to the table from the outset.
Gaeta identifies as a member of the disability community. She proudly claims being neurodivergent and has a long history of chronic pain and nerve issues. “My body does not fit in the world. So I am constantly thinking in this creative mindset,” she added. “What can I do to make the world for myself?”
Even though the community of disabled people is so large, assistive features are often an afterthought to existing technologies. Often, organizations only choose to make accommodations because they face pressure from advocates, or because they become the subjects of lawsuits. In 2017, Emanuel Delacruz, who is blind, sued several U.S. colleges and universities because their tuition costs and academic calendar sites were inaccessible to him. Video game players with disabilities and chronic illnesses have forged their own paths instead of waiting for manufacturers to accommodate them. More often than not, disabled people have to turn to expensive and time-consuming legal recourse in order to get accommodations.
Despite the fact that it’s difficult to turn a profit in designing tech specifically for the disabled community, Jácome and Obando have stubbornly persisted. Their latest app, Vision, relies on artificial intelligence to convert real-time footage or photos from a cell phone camera into words that are played through the phone’s speaker. This enables visually impaired people to “hear” their surroundings — a banana, a siamese cat, a $20 bill — by pointing their phone camera in the direction of those things. The app also tells a person how far away each object is, names its colors, and can read text on a restaurant menu or a street sign out loud. An April update of SpeakLiz, the app that helps Ponce speak with his father, includes basic American Sign Language (ASL) recognition, using a cell phone camera. (Talov’s team is currently researching ways that it can incorporate Ecuadorian Sign Language into its technology.) It’s the team’s first attempt to recognize sign language without third-party sensors. The technology is as much for the disabled community as it is for the people around them.
Jácome and Obando’s first source of external funding, $50,000, came in 2017 from Ecuador’s “Extraordinary Entrepreneurs League 3” contest, organized by Ecuador’s National Financial Corporation. In 2019, Talov placed second in a competition organized by the History Channel, winning $30,000.
The money was earmarked for very specific purposes. The first prize was used to build the AI platform behind their apps, which they were careful to build in a way that works offline. “We hired a lot of crazy guys that were geniuses in coding, very young kids that were very good at that,” Jácome told Rest of World.
Most of the prize money from the History Channel went toward providing devices for disabled people in Ecuador that are preloaded with Talov’s apps. Since launching, Talov has issued more than 200 free lifetime subscriptions. Globally, more than 20,000 users have downloaded their apps, and before the pandemic, Talov had 2,440 paid subscribers.
While these awards affirmed the concept behind their startup, relying on prize money from competitions isn’t a sustainable business model. Jácome has watched fintech apps and food delivery services in Latin America raise venture capital easily, both products known for fast and profitable exits. “Startups like ours are most concentrated in the long term, in making a long-term impact with different kinds of users that face different kinds of challenges,” he said. In a “food delivery service, you can include 100% of humanity, virtually, in your user space. But for us, disability accessibility is most concentrated in a smaller group.”
Jácome acknowledged that this delineation is relative. Although the community of disabled people is large, their needs are not uniform, so the products tailored to each group are inherently niche. “Traditional VCs will never support a startup like ours,” he lamented.
There is also the social stigma associated with disability to contend with. “In our country and possibly in all the region, accessibility is not a field that people consider often as a priority,” Jácome added.
When Lenín Moreno — a politician who has been using a wheelchair for decades, after being shot during a burglary attempt — was elected as Ecuador’s president in 2017, Talov’s founders thought briefly that this would be good news. As the world’s only current head of state in a wheelchair (he even served as a United Nations Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Disability and Accessibility), Moreno made disability rights part of his public persona. “People with disabilities must be active militants in the monumental task of definitely breaking the barriers of exclusion and inequality,” he said in a 2015 speech.
Jácome and his partner thought that national policy would follow, which would make their business easier to sustain. Four years later, that hasn’t been the case. Moreno’s government has been mired in corruption charges, and Jácome says his administration has taken little action to address Ecuador’s issues, let alone made changes that would benefit disabled people.
“I don’t know what happened,” Jácome said. “Politicians are politicians.”
The history of communication technologies, like the keyboard and SMS messaging, offers some clues about what might happen if investments in accessible technology were given priority. In 1575, Italian printmaker Francesco Rampazetto developed an early predecessor of the typewriter called the scrittura tattile, an instrument that could impress letters in paper, as an auxiliary device for the blind. And 233 years later, in 1808, Pellegrino Turri created the first typewriter so that his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, could write letters to him more easily.
In the 1980s, a similar way of thinking led to the development of SMS messages. Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen wanted to create a system that would help hearing-impared people communicate on mobile networks. Makkonen pitched the concept in 1984, and the first SMS message — “Merry Christmas” — was sent in 1992. Today, texts are a part of our everyday lives; an estimated 3.5 trillion text messages were sent around the world in 2020.
Although design for disabled people has driven significant technological advancements, the current state of the industry leaves much to be desired. Haben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, wrote in TechCrunch that a Starship robot for contactless deliveries didn’t recognize her as a disabled pedestrian on the sidewalk; instead, the robot stopped right in front of her, forcing her to awkwardly maneuver around the motionless robot. During the Covid-19 pandemic, few virtual event organizers have taken the step of using real-time automatic captioning for livestreams. An entire Tumblr blog, Accessibility Fails, is dedicated to examples of design in public space that are sometimes comically inadequate.
Vidhya Yella Reddy is a research fellow at Microsoft Research India and the co-founder of the nonprofit Vision Empower Trust, which provides STEM learning resources for children who are blind or have low vision in India. She has experienced many of these tech shortcomings firsthand. In her daily life, Reddy uses Envision, an app designed for the visually impaired, created by a design team in the Netherlands that lets her use her voice to type.
Tech solutions often fail, Reddy said, because the people attempting to innovate have a limited understanding of what the community needs. “I have heard a lot from people; whenever they see me or when they talk about technologies, they will be like, Oh, something to help you walk, that cane thing would be helpful, right?” Reddy told Rest of World. These able-bodied people worry about her bumping into things, she says, and rarely innovate outside of iterating on existing aids, like a new cane.
Reddy says this concern comes from a lack of awareness. When she gives talks to technologists or research institutions, hardly anyone in the audience has heard of a screen reader, which is built into every Android and iOS system. “They’re not aware that something like that exists even on their phone,” she said.
Recently, Google introduced Sound Notifications, which lets an Android user know if a tap is running near them, a dog is barking, or an appliance is beeping. The company is also experimenting with clothing that can detect gestures and translate them into smartphone commands. Twitter is working to add automated captions to audio and video clips. Facebook has added an option for automatic closed captions on live video content in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, and French.
While these are all important steps, they are just that: a beginning.
In India, polio was widespread until the mid 1980s, and while the WHO announced its total eradication in 2014, an entire generation of adults in India live with mobility impairments. Anita Ghai, disability rights activist and dean of the School of Human Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, is part of this generation. Ghai was born in 1958, several years before the polio vaccine became commercially available in India. She contracted the virus at age 2 and has no memory of an able body. The aftermath of the virus made the use of a wheelchair necessary. Her daily life is difficult in many ways. Many grocery shops, for example, have two to five steps before the front door. She has to wait outside for someone to bring her bread or a bar of soap. The public gaze can be a source of discomfort.
Ghai advocated for years to get a standing wheelchair to use on the stairs in a movie theater that she frequents in New Delhi and, ultimately, was successful. “You have to fight. You have no other way,” Ghai told Rest of World. “These are ordinary things.” But the daily nature of these inconveniences is grating.
Unlike people with mobility impairment in the U.S., Ghai often finds herself in a city without even the suggestion of ease. Many parking lots in the U.S. have, at the very least, reserved spaces for disabled people, the result of a 1968 Congressional act. When Ghai goes out shopping, she contends with a crowded street that rarely has a functional sidewalk, let alone a ramp for her wheelchair. “Uneven ground, passing pedestrians, cars, buses, auto rickshaws, and cycles whizz past inches from me as I try, with rising panic, to desperately work out the kerb cuts,” she wrote in her 2015 book Rethinking Disability in India.
When she attended a conference in San Francisco in 2005, she was amazed that basic tasks like shopping for food could be so simple. She was gifted a Quickie motorized wheelchair from mobility advocate David Richard, a tool she couldn’t afford at home. (Previously, she had been using a manual wheelchair in New Delhi.) “Today, after two decades, my wheelchair has become the source of my liberation,” Ghai wrote in her 2015 book.
As a disability rights activist, Ghai maintains that voices from the Global South need to be a larger part of any conversations about assistive technology design and development — the majority of the global population of disabled people live in the Global South.
Ghai has accepted the fact that India’s megacities are not going to become wheelchair friendly anytime soon. A handful of assistive technology startups are developing products to fill the gap in access and ameliorate the wheelchair unfriendliness of public spaces. One of these products is TurnPlus, created by Anand Kutre, a mechanical engineer in Bengaluru. His startup, True Consultancy, retrofits cars so that the seats can be swiveled, making getting in and getting out of a car easier.
The technology behind TurnPlus is simple: The original seat remains intact, and a swivel mechanism is installed under the seat. TurnPlus doesn’t require electricity or batteries. It can be moved with one pound of effort: the equivalent of exertion from a single finger. The intervention costs about $600 (45,000 rupees), including installation, and is advertised not only to help wheelchair users but also people with back pain, knee problems, arthritis, and chronic illnesses. It is also useful for those who have limited mobility after recovering from surgery.
“We came across senior citizens who avoid traveling simply because they find it difficult to get in and out of the car. Our product will help them hit the streets again,” Kutre told YourStory in 2017. Before the article, Kutre had sold about five units through word of mouth. After the media hit, his sales increased. To date, he has sold 120 units. Though TurnPlus is not yet available outside of India, Kutre is in conversation with a network of car dealerships in the U.S.
Products like TurnPlus could make Ghai’s life easier — to get from the driver’s seat of her car to her motorized wheelchair, she currently puts her weight on the car seat or door handle, which can be unpleasant; sometimes, her shirt risks slipping off. “It’s also a sense of shame, at this age,” she admitted. When she spoke to Rest of World in 2020, Ghai hadn’t heard of TurnPlus’ swivel seat mechanism. “Our biggest challenge was awareness,” Kutre said.
Although the pandemic put a strain on the country’s economy, India’s VC culture is thriving: In 2020, a record $10 billion in VC funding flowed into consumer tech, software, and fintech startups in India. The most recent Y Combinator had more startups from India than from any other country outside of the Western bubble. But Kutre says that venture capitalists often overlook disability entirely. Even if a firm says that they are interested in impact funding, “they still look at their standard of three times or five times returns in a certain period of time,” Kutre said. “That mindset, I think, has to change. They will get the returns, but maybe the time period will be more.” So far, he has funded his business with his own earnings from his consulting firm.
“The innovations are very few and they’re starting now,” said Reddy of Vision Empower Trust. “Before it was mostly charity orientated,” she said, “but, slowly, the space is changing.”
“It’s much better than before. But still, it’s the beginning. It has just started.”
For Jácome and Obando, making fast money and having an impact are, perhaps, two different things. “Startups like ours are most concentrated in making a long-term impact with different kinds of users that face different kinds of challenges,” Jácome said. “There are very few VCs or investors that are looking for something other than making a lot of money fast — that are looking for social and environmental impact,” he added.
Traditional sources of funding aren’t even on Talov’s radar. “We are always looking for a different kind of investor, trying to search in big companies like Apple and Google and their accessibility programs [to find] the support that we often need,” Jácome said. But compared to a delivery service, “it’s harder for us.”
Gaeta, the disability studies researcher in Wisconsin, went one step further. “I would go so far as to say that people don’t see these kinds of assistive technologies as valuable,” she said. “You get the sense from this kind of widespread permeated ideology that disabled people are of lesser social value. They’re of lesser importance.”