International Women’s Forum gives a platform to assistive technology at Israel confab

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The International Women’s Forum had its annual World Cornerstone Conference in Tel Aviv from May 17-19, and one of its closing breakout sessions on assistive technology, called “Rethinking Ability,” proved to be one if its most impressive stages to discuss the future.

The discussion was a potent one, addressing policy in the U.S., Israel, and China while also highlighting the benefits of greater investment in what panelists argued shouldn’t be treated as a niche vertical.

Assistive technology is a breakthrough conduit for the general population

As part of a series of breakout sessions, a panel moderated by Geektime‘s own Laura Rosbrow-Telem shone light on a niche vertical: assistive technology (#assistech). The three panelists perfectly balanced discussion with presentation, and all seamlessly showed the importance of developing new technologies focused on the impaired that will eventually find their way into general-use technologies.

“You’ll see the application of assistive technology is broadly based. It’s a business initiative,” rather than confined to non-profit or charitable categories of corporate interest, said Frances West, IBM’s Chief Accessibility Officer.

BCC Research projected five years ago the assistive technology market would be worth $55 billion in the U.S. alone by 2016. Other observers like Gartner Managing VP Andrew Johnson similarly argue investors miss how easily transferable such tech is to the general population. Voice activation does not merely help quadriplegics, nor do vibrating rings only help the deaf.

West added, “If you build accessibility thinking into your design, then you make your technology that much better. CXOs and investors need to see tech developed for the disabled as an avenue for more efficient machines for everybody.”

The conversation turned to voice recognition with Devora Mason, Voiceitt’s director of business development and operations. Their app Talkitt, which projects a user’s real voice by detecting errors in a user’s speech, is currently in beta testing.

“Smartphones are still luxuries for most people, but their technology is essential for the disabled,” Mason said. “Assistive technology is not really a niche market. This technology can be put to use for more general applications.”

From left to right: Devora Mason. Jean Judes, Frances West, and Laura Rosbrow-Telem. Photo credit: PR
From left to right: Devora Mason. Jean Judes, Frances West, and Laura Rosbrow-Telem. Photo credit: PR

Co-panelist Jean Judes of Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli organization dedicated to advancing the rights of Israel’s disabled, backed up Mason by citing examples like touch screens and vibration, which were originally developed to help deaf users. Judes boasted of A3i, an accelerator Beit Issie co-founded alongside PresenTense dedicated specifically to assistive technology, saying that “assistive technology is a big conduit for new kinds of IoT.”

The point was important to everyone present, as they were all bent on justifying the need for profit-focused investments, not just charity dollars, to go toward disability technology.

Struggling on policy

The panel pivoted toward policy, as West complained the U.S. has still not ratified the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While President Bush signed the treaty in 2006 and President Obama signed it again in 2009, the United States Senate has not put its stamp of approval on the accord.

She framed it as the equivalent of the Kyoto Protocol for environmental policy, also long blocked by the Senate. She pointed to opposition by Republican senators, in particular former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, to block ratification over issues like abortion that she said were neither here nor there regarding the substance of the treaty. Rubio said that the treaty should address the rights of the unborn, as he argued many abortions are conducted upon discovering a child will be born disabled.

Still others worried about insurance policy and out-of-date legislative protection. Mason commented that Voiceitt cannot be reimbursed as an expense because it is merely an app, forcing the company to develop its wearable companion technology more quickly to make a refundable package for users. Israel‘s laws protecting disabled citizens are glaringly behind the times on technology, she says. She cites an example in that local phones are required by law to have a raised 5 button on the dial to make it easier to press, an irrelevant requirement in the age of touch screens.

One of the optimistic points West had was IBM’s influence on China‘s domestic disabled policies, as they have worked as a corporate consultant to the government on accessibility.

A conference for women, by women, but not all about women

The sessions this reporter observed showed a forum focused on technology and the economy by women, and not so much about women. Women were present throughout the sciences, research and business world, and their best and brightest were on full display.

Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who has logged over 4,330 hours in space between the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle Columbia, was the real star of the first panel on May 19. She was joined by Inbal Kreiss of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division and Deganit Paikowsky who consults the Space Committee at Israel’s National Council for Research and Development. On AI, SalesPredict Co-Founder and CTO Kira Radinsky and technology philosopher Cicilia Tilli were joined by astrophysicist Mario Luvio.

Overall, the sessions were impressive and deep, even given their introductory and general subject matter.

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