Why tech giants are creating apps for people with disabilities

Tech companies like Google are stepping up efforts to create products for people living with disabilities as a way to make them more accessible and to boost business. 

Part of that effort is developing apps designed to facilitate communication between hearing and non-hearing people. 

"We have technology and capabilities, particularly in the realm of machine learning and AI that we can apply," said Brian Kemler, product manager of accessibility for Google. 

In February, Google rolled out Live Transcribe, an app that does literally that—transcribing speech in almost real-time while detecting ambient sound like vehicles and specific types of music. It can also transcribe dozens of languages. 

Noisy environments

"It's really convenient," said Anya Karir, a Toronto woman who is deaf. Karir has a cochlear implant, so she doesn't use the app every day. She said it helps her in noisy environments, like on a recent trip to New York where she was on a tour and couldn't hear what the guide was saying. 

"I pulled out the phone, connected to the WiFi and I was able to read what he was saying," she said. 

She also said it's useful in everyday situations, like coffee shops where there is often noise from the machines as well as other conversations happening around her. 

Lisa Xing/CBC

Tech giants getting into the business of making their products and services more accessible is a plus for Derek Rumball, president of the Bob Rumball Canadian Centre of Excellence for the Deaf. 

"Everyone is always inventing a new mouse trap," he said. "Anytime technology helps me understand a deaf person and, more importantly, helps them be understood, helps level the playing field." 

Good for business

Levelling that playing field isn't just the socially responsible thing to do, argues tech expert Takara Small, who founded a not-for-profit helping kids from underserved communities learn about coding and entrepreneurship. 

Small said there are dozens of apps out there, developed by startups and big tech companies that do everything from amplifying sound to mapping out which buildings are wheelchair accessible. 

She's especially noticing tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft taking a leadership role in the field. 

"It's just the right thing to do to make products anyone, anywhere can use," she said. 

But the approach also benefits the bottom line. In April, the World Bank estimated a billion people, or 15 per cent of the world's population, experience some form of disability. 

"Technology is so crucial to everything we do so creating products that allow everyone to participate is a financially smart move," she said.