Smart Tech: Making a Difference


with Eric Bridges of the American Council of the Blind


Oct 08, 2018

According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of Americans with a visual impairment or blindness is expected to double by 2050.

Eric Bridges, Executive Director of the American Council of the Blind, joins Ellee Pai Hong to discuss his organization’s efforts to increase the independence and quality of life for the blind and visually impaired community.

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hong: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 3% of Americans 40 or older are either legally blind or live with a visual impairment. With the rise of smart technology in homes, schools, and workplaces, how is life changing for the blind community? Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Ellee Pai Hong. With me to the answer of that question and to explore how new devices and tech influence accessibility is Eric Bridges, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. Eric, thank you so much for coming in. Appreciate it.

Bridges: Thanks for having me.

Hong: These are exciting times, because the smart technology that´s coming up is exciting to the general population but especially to the blind community, because it really helps to augment your senses.

Bridges: Well, it can, yes. And, you know, we´re seeing a tremendous growth in the smart-home type aspects of these technologies. So, whether it´s products from Amazon or Google or Apple, being able to control aspects of your environment through just being able to provide audible commands is a really big aspect of what we have had challenges in the past -- being able to access menus, and, you know, other user interfaces. But just being able to tell Alexa, or, you know, Google to do something and have it happen, such as turning off and on lights and dealing with your thermostat.

Hong: And it´s convenient for everybody. It´s not just for the blind community that this benefits. I know mobility is a huge factor, having that independence to get around where you want to. Rideshare has obviously been a benefit to the blind community, but the possibility of autonomous vehicles, what´s that bringing to the table?

Bridges: So, I look at it as, you know, the day that´s coming for us as a community where we´re all 16 years old, no matter what age we are in our community, and we can just go hop in a vehicle and go off on our own, which is what most teenagers, when they turn 16 these days, get a set of keys -- Maybe it´s their parent´s car, and they get to go out after they get their license and go for a drive or go to a Dairy Queen or do whatever. We´ve never had that sort of independence. Rideshare technology has allowed us over the last few years to gain more of that independence. But, you know, the ability to do this without an actual human in the vehicle and to sort of chart our own course is a really fascinating opportunity that´s going to present itself here in the near future.

Hong: Yeah, and I know a lot of companies are working in partnership with you guys to make that happen, but not just in terms of mobility, but in a lot of facets. In entertainment, there are a lot of companies jumping on the bandwagon in partnership with you to do more than just compliance.

Bridges: That´s correct. One of the great partnerships that we have is with Comcast, and the development of accessibility in the home entertainment area, which, for the longest time, we´ve never had equal access to. And by that, I mean the cable box, and what the cable box allows you to do, whether it be that electronic program guide, On Demand, being able to DVR programming -- all of those things. Over only the last four years have we, as a community, really gained equal access to that, and a lot of that has happened through our own advocacy as a national organization with legislation and regulations, but in knowing that, we reached out to Comcast to want to build a relationship so that we weren´t just working to build something that was technically compliant, but something that was really usable and accessible. And it was great, because Comcast has really demonstrated leadership in this area. And, in fact, they´ve hired individuals who are blind or visually impaired to work on these very issues internally within Comcast. And it´s been wonderful to work with them, as well as the further development of the X1 Voice Remote, which benefits a lot more than just blind people.

Hong: Mm-hmm. Let´s talk about some of the technologies devoted to people with visual impairment. That´s really kind of exciting stuff for you guys. One is in development from a company called Aira. Tell us about that.

Bridges: Yeah, so, over the last really couple of years, this company called Aira has developed, through kind of a bundle of technologies, a solution to assist a blind or visually impaired person in their daily life. And really, it speaks to a lot of innovation and creativity. So, essentially, this service is housed in an app on your phone. It utilizes the camera on your phone, but also a pair of glasses that are attached to your phone that has a camera in it. So, depending upon what environment you´re in, you can either use your phone or the glasses, and you call an agent, and there, speaking to you, is a human on the other end of the camera.

Hong: They´re acting as your eyes.

Bridges: Absolutely, but not your brain, right? So, they´re giving you the information that you´re requesting, whether it is needing to identify a specific business along a block that you´re walking on, assisting you in guiding you through an airport, which can often times be a pretty challenging experience for people who are blind or visually impaired, or whether you´re at home, and you have something that is completely visual, like a sheet of paper for your son and his homework, and not helping to give your son the answers, but rather working in tandem with myself to assist him in completing his homework.

Hong: Well, that´s wonderful technology. It sounds like life-changing technology.

Bridges: It´s fantastic, yes.

Hong: Eric, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Ellee Pai Hong.

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