Back in October we were involved in two very informative weeks with the airlines between our advisory board with Continental Airlines and the Universal Access in Airports conference, both in Houston, TX.
As you know, technology advances so fast, it's nearly impossible to keep up with updates. By the time you get used to your new phone, computer, television, iPod, etc., there's a new one on the market with new features that you always wish yours had.
Disability technology is no different, but it's extremely exciting for this group of travelers because it is bringing independence to their travel experience. This list provides just a few of the recent adaptations in travel tech of late, it's hard to stay up to date on this topic, but we'll try!
* Check-in Kiosks: You've likely used these, as they're increasingly a part of the airline check-in process and are more and more replacing the human side of check-in. But perhaps you've noticed they're all the same height, they don't speak to blind customers, and they have other features that need to be updated for access. The airlines have taken this into account and worked with IBM on creating kiosks that are more universally designed for all disability needs. They are being programmed to have an audio walk-through for blind users, and you'll start seeing some that are lowered in height as well.
* Mobile Apps: Neilsen News estimate that 1 in 2 Americans will have smartphones by Christmas of 2011, and the airlines are getting ahead of the curve. Many airlines now have launched mobile versions of their websites with highlight on the travel features of their main site, but a few have gone one step further to create iPhone and Android-based applications that include additional features such as check-in, updated flight and gate information, standby lists, seat maps, airport maps, and services as well (currency converter, directTV, president club locations, etc). The most unique and forward-thinking feature is the mobile boarding pass. View Continental's mobile page here, or purchase their iPhone app here. They will be coming out with the Android version soon.
* WiFi: As frequent travelers have begun to notice, some (not many yet) airlines are starting to offer WiFi (online connectivity) on their aircrafts while in flight. What has been significantly absent from the airlines always has been the closed- or open-captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. Airlines offer alternative language subtitles from French to Vietnemese, but never have offered English subtitles, which would have sufficed as a first-step for this clientele. However with WiFi being the wave of the future, and captioning applications available online for live-streaming websites such as Netflix, the airlines are starting to look at this as an option for captioning in the very near future. Unfortunately, currently the WiFi of choice for airlines is Gogo Explorer from Softpedia, which does not work well with blind readers (below) as of yet.
* Blind Readers: For travelers with sight disabilities, their "blind-readers," such as JAWS (Job Access with Speech by Freedom Scientific), are their access to the world wide web. These readers have advanced extremely far in the last few years, and have been recently integrated with touch screens, which many thought might never happen. Apple's iPhone for instance now has an standard application "Outspoken" that is included on all new phones now since the last two releases of the phone. These are hugely helpful in navigation as well as in reading websites and the wide variety of uses for the iPhone.
* Click and Go Wayfinding: In addition to the blind readers above, there are new navigation applications that are making not only street and directional navigation possible, but interior navigation as well, such as within malls, airports, public buildings, and even office buildings. Modeled after the directions feature of Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, and MapQuest that sighted users often use for driving directions, Click and Go has added features that meet the specific needs of the blind and deafblind, and are now able to provide non-sighted travelers with customized "mobility-friendly" walking directions.
* Go'Shna: Goshna is the Indian word for announcement and is a working project at the University of Florida’s Mobile and Pervasive Computing Research Laboratory, created by Cheenu Madan, a masters student with hearing loss at the U. of FL. Go'Shna is a mobile translator for airport announcement services, and provides a text version of the public announcements in airports on the user's mobile phone, which can be downloaded for free from either iPhone's store or Android's marketplace. After the easy two steps of subscribing, users get a text message or email for each overhead announcement in the airport terminal, based on preferences the user chooses. The Go'Shna app gives independence to the traveler with hearing loss – no need to ask for assistance or to be rooted to one spot looking to see if people are moving towards your boarding gate. Currently this app is still being rolled out, but if you'd like to know more, Cheenu's email is provided in his name link above, or contact Dr. Sumi Helal, director of the Mobile and Pervasive Lab at UF.