Xbox and Special Olympics hold first ‘Gaming for Inclusion’ esports event

Gaming in general is moving towards accessibility, but that’s not as much the case in esports, which like other sports are competitive and by nature somewhat exclusive. Xbox and the Special Olympics are working together on a new event that combines competition with inclusion, and it’s going on right now.

This week, Special Olympics athletes will be competing against each other in tournaments of Rocket League, Madden NFL 22, and Forza Motorsports 7. The prize, other than prestige and pride, is playing with one of the Special Olympics’ celebrity supporters: “NBA superstar Jayson Tatum, NFL legend Jamaal Charles, and WWE Superstars.”

“This tournament is a meaningful and important step in making esports more accessible and it empowers Special Olympics athletes with a new way to compete,” said Jenn Panattoni, Head of Xbox Social Impact. “Xbox has invested in numerous accessibility features and products, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller and features like copilot or speech to text. The purpose of all this continued work is to ensure that players feel welcome and that they belong on the Xbox platform.”

The tournaments are being recorded right now, and will be broadcast over the rest of the week, along with the “celebrity showcase” coming Saturday with recaps. You can check out a schedule at the bottom of this post, but generally just keep an eye on the Xbox Twitch channel and Special Olympics YouTube channel.

I like to highlight these events because accessibility has been on the back burner for so long in the gaming world, and now we’re seeing big moves by developers, publishers, and partners to make things better. Microsoft’s XAC is a great example, as is the panoply of visual, audio, and difficulty options in the latest Ratchet & Clank game. Esports is definitely one of the areas that needs more diversity, though, and the participating players were glad to take part. I asked Special Olympics Jose Moreno and Colton Rice for their thoughts on the matter.

Do you think competitive gaming is getting more accessible?

Rice: Competitive gaming is definitely getting more accessible. Not only are the games becoming more accessible, accessibility allows people with disabilities to become more competitive players. People with intellectual disabilities are always trying to compete at their best. We want to do what everyone else is doing, and sometimes just need a little help to make that happen.

Moreno: I do think that competitive gaming is getting more accessible because Microsoft has started bringing out video game controllers that are accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities – accessible to everybody. I’m a lifelong gamer, and accessibility in esports has been game-changing. Accessible gaming wasn’t available when I was growing up. Today, it’s so much more fun to play when you can play with friends of all abilities and everybody can participate.

Special Olympics athletes Colton Rice, left, and Jose Moreno.

How are you experiencing that change?

Moreno: In my opinion, the more the video games industry include people with intellectual disabilities, the better the video game community is going to get to know how we love playing video games just like everybody else. And through events like Gaming for Inclusion, I’m not just able to compete – I’m included as a part of a community of gamers where I am welcomed and included.

Rice: People with intellectual disabilities have skills and pay attention to details; when we set our minds to do something, we practice until we are the best we can be especially when we enjoy doing it – and that includes gaming. People with disabilities just need more time to learn, but when you’re dedicated to something that you’re passionate about, you won’t stop until you succeed.

What’s something you’d like to see more of, from developers, publishers etc?

Moreno: I would like to see more from developers or makers or publishers of video games in general or computer games to include more people with intellectual disabilities in the video game workforce. People with intellectual disabilities can play a variety of roles and provide unique perspectives on how to improve the gaming experience. Publishers and developers can get a different perspective from people with disabilities; whether that’s featuring people with intellectual disabilities represented in their storylines or seeing them in the games themselves. We’re eager to be a part of this process, and there are lots of passionate gamers with intellectual disabilities who would like to participate in focus groups or in actual jobs as creators within the industry.

Rice: The companies who make these games are trying to make high quality games that are enjoyable for everybody. There is still a lot that can be done to make games more accessible. For example, it can be frustrating when gamers with intellectual disabilities are learning a new game with instructions that are hard to read. It can take hours to learn how to play the new version of a game you’ve played for years. That doesn’t mean people with intellectual disabilities aren’t capable of playing or competing – it just means we need better accessibility tools to help us learn.

If gaming companies want to create accessible, inclusive games, they could benefit from including gamers with intellectual disabilities in the creative process to help make or test “easy read” or beginner’s instructions, or find ways to simplify navigation between different levels of a game. Gaming can build a community and reach people who feel left out. Accessibility allows everybody to have fun.


This competition and other events in online gaming have been essential to keeping the Special Olympics community connected and active over a difficult couple years.

“Special Olympics has a long-standing partnership with Microsoft that has been incredibly valuable for the athletes and families of the Special Olympics movement,” said the organization’s Chief Information and Technology Officer, Prianka Nandy. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, our main concern has been the safety and health of our athletes, who are amongst the most vulnerable population to have an adverse or catastrophic outcome from the virus. This led to the cancellation and postponement of thousands of annual in-person events and competitions – which meant our athletes have missed out on the connections and opportunities to experience the joy of being with their teammates, coaches, and friends. At this time, our goals remain to raise awareness of the Special Olympics movement and the accomplishments, hopes, and dreams of our incredible athletes, and to change attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities within the gaming community, all while remembering that gaming can be fun and inclusive for all.”

#accessibility, #disabilities, #gaming, #microsoft, #tc, #xbox

Loveland, Colo., to Pay $3 Million to Woman With Dementia Who Was Arrested

The settlement comes more than a year after Karen Garner, then 73, was grabbed by a police officer and flung to the ground for allegedly shoplifting from a Walmart.

#abuse-of-the-disabled, #assaults, #colorado, #compensation-for-damages-law, #dementia, #disabilities, #garner-karen-1948, #hopp-austin, #jalali-daria, #loveland-colo, #police, #police-brutality-misconduct-and-shootings, #police-department-loveland-colo, #suits-and-litigation-civil

Why Ukraine’s Small Paralympic Team Packs Such a Big Punch

The Ukrainians finished fifth in the overall medal standings in Tokyo with 98, just six fewer than the United States, despite having a much smaller delegation.

#disabilities, #paralympic-games, #ukraine

Among Paralympians, A Lively Conversation About ‘Inspiration Porn’

Athletes reject the idea that they should be admired just for coping with disabilities, and not also for what they’ve accomplished.

#blindness, #disabilities, #miller-asya, #paralympic-games

Disabled Japanese Are Often Invisible. Will Paralympics Bring Lasting Light?

Tokyo improved its infrastructure before the Games, but activists wonder how long the focus will continue in a country with a long history of excluding people with disabilities.

#disabilities, #discrimination, #japan, #paralympic-games, #wheelchairs

Goalball Teammates Set Paralympic Record for Longevity

Asya Miller and Lisa Czechowski, who have won three Paralympic medals as teammates, first competed together at the Sydney Games in 2000.

#blindness, #content-type-personal-profile, #czechowski-lisa, #disabilities, #goalball, #miller-asya, #olympic-games-2020, #paralympic-games, #records-and-achievements

Minnesota twins raise $3M to increase accessibility to disability care

Having a loved one with specialized care needs is incredibly challenging, but not something that people who have never had to deal with the issue would necessarily quite understand.

For anyone who has had to help care for someone with special needs, the lack of options out there to navigate finding access to care providers is almost shocking.

Twin sisters Melanie Fountaine and Melissa Danielsen know the problem firsthand, having helped take care of their brother, who had a developmental disability and severe epilepsy, for years.

“We saw the struggle for our family to find reliable care,” Danielsen told TechCrunch.

After he passed away 12 years ago at the age of 29, the siblings decided they wanted to dedicate their careers to making disability care accessible to families with complex care needs. They founded Josh’s Place, a company that provided group home accommodations and other services to adults across Minnesota, which ended up being acquired by REM Minnesota in early 2020.

The pair then came up with the concept behind Joshin, a digital care platform that aims to connect care providers to families with specialized care needs. (Both companies were named after the sisters’ brother, who was named Josh). And today, that startup is announcing it has closed on a $3 million seed round of funding co-led by Anthemis Group and The Autism Impact Fund.

Joshin started out as an app that creates a care plan that helps it match families to a “carefully vetted” trained caregiver. It has evolved to also include a corporate benefits program with Joshin partnering with companies who want to offer an inclusive care benefit to their employees.

Image Credits: Joshin

An estimated one in five families have complex health needs, ranging from children with neurodivergence to dependent adults with developmental and physical disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the need for support, making it even more difficult to find necessary care. As such, many people (most of which are women) are finding they have to leave jobs to become full-time caregivers.

“For too long, people with special health needs and their families have been underserved and had fragmented access to disability care providers,” said CEO Danielsen.

COO Fountaine says that historically the care economy has focused on children under 12, or adults over 65 — childcare and eldercare, respectively.

“Joshin really is positioned to be the leader in that huge age gap that’s out there,” she said. “We work with people at all stages of life, and I think it’s unfortunate that until now, that’s been missing from the conversation. 

The company plans to use its new capital in part to grow its network of care providers. It also aims to expand its corporate benefits program.

“We’re continuing to scale our technology to lessen the burden of caregiving responsibilities for employees and their families,” added Danielsen.

Over the past 12 months, Joshin’s community of members and caregivers has grown 200%. With the new funding, the startup plans to expand its services to Los Angeles and Seattle. It is currently operational in its home base of Minneapolis, Minn., Chicago and New York City.  Joshin will be soft launching in 8 new markets over the next few weeks and hopes “to be national very soon,” Fountaine said.

The startup is starting with employers, and building up the data that it derives from that effort. Over the next year, it intends to partner with managed Medicaid organizations, and with both private and public insurance companies so that it “can get families access to this care, quickly,” said Danielsen.

“Our goal is to make this to make quality care free for families who need it,” she told TechCrunch.

Chris Male, co-founder of the Autism Impact Fund, said his organization backs companies that are addressing unmet needs of the autism community. Finding, retaining, and coordinating care are three of the biggest hurdles that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families face, according to Male.

“Joshin has a proven ability to provide a reliable means to source caregivers with diverse skill sets and potential to serve as a platform for streamlining access to a variety of critical yet highly fragmented services for the special needs community,” he said. “Given the current insurance payer landscape and employer emphasis on DEI, Joshin is not only generating strong impact for a large disability market, but is a monetizable opportunity as both a reimbursable service and as a benefit to employees.”

By partnering with employers, Male added, Joshin will help provide an environment of support that will allow “employees to quickly and easily access key resources and thus minimize downtime. “

Matthew Jones, managing director at Anthemis, said his firm doubled down on its investment in the startup because it saw in its founders “one of the strongest examples of founder-market fit out there.” (Anthemis also led the company’s $1.6 million funding round in July of 2020).

The progress that they have made since our last investment – coupled with the insights that they have collected – led us to believe that doubling down in this round was a no-brainer,” he told TechCrunch.

Also, the complexity that comes with building technology in the space “makes the barriers to entry very high,” Jones added.

“The team’s grit, combined with their understanding of the problems and opportunities associated with disability-related care, set Joshin apart,” he wrote via email. “No other platform comes close in terms of having such specialized leaders at the helm, so it’s no surprise that corporates are lining up to add Joshin to their roster of employee benefits.”

#anthemis, #apps, #disabilities, #minnesota, #startup, #tc

Experts on Deaf Culture Help Times Explain Name Signing

To understand the process of name signing, a Times team turned to people who knew it best.

#deafness, #disabilities, #harris-kamala-d, #language-and-languages, #names-personal, #new-york-times, #sign-language, #translation-and-interpreters, #video-recordings-downloads-and-streaming

Overlooked No More: Randy Snow, Paralympic Champion of Wheelchair Tennis

He won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and was the first Paralympic athlete to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame.

#biographical-information, #disabilities, #paralympic-games, #snow-randy-1959-2009, #tennis, #united-states-open-tennis, #wheelchairs

A Swimmer’s Journey From Afghanistan to Refugee Camps to the Paralympics

Abbas Karimi, who was born without arms, eventually made it to the U.S. and realized his dream of competing internationally.

#afghanistan, #content-type-personal-profile, #disabilities, #paralympic-games, #refugees-and-displaced-persons, #swimming, #tokyo-japan

Why Lia Coryell, the Paralympic Archer, Is Still Here

She often questioned whether life with a debilitating disease was worth living. But then she found a purpose, and it goes way beyond shooting arrows at targets.

#archery, #content-type-personal-profile, #disabilities, #la-crosse-wis, #tokyo-japan

Paralympics to Open With Empty Stands but a Bigger Stage

Television exposure and new interest from sponsors are raising hopes that the Games can build on their momentum.

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #disabilities, #hunter-darlene, #international-olympic-committee, #international-paralympic-committee, #long-jessica-1992, #mcfadden-tatyana-1989, #national-broadcasting-co, #nbcuniversal, #nugent-greg, #olympic-games-2020, #paralympic-games, #united-states-olympic-and-paralympic-committee

For Some College Students, Remote Learning Is a Game Changer

Last year, online classes helped many students with disabilities pursue their education. They want the option to continue.

#arizona-state-university, #chronic-condition-health, #college-of-william-and-mary, #colleges-and-universities, #cornell-university, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #coronavirus-reopenings, #disabilities, #e-learning, #university-of-missouri

Chuck Close’s Uneasy, Inevitable Legacy

The artist was a great one-hit wonder, twice, before a scandal set in. Will his paintings regain visibility? Our critic argues it is healthier for us to see them.

#art, #close-chuck, #disabilities, #fischl-eric, #frontotemporal-dementia, #lichtenstein-roy, #murray-elizabeth, #museums, #pace-gallery, #paralysis, #sexual-harassment

Chuck Close, Artist ofOutsized Reality, Dies at 81

He found success with his large-scale Photorealist portraits, becoming one of the leading artists of his generation. Late in life he faced allegations of sexual harassment.

#metoo-movement, #art, #close-chuck, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities

Chuck Close, Artist of Outsized Reality, Dies at 81

He found success with his large-scale Photorealist portraits, becoming one of the leading artists of his generation. Late in life he faced allegations of sexual harassment.

#metoo-movement, #art, #close-chuck, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities

Review: Contento Treats Accessibility as a Right

Contento, in East Harlem, sets an example for an industry that is rarely welcoming to diners with disabilities.

#americans-with-disabilities-act, #bars-and-nightclubs, #contento-manhattan-ny-restaurant, #disabilities, #east-harlem-manhattan-ny, #french-food-cuisine, #restaurants, #wheelchairs

He Is a Journalist With Autism, but in His Book, That’s Not the Whole Story

Eric Garcia, the author of “We’re Not Broken,” talks about public policy’s role in caring for autistic people, his reportorial instincts and more.

#autism, #books-and-literature, #disabilities, #garcia-eric-michael, #were-not-broken-changing-the-autism-conversation-book, #writing-and-writers

Michael J. Fox Reviews a Thoughtful Memoir on the Challenges of Living With Disability

In “I Live a Life Like Yours,” Jan Grue, a Norwegian professor, writes of living with a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy.

#books-and-literature, #disabilities, #grue-jan, #i-live-a-life-like-yours-a-memoir-book, #wheelchairs

Twitter’s web redesign isn’t as accessible as it should be, experts say

After teasing its new font in January, Twitter made some major changes to its website and app design this week. But while Twitter framed these updates as making the platform “more accessible,” some accessibility experts say that these changes missed the mark.

Most noticeably, tweets now appear in “Chirp,” Twitter’s proprietary typeface, and the display has even more visual contrast between the background and text. Other updates made the interface less cluttered, removing unnecessary divider lines. For people with low vision, high-contrast design can make websites more legible, but the current contrast level is so high that it’s causing strain for some users. Twitter far exceeds the minimum contrast standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides recommendations for making websites accessible to disabled people. But web accessibility isn’t one-size fits all — while some users may need a high-contrast display, others who suffer from chronic migraines might require a more muted experience. Research has also shown that dyslexic people tend to read faster when presented with lower-contrast text.

“When the update hit, I could immediately feel pain in my eyes, and within about half an hour, I was having a tension headache,” said Alex Haagaard, a design researcher and founding member at The Disabled List. “I have a lot of chronic pain, and I cannot deliberately expose myself to something that is going to be exacerbating my levels of pain, because then that has cascade effects.”

Up until last year, Twitter’s accessibility team was volunteer-based — paid employees at Twitter would take on accessibility projects on top of their existing jobs, TechCrunch reported. In September, a few months after Twitter had released an audio tweet feature without accessibility considerations, Twitter introduced two dedicated accessibility teams within its company. But experts emphasize that including disabled people in design decisions from the get-go is necessary when implementing new features.

“They talked a good talk about how they were going to change this, that they were going to integrate accessibility and disabled perspectives more into their design processes, and from this, it seems they have not done an adequate job with that,” said Haagaard. “Engaging people from disabled communities as consultants at the high-level stages, within the research and conceptualization phase, would prevent designers from getting to a point where you’re testing something and you realize it’s fundamentally problematic and it’s too late.”

Twitter told TechCrunch that “feedback was sought from people with disabilities throughout the process, from the beginning. However, people have different preferences and needs and we will continue to track feedback and refine the experience. We realize we could get more feedback in the future and we’ll work to do that.”

On its accessibility account Twitter, acknowledged the problems that users were reporting with eye-strain and migraines after the update. This afternoon, the platform added that due to user feedback, it is making contrast changes on all buttons to make them “easier on the eyes.”

“When a design organization makes an announcement, and the accessibility organization alongside it actually has things to say about it, that means they work together, and that’s always a good thing,” said Matt May, head of Inclusive Design at Adobe. “The key thing is to continue to listen and find the people who aren’t being represented, and try to synthesize them within the rest of the system.”

May points out that an update this ostentatious will inevitably yield more pushback, but behind the scenes, the app is, he said, “doing important accessibility work that usually slides under the radar.” For example, Twitter recently enabled users to upload SRT files to videos, which adds captions. Plus, Twitter Spaces has support for live captioning, while competitors like Clubhouse still don’t offer this basic accessibility feature.

It’s odd that Twitter neglected to add customization capabilities when it rolled out its higher-contrast display and new default typeface, since the company has a history of offering customization elsewhere in its user experience. Currently, users can toggle among dark, light and dim modes, make their default font size bigger or smaller, and even change the look of buttons and hyperlinks to colors like purple, orange and pink. Even before this week’s update, Twitter’s accessibility panel allowed users to enable a higher contrast mode. But still, there is no way for users to reduce the contrast or change what font the site uses, which experts cite as a design flaw. With its first proprietary typeface Chirp, Twitter sought to “improve how we convey emotion,” but users reported the font to be more difficult to read than Helvetica, which Twitter used before Chirp.

According to Shawn Lawton Henry — a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, editor of the WCAG recommendations, and leader of the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility education and outreach — websites should include customization options for users to toggle among fonts, contrast levels and more. WCAG doesn’t require this currently, but Henry says that future updates of the guidelines will recommend that websites give users the option to change contrast.

“The main issue is that the default contrast should [meet the WCAG standards] and users should be able to change it. It’s not hard, right?” Henry said. “It’s fine to have a default font, but you have to make it customizable. Even if it was the most readable font known, it would still be important to allow people to change it because of individual differences.”

When asked about adding ways for users to change typefaces and contrast levels, a Twitter spokesperson said that the company had “no concrete plans to share right now, but we’re always looking at ways to improve the experience and listening to feedback.”

“I think part of the disappointment here is that they’re framing this as an accessibility thing, but it’s also really clear that it was equally about building brand identity,” Haagaard said.

While some users will override website settings with USS (User Style Sheets), Henry’s research for the World Wide Web Consortium showed that user agents like web browsers and e-book readers should provide users the ability to customize these settings more easily. Not all users are tech-savvy enough to write USS, and it’s easier for users to toggle among the accessibility settings specific to an app. This level of customization isn’t unprecedented — in June, Discord added a saturation slider in its accessibility settings, for example.

“The beauty of the web is that it’s not paper, and we can change it,” Henry said.

#a11y, #accessibility, #adobe, #apps, #design, #disabilities, #disability, #font, #fonts, #matt-may, #twitter, #ui, #user-interfaces, #ux, #w3c, #web-accessibility

Erin Gilmer, Disability Rights Activist, Dies at 38

She fought for a more compassionate health care system, bringing an extensive knowledge of policy and even more extensive firsthand experience as a patient.

#colorado, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #gilmer-erin-1982-2021, #health-insurance-and-managed-care, #legal-profession, #medicine-and-health

Ford and Mellon Foundations Expand Initiative for Disabled Artists

The foundations are adding $5 million to the Disability Futures program, which will continue through 2025 with two more classes of 20 fellows each.

#culture-arts, #disabilities, #ford-foundation, #mellon-foundation, #philanthropy, #scholarships-and-fellowships, #united-states, #united-states-artists

Broadway, Awaiting Crowds’ Return, Will Get More Wheelchair Access

Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five theaters on Broadway, had been accused by federal prosecutors in Manhattan of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.

#americans-with-disabilities-act, #coronavirus-reopenings, #disabilities, #fines-penalties, #jujamcyn-theaters, #manhattan-nyc, #nederlander-organization, #new-york-city, #quarantine-life-and-culture, #shubert-organization, #springsteen-bruce, #st-james-ny, #st-james-theater, #strauss-audrey-attorney, #theater, #theaters-buildings, #united-states, #united-states-attorneys, #wheelchairs

I’m Visually Disabled, And I Want to Show You How Life Looks Through My Eyes

A filmmaker devises a few experiments to help his family experience his disability — and show how a little imagination can make us all more empathetic.

#disabilities, #eyes-and-eyesight, #surgery-and-surgeons, #whales-and-whaling

How Life Looks Through My ‘Whale Eyes’

A filmmaker devises a few experiments to help his family experience his disability — and show how a little imagination can make us all more empathetic.

#disabilities, #eyes-and-eyesight, #surgery-and-surgeons, #your-feed-opinionvideo

NATO, Crime, Jupiter: Your Monday Evening Briefing

Here’s what you need to know at the end of the day.

#content-type-service, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #defense-and-military-forces, #democratic-party, #disabilities, #education-k-12, #international-relations, #juno-spacecraft, #justice-department, #lordstown-motors-corp, #murders-attempted-murders-and-homicides, #north-atlantic-treaty-organization, #novavax-inc, #politics-and-government, #priests, #roman-catholic-church, #united-states-politics-and-government, #vaccination-and-immunization, #voter-fraud-election-fraud

G.O.P. Bills Rattle Disabled Voters: ‘We Don’t Have a Voice Anymore’

Legislation across the country would restrict voting methods and accommodations that people with disabilities are disproportionately likely to rely on.

#disabilities, #state-legislatures, #united-states-politics-and-government, #voting-and-voters

Shopping Cart Theory, and Practice

An essential tool. An inspiration for artists. A public nuisance. The humble shopping cart has been all of these in the decades since it was invented. But what does it reveal about our character?

#bellingham-wash, #buffalo-ny, #california, #disabilities, #montague-julian, #scientific-american, #shopping-and-retail

Mark York, Actor on ‘The Office,’ Dies at 55

The Ohio native, who advocated greater visibility onscreen for people with disabilities, appeared in early seasons of the NBC sitcom as Billy Merchant.

#actors-and-actresses, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #mark-york, #the-office-tv-program

Cognixion’s brain-monitoring headset enables fluid communication for people with severe disabilities

Of the many frustrations of having a severe motor impairment, the difficulty of communicating must surely be among the worst. The tech world has not offered much succor to those affected by things like locked-in syndrome, ALS, and severe strokes, but startup Cognixion aims to with a novel form of brain monitoring that, combined with a modern interface, could make speaking and interaction far simpler and faster.

The company’s One headset tracks brain activity closely in such a way that the wearer can direct a cursor — reflected on a visor like a heads-up display — in multiple directions or select from various menus and options. No physical movement is needed, and with the help of modern voice interfaces like Alexa, the user can not only communicate efficiently but freely access all kinds of information and content most people take for granted.

But it’s not a miracle machine, and it isn’t a silver bullet. Here’s where how it got started.

Overhauling decades-old brain tech

Everyone with a motor impairment has different needs and capabilities, and there are a variety of assistive technologies that cater to many of these needs. But many of these techs and interfaces are years or decades old — medical equipment that hasn’t been updated for an era of smartphones and high-speed mobile connections.

Some of the most dated interfaces, unfortunately, are those used by people with the most serious limitations: those whose movements are limited to their heads, faces, eyes — or even a single eyelid, like Jean-Dominique Bauby, the famous author of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

One of the tools in the toolbox is the electroencephalogram, or EEG, which involves detecting activity in the brain via patches on the scalp that record electrical signals. But while they’re useful in medicine and research in many ways, EEGs are noisy and imprecise — more for finding which areas of the brain are active than, say, which sub-region of the sensory cortex or the like. And of course you have to wear a shower cap wired with electrodes (often greasy with conductive gel) — it’s not the kind of thing anyone wants to do for more than an hour, let alone all day every day.

Yet even among those with the most profound physical disabilities, cognition is often unimpaired — as indeed EEG studies have helped demonstrate. It made Andreas Forsland, co-founder and CEO of Cognixion, curious about further possibilities for the venerable technology: “Could a brain-computer interface using EEG be a viable communication system?”

He first used EEG for assistive purposes in a research study some five years ago. They were looking into alternative methods of letting a person control an on-screen cursor, among them an accelerometer for detecting head movements, and tried integrating EEG readings as another signal. But it was far from a breakthrough.

A modern lab with an EEG cap wired to a receiver and laptop – this is an example of how EEG is commonly used.

He ran down the difficulties: “With a read-only system, the way EEG is used today is no good; other headsets have slow sample rates and they’re not accurate enough for a real-time interface. The best BCIs are in a lab, connected to wet electrodes — it’s messy, it’s really a non-starter. So how do we replicate that with dry, passive electrodes? We’re trying to solve some very hard engineering problems here.”

The limitations, Forsland and his colleagues found, were not so much with the EEG itself as with the way it was carried out. This type of brain monitoring is meant for diagnosis and study, not real-time feedback. It would be like taking a tractor to a drag race. Not only do EEGs often work with a slow, thorough check of multiple regions of the brain that may last several seconds, but the signal it produces is analyzed by dated statistical methods. So Cognixion started by questioning both practices.

Improving the speed of the scan is more complicated than overclocking the sensors or something. Activity in the brain must be inferred by collecting a certain amount of data. But that data is collected passively, so Forsland tried bringing an active element into it: a rhythmic electric stimulation that is in a way reflected by the brain region, but changed slightly depending on its state — almost like echolocation.

The Cognixion One headset with its dry EEG terminals visible.

They detect these signals with a custom set of six EEG channels in the visual cortex area (up and around the back of your head), and use a machine learning model to interpret the incoming data. Running a convolutional neural network locally on an iPhone — something that wasn’t really possible a couple years ago — the system can not only tease out a signal in short order but make accurate predictions, making for faster and smoother interactions.

The result is sub-second latency with 95-100 percent accuracy in a wireless headset powered by a mobile phone. “The speed, accuracy and reliability are getting to commercial levels —  we can match the best in class of the current paradigm of EEGs,” said Forsland.

Dr. William Goldie, a clinical neurologist who has used and studied EEGs and other brain monitoring techniques for decades (and who has been voluntarily helping Cognixion develop and test the headset), offered a positive evaluation of the technology.

“There’s absolutely evidence that brainwave activity responds to thinking patterns in predictable ways,” he noted. This type of stimulation and response was studied years ago. “It was fascinating, but back then it was sort of in the mystery magic world. Now it’s resurfacing with these special techniques and the computerization we have these days. To me it’s an area that’s opening up in a manner that I think clinically could be dramatically effective.”

BCI, meet UI

The first thing Forsland told me was “We’re a UI company.” And indeed even such a step forward in neural interfaces as he later described means little if it can’t be applied to the problem at hand: helping people with severe motor impairment to express themselves quickly and easily.

Sad to say, it’s not hard to imagine improving on the “competition,” things like puff-and-blow tubes and switches that let users laboriously move a cursor right, right a little more, up, up a little more, then click: a letter! Gaze detection is of course a big improvement over this, but it’s not always an option (eyes don’t always work as well as one would like) and the best eye-tracking solutions (like a Tobii Dynavox tablet) aren’t portable.

Why shouldn’t these interfaces be as modern and fluid as any other? The team set about making a UI with this and the capabilities of their next-generation EEG in mind.

Image of the target Cognixion interface as it might appear to a user, with buttons for yes, no, phrases and tools.

Image Credits: Cognixion

Their solution takes bits from the old paradigm and combines them with modern virtual assistants and a radial design that prioritizes quick responses and common needs. It all runs in an app on an iPhone, the display of which is reflected in a visor, acting as a HUD and outward-facing display.

In easy reach of, not to say a single thought but at least a moment’s concentration or a tilt of the head, are everyday questions and responses — yes, no, thank you, etc. Then there are slots to put prepared speech into — names, menu orders, and so on. And then there’s a keyboard with word- and sentence-level prediction that allows common words to be popped in without spelling them out.

“We’ve tested the system with people who rely on switches, who might take 30 minutes to make 2 selections. We put the headset on a person with cerebral palsy, and she typed our her name and hit play in 2 minutes,” Forsland said. “It was ridiculous, everyone was crying.”

Goldie noted that there’s something of a learning curve. “When I put it on, I found that it would recognize patterns and follow through on them, but it also sort of taught patterns to me. You’re training the system, and it’s training you — it’s a feedback loop.”

“I can be the loudest person in the room”

One person who has found it extremely useful is Chris Benedict, a DJ, public speaker, and disability advocate who himself has Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy. It limits his movements and ability to speak, but doesn’t stop him from spinning (digital) records at various engagements, however, or from explaining his experience with Cognixion’s One headset over email. (And you can see him demonstrating it in person in the video above.)

DJ Chris Benedict wears the Cognixion Headset in a bright room.

Image Credits: Cognixion

“Even though it’s not a tool that I’d need all the time it’s definitely helpful in aiding my communication,” he told me. “Especially when I need to respond quickly or am somewhere that is noisy, which happens often when you are a DJ. If I wear it with a Bluetooth speaker I can be the loudest person in the room.” (He always has a speaker on hand, since “you never know when you might need some music.”)

The benefits offered by the headset give some idea of what is lacking from existing assistive technology (and what many people take for granted).

“I can use it to communicate, but at the same time I can make eye contact with the person I’m talking to, because of the visor. I don’t have to stare at a screen between me and someone else. This really helps me connect with people,” Benedict explained.

“Because it’s a headset I don’t have to worry about getting in and out of places, there is no extra bulk added to my chair that I have to worry about getting damaged in a doorway. The headset is balanced too, so it doesn’t make my head lean back or forward or weigh my neck down,” he continued. “When I set it up to use the first time it had me calibrate, and it measured my personal range of motion so the keyboard and choices fit on the screen specifically for me. It can also be recalibrated at any time, which is important because not every day is my range of motion the same.”

Alexa, which has been extremely helpful to people with a variety of disabilities due to its low cost and wide range of compatible devices, is also part of the Cognixion interface, something Benedict appreciates, having himself adopted the system for smart home and other purposes. “With other systems this isn’t something you can do, or if it is an option, it’s really complicated,” he said.

Next steps

As Benedict demonstrates, there are people for whom a device like Cognixion’s makes a lot of sense, and the hope is it will be embraced as part of the necessarily diverse ecosystem of assistive technology.

Forsland said that the company is working closely with the community, from users to clinical advisors like Goldie and other specialists, like speech therapists, to make the One headset as good as it can be. But the hurdle, as with so many devices in this class, is how to actually put it on people’s heads — financially and logistically speaking.

Cognixion is applying for FDA clearance to get the cost of the headset — which, being powered by a phone, is not as high as it would be with an integrated screen and processor — covered by insurance. But in the meantime the company is working with clinical and corporate labs that are doing neurological and psychological research. Places where you might find an ordinary, cumbersome EEG setup, in other words.

The company has raised funding and is looking for more (hardware development and medical pursuits don’t come cheap), and has also collected a number of grants.

The One headset may still be some years away from wider use (the FDA is never in a hurry), but that allows the company time to refine the device and include new advances. Unlike many other assistive devices, for example a switch or joystick, this one is largely software-limited, meaning better algorithms and UI work will significantly improve it. While many wait for companies like Neuralink to create a brain-computer interface for the modern era, Cognixion has already done so for a group of people who have much more to gain from it.

You can learn more about the Cognixion One headset and sign up to receive the latest at its site here.

#accessibility, #artificial-intelligence, #brain-computer-interface, #disabilities, #disability, #eeg, #gadgets, #hardware, #science, #startups, #tc, #wearables

SLAIT’s real-time sign language translation promises more accessible online communication

Sign language is used by millions of people around the world, but unlike Spanish, Mandarin or even Latin, there’s no automatic translation available for those who can’t use it. SLAIT claims the first such tool available for general use, which can translate around 200 words and simple sentences to start — using nothing but an ordinary computer and webcam.

People with hearing impairments, or other conditions that make vocal speech difficult, number in the hundreds of millions, rely on the same common tech tools as the hearing population. But while emails and text chat are useful and of course very common now, they aren’t a replacement for face-to-face communication, and unfortunately there’s no easy way for signing to be turned into written or spoken words, so this remains a significant barrier.

We’ve seen attempts at automatic sign language (usually American/ASL) translation for years and years: in 2012 Microsoft awarded its Imagine Cup to a student team that tracked hand movements with gloves; in 2018 I wrote about SignAll, which has been working on a sign language translation booth using multiple cameras to give 3D positioning; and in 2019 I noted that a new hand-tracking algorithm called MediaPipe, from Google’s AI labs, could lead to advances in sign detection. Turns out that’s more or less exactly what happened.

SLAIT is a startup built out of research done at the Aachen University of Applied Sciences in Germany, where co-founder Antonio Domènech built a small ASL recognition engine using MediaPipe and custom neural networks. Having proved the basic notion, Domènech was joined by co-founders Evgeny Fomin and William Vicars to start the company; they then moved on to building a system that could recognize first 100, and now 200 individual ASL gestures and some simple sentences. The translation occurs offline, and in near real time on any relatively recent phone or computer.

Animation showing ASL signs being translated to text, and spoken words being transcribed to text back.

They plan to make it available for educational and development work, expanding their dataset so they can improve the model before attempting any more significant consumer applications.

Of course, the development of the current model was not at all simple, though it was achieved in remarkably little time by a small team. MediaPipe offered an effective, open-source method for tracking hand and finger positions, sure, but the crucial component for any strong machine learning model is data, in this case video data (since it would be interpreting video) of ASL in use — and there simply isn’t a lot of that available.

As they recently explained in a presentation for the DeafIT conference, the first team evaluated using an older Microsoft database, but found that a newer Australian academic database had more and better quality data, allowing for the creation of a model that is 92 percent accurate at identifying any of 200 signs in real time. They have augmented this with sign language videos from social media (with permission, of course) and government speeches that have sign language interpreters — but they still need more.

Animated image of a woman saying "deaf understand hearing" in ASL.

A GIF showing one of the prototypes in action — the consumer product won’t have a wireframe, obviously.Image Credits: Slait.ai

Their intention is to make the platform available to the deaf and ASL learner communities, who hopefully won’t mind their use of the system being turned to its improvement.

And naturally it could prove an invaluable tool in its present state, since the company’s translation model, even as a work in progress, is still potentially transformative for many people. With the amount of video calls going on these days and likely for the rest of eternity, accessibility is being left behind — only some platforms offer automatic captioning, transcription, summaries, and certainly none recognize sign language. But with SLAIT’s tool people could sign normally and participate in a video call naturally rather than using the neglected chat function.

“In the short term, we’ve proven that 200 word models are accessible and our results are getting better every day,” said SLAIT’s Evgeny Fomin. “In the medium term, we plan to release a consumer facing app to track sign language. However, there is a lot of work to do to reach a comprehensive library of all sign language gestures. We are committed to making this future state a reality. Our mission is to radically improve accessibility for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.”

From left, Evgeny Fomin, Dominic Domènech, and Bill Vicars.Image Credits: Slait.ai

He cautioned that it will not be totally complete — just as translation and transcription in or to any language is only an approximation, the point is to provide practical results for millions of people, and a few hundred words goes a long way toward doing so. As data pours in, new words can be added to the vocabulary, and new multi-gesture phrases as well, and performance for the core set will improve.

Right now the company is seeking initial funding to get its prototype out and grow the team beyond the founding crew. Fomin said they have received some interest but want to make sure they connect with an investor who really understands the plan and vision.

When the engine itself has been built up to be more reliable by the addition of more data and the refining of the machine learning models, the team will look into further development and integration of the app with other products and services. For now the product is more of a proof of concept, but what a proof it is — with a bit more work SLAIT will have leapfrogged the industry and provided something that deaf and hearing people both have been wanting for decades.

#accessibility, #artificial-intelligence, #asl, #computer-vision, #deaf, #disabilities, #hearing-impaired, #science, #sign-language, #slait, #slait-ai, #startups, #tc

Nick Springer, Paralympic Gold Medalist, Dies at 35

A quadruple amputee, he was a relentless defender on the United States’ wheelchair rugby team, which won a gold medal at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

#deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #meningococcal-meningitis, #paralympic-games, #rugby, #springer-nick, #wheelchair-rugby

Many Older Adults Lack Even Simple, Helpful Equipment

Railings, grab bars, shower chairs and other inexpensive devices can make it easier to continue living at home, but not enough older people acquire them.

#disabilities, #elderly, #home-repairs-and-improvements, #medical-devices, #therapy-and-rehabilitation, #your-feed-health, #your-feed-science

Arrest of Colorado Woman With Dementia Prompts Investigation

Karen Garner, 73, of Loveland, Colo., walked out of a Walmart without paying for $13.88 worth of items. Police officers broke a bone in her arm and dislocated her shoulder, a lawsuit says.

#colorado, #dementia, #disabilities, #garner-karen-1948, #hopp-austin, #jalali-daria, #loveland-colo, #metzler-philip-1967, #police-brutality-misconduct-and-shootings, #police-department-loveland-colo, #suits-and-litigation-civil, #video-recordings-downloads-and-streaming

Biden Takes On Sagging Safety Net With Plan to Fix Long-Term Care

The proposal to spend $400 billion over eight years faces political challenges and a funding system not designed for the burden it has come to bear.

#biden-joseph-r-jr, #disabilities, #elder-care, #elderly, #health-insurance-and-managed-care, #home-health-care, #labor-and-jobs, #medicaid, #wages-and-salaries

I’m Paralyzed, but I Can Finally Feel the Joy of Swimming

At first, being in water made me feel defeated. Now it’s transformed me.

#disabilities, #paralysis, #swimming, #water

The Economy That Allows You to Get Your Job Done Is Broken

President Biden understands that caregiving is infrastructure, and that all families need it.

#biden-joseph-r-jr, #children-and-childhood, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #disabilities, #elderly, #infrastructure-public-works

Why I Gave My Mosaic Embryo a Chance

“It was like rolling the dice, except for someone you’ve never met.”

#disabilities, #embryos-human, #genetics-and-heredity, #in-vitro-fertilization, #infertility, #miscarriages, #pregnancy-and-childbirth, #reproduction-biological, #tests-medical

Covid Closed Theaters. But It Also Made Them Accessible.

Before 2020, theater often felt inaccessible to me, a luxury for those who were more able-bodied or lived in certain cities. Now I’m obsessed.

#disabilities, #quarantine-life-and-culture, #theater, #video-recordings-downloads-and-streaming

Bibian Mentel, Champion Paralympic Snowboarder, Dies at 48

After losing part of a leg to cancer, she dominated the sport for nearly two decades, winning three Paralympic gold medals.

#deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #mentel-bibian-1972-2021, #netherlands, #paralympic-games, #snowboarding

What if the Pain Never Ends?

I will still have to face it with dignity.

#addiction-psychology, #back-human-body-part, #disabilities, #pain

Edith Prentiss, Fierce Voice for New York’s Disabled, Dies at 69

She was passionate — and relentless — about making the city she loved navigable for everyone.

#civil-rights-and-liberties, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #disability-rights-advocates, #new-york-city, #prentiss-edith-m, #taxis-for-all-campaign, #wheelchairs

Overlooked No More: Kitty Cone, Trailblazer of the Disability Rights Movement

Shunned in school because of her disability, she devoted her life to the cause, organizing a historic sit-in that led to landmark federal legislation.

#504-sit-in, #americans-with-disabilities-act, #biographical-information, #california, #cone-kitty-1944-2015, #demonstrations-protests-and-riots, #disabilities, #discrimination, #san-francisco-calif

As People Reflect on Their Bodies, Museums Turn to Artists for Answers

The pandemic has led to new contemplations of fragility, and sick or disabled artists are using new attention to imagine a more accessible art world.

#alex-salerno, #amanda-cachia, #art, #bethany-montagano, #california-state-university-san-marcos, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #disabilities, #kim-christine-sun, #list-visual-arts-center, #massachusetts-institute-of-technology, #mellon-foundation, #museums, #pacific-asia-museum, #panteha-abareshi, #quarantine-life-and-culture, #sharona-franklin, #shed-manhattan-ny, #solana-chehtman, #u-s-c-pacific-asia-museum, #university-of-southern-california

Quest for prosthetic retinas progresses towards human trials, with a VR assist

An artificial retina would be an enormous boon to the many people with visual impairments, and the possibility is creeping closer to reality year by year. One of the latest advancements takes a different and very promising approach, using tiny dots that convert light to electricity, and virtual reality has helped show that it could be a viable path forward.

These photovoltaic retinal prostheses come from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, where Diego Ghezzi has been working on the idea for several years now.

Early retinal prosthetics were created decades ago, and the basic idea is as follows. A camera outside the body (on a pair of glasses, for instance) sends a signal over a wire to a tiny microelectrode array, which consists of many tiny electrodes that pierce the non-functioning retinal surface and stimulate the working cells directly.

The problems with this are mainly that powering and sending data to the array requires a wire running from outside the eye in — generally speaking a “don’t” when it comes to prosthetics, and the body in general. The array itself is also limited in the number of electrodes it can have by the size of each, meaning for many years the effective resolution in the best case scenario was on the order of a few dozen or hundred “pixels.” (The concept doesn’t translate directly because of the way the visual system works.)

Ghezzi’s approach obviates both these problems with the use of photovoltaic materials, which turn light into an electric current. It’s not so different from what happens in a digital camera, except instead of recording the charge as in image, it sends the current into the retina like the powered electrodes did. There’s no need for a wire to relay power or data to the implant, because both are provided by the light shining on it.

Researcher Diego Ghezzi holds a contact lens with photovoltaic dots on it.

Image Credits: Alain Herzog / EPFL

In the case of the EPFL prosthesis, there are thousands of tiny photovoltaic dots, which would in theory be illuminated by a device outside the eye sending light in according to what it detects from a camera. Of course, it’s still an incredibly difficult thing to engineer. The other part of the setup would be a pair of glasses or goggles that both capture an image and project it through the eye onto the implant.

We first heard of this approach back in 2018, and things have changed somewhat since then, as a new paper documents.

“We increased the number of pixels from about 2,300 to 10,500,” explained Ghezzi in an email to TechCrunch. “So now it is difficult to see them individually and they look like a continuous film.”

Of course when those dots are pressed right up against the retina it’s a different story. After all, that’s only 100×100 pixels or so if it were a square — not exactly high definition. But the idea isn’t to replicate human vision, which may be an impossible task to begin with, let alone realistic for anyone’s first shot.

“Technically it is possible to make pixel smaller and denser,” Ghezzi explained. “The problem is that the current generated decreases with the pixel area.”

Image showing a close-up of the photovoltaic dots on the retinal implant, labeled as being about 80 microns across each.

Current decreases with pixel size, and pixel size isn’t exactly large to begin with.Image Credits: Ghezzi et al

So the more you add, the tougher it is to make it work, and there’s also the risk (which they tested) that two adjacent dots will stimulate the same network in the retina. But too few and the image created may not be intelligible to the user. 10,500 sounds like a lot, and it may be enough — but the simple fact is that there’s no data to support that. To start on that the team turned to what may seem like an unlikely medium: VR.

Because the team can’t exactly do a “test” installation of an experimental retinal implant on people to see if it works, they needed another way to tell whether the dimensions and resolution of the device would be sufficient for certain everyday tasks like recognizing objects and letters.

A digitally rendered street scene and distorted monochrome versions below showing various ways of representing it via virtual phosphors.

Image Credits: Jacob Thomas Thorn et al

To do this, they put people in VR environments that were dark except for little simulated “phosphors,” the pinpricks of light they expect to create by stimulating the retina via the implant; Ghezzi likened what people would see to a constellation of bright, shifting stars. They varied the number of phosphors, the area they appear over, and the length of their illumination or “tail” when the image shifted, asking participants how well they could perceive things like a word or scene.

The word "AGREE" rendered in various ways with virtual phosphors.

Image Credits: Jacob Thomas Thorn et al

Their primary finding was that the most important factor was visual angle — the overall size of the area where the image appears. Even a clear image is difficult to understand if it only takes up the very center of your vision, so even if overall clarity suffers it’s better to have a wide field of vision. The robust analysis of the visual system in the brain intuits things like edges and motion even from sparse inputs.

This demonstration showed that the implant’s parameters are theoretically sound and the team can start working towards human trials. That’s not something that can happen in a hurry, and while this approach is very promising compared with earlier, wired ones, it will still be several years even in the best case scenario before it’s possible it could be made widely available. Still, the very prospect of a working retinal implant of this type is an exciting one and we’ll be following it closely.

#accessibility, #blindness, #computer-vision, #disabilities, #epfl, #gadgets, #hardware, #science, #tc

Dick Hoyt, Who Ran Marathons While Pushing His Son, Dies at 80

He finished more than a thousand road races with his son Rick, who was in a wheelchair. They were best known for competing in the Boston Marathon.

#boston-marathon, #deaths-obituaries, #disabilities, #hoyt-dick-1940-2021, #hoyt-rick, #marathon-running

Long Covid is a Looming Health Crisis

Lingering symptoms from the coronavirus may turn out to be one of the largest mass disabling events in modern history.

#chronic-condition-health, #chronic-fatigue-syndrome, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #coronavirus-risks-and-safety-concerns, #disabilities, #disability-insurance, #national-institutes-of-health, #research, #vaccination-and-immunization

When Europe’s Theaters Reopen, Will Fans Return?

People from across the continent told us about the ups and downs — mostly downs — of loving and streaming theater during a pandemic.

#disabilities, #europe, #quarantine-life-and-culture, #theater

How a Dancer, Drummer and Polio Survivor Spends His Sundays

At 14, Sidiki Conde was paralyzed from the disease in Guinea. Now he’s an artist living in Manhattan.

#center-for-traditional-music-and-dance, #dancing, #disabilities, #east-village-manhattan-ny, #guinea, #music

‘I Really Loved My Job’: Why the Pandemic Has Hit These Workers Harder

People with disabilities are disproportionately employed in industries that have suffered in the pandemic.

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #disabilities, #intellectual-disabilities, #job-path, #labor-and-jobs, #mayors-office-for-people-with-disabilities-nyc, #new-york-city, #newman-andy, #shutdowns-institutional, #unemployment, #workers-with-disabilities