As I was watching what turned out to be a blow-out win for the Seattle Seahawks and a less than entertaining game, the only thing that was left to enjoy were the commercials. One commercial in particular really caught my attention, both because of my experience as a user of assistive technology and my professional work as an accessibility consultant. This was of course, the  ad with Steve Gleason, a former player for the New Orleans Saints who now has ALS and uses eye gaze technology to communicate.

The ad does a lot to raise awareness of how technology can empower people with different abilities, and for doing it at a time when everyone was watching. I thought the ad was very well done and had a powerful message. As Chris Bugaj posted on Twitter, the ad at no point used the term assistive technology. Instead it focused on how technology empowers us all.

The idea that technology should be “empowering” rather than just “assistive” is something I can get behind, and in fact I have been advocating for that in all of my presentations.  The term “assistive technology” really puts the power in the person who is doing the “assisting” or in the technology itself. In reality, the power is and should be on the person using the technology. The technology should really be a tool for that person to accomplish whatever goals they have set for themselves and to live a self-determined life where they are in control of their futures and their day to day lives. I thought that message came through loud and clear in the ad which told Steve Gleason’s story.

After I watched the ad, I was really curious about the technology featured in it so I did a little research. Gleason was using the Tobii Eye Gaze Mobile along with a Microsoft Surface Pro Tablet and a special mount sold by Tobii.  If you add in the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet to the cost of the software and the mounting solution, the cost of providing eye gaze with a Windows mobile device is about $3,000 (without the tablet it is still about $2,000). In reality, it was not a Windows solution that was featured in the ad, that is it wasn’t a built-in feature of Windows but rather a third-party solution that currently only works on the Windows platform. That is generally the model for how accessibility is provided on the Windows platform. To be fair, Microsoft includes some accessibility features under the name Ease of Access in Windows, and some of them are actually quite good. I have always been impressed by the Speech Recognition feature. However, features like Narrator (the built-in screen reader) are not as robust and most people who use Windows rely on third-party products such as JAWS (a commercial screen reader that retails for more than $1,000).

The problem with these third party solutions is cost.  The argument has always been that the reason the technology costs so much is that there is a very small market for it. Well, that’s my argument for why these technologies (even if in a basic form) should be built in, as you can then take advantage of economies of scale. What would have been really cool with the Super Bowl ad is if someone were shown using technology that anybody at home on their new tablet or computer could try without spending $2-3,000. I hope that we will see eye gaze incorporated into the built-in accessibility toolkit in the next three to five years (hopefully sooner). Already, Switch Control on iOS includes the capability to use the camera as a switch input for those who can only move their heads. Imagine how cool it would be for students who can’t turn the page of an ebook manually to use their eyes to select “Next” instead. A built-in, universal design solution will make what Steve Gleason was able to do in the commercial possible for many more people who are not going to be in Super Bowl commercials, but whose lives are going to be changed dramatically as well.

What did you think of the Super Bowl commercial?

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