Google Glass Offers Disabled People Access to a Bigger World

The wearable computer has allowed people with disabilities to send messages to friends far faster, express themselves through media - and even take over the kitchen.

Ashley Lasanta wears a Google Glass device, which has allowed her to take and share photos and videos for the first time in her life.

Ashley Lasanta wears a Google Glass device, which has allowed her to take and share photos and videos for the first time in her life.

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The photo is a blur. A wide swath of blue – the photographer’s torso or maybe someone else’s – spreads across the left half of the image. A dark square and rectangles of brown, like the open flaps of a cardboard box, fill the right.

Ashley used Google Glass to help cook for the first time. With Billy Busch, director of membership for Community Access Unlimited, serving as her "arms," she made shrimp scampi.
Ashley used Google Glass to help cook for the first time. With Billy Busch, director of membership for Community Access Unlimited, serving as her "arms," she made shrimp scampi.

As a picture, it’s unremarkable, an image taken apparently at random and perhaps by mistake. But for the photographer, it’s nothing short of momentous.

Ashley Lasanta has cerebral palsy, and for the first time in her 23 years, she was able to snap – and then share – a photograph, all without the use of her hands.

"It was awesome," she says. "I take pictures of just about anything."

The device she used wasn’t a traditional camera. It was Google Glass, the thumb-sized computer that's worn like a pair of glasses. With just a tilt or a nod of the head and a few spoken phrases, Lasanta can record videos, send emails, browse the web far faster than before, play games and, thanks to the wealth of recipes online, hang out in the  kitchen and help with cooking.

“I was her arms for the day: She told me I needed to chop two cloves of garlic, and I chopped two cloves of garlic,” says Billy Busch, director of membership development at Community Access Unlimited, a nonprofit with the United Way that helps kids and adults with disabilities in New Jersey. “The look on her face, it was nonstop smiling."

“The shrimp scampi came out really well that night,” he adds.

Lasanta, who lives with three others in a home in Westfield, New Jersey, is one of one of the few Community Access members to use Google Glass (her device is actually owned by Community Access, which paid $1,500 for it after applying through “Google Explorers,” a program aimed at awarding Google Glass devices to those who provide a compelling reason to own one).

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"Google Glass has a ton of potential to transform lives for people with disabilities," says Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association for People with Disabilities. "Not everyone has had the good fortune to experience Google Glass at this point. But for those who have, the technology features a number of things that make it really user-friendly for people with disabilities -- voice-activated technology, the potential for speech-to-text, face recognition -- all of which can help people with a variety of disabilities." 

Google declined to say how many people have received Glass through Explorers, but an article last year by USA Today pegged the number at close to 8,000. After Lasanta's success with the device, Community Access is considering how it might expand its Glass program.

Ashley's first photo.
Ashley's first photo.

"You say what you want and it pops up on screen," Lasanta says. "You tilt you head and say, 'OK, Glass,' and you look at what you want to take a picture of. It's been really cool." 

The device, while only made public less in 2012, is rapidly boasting more and more apps for people with disabilities. People who are losing their hearing can install speech-recognition software that will display subtitles of their conversations. Parents of deaf children can install apps that will help them learn sign-language faster by periodically displaying hand motions throughout the day. And researchers are exploring how people with severe paralysis could use magnetic tongue studs to manipulate the device, allowing them to send messages far more quickly than applications on traditional computers, which force users to spell out messages by pointing to letters with their heads one by one.

“If someone sends you an SMS saying, ‘Hey, you want to go out tonight,’ if you’re using a head-pointer system to type of a message, it’ll take you forever,” says Thad Starner, a technical lead and manager for Google Glass and director of the company's Contextual Computing Group. “But if you have Glass, it goes in your ear, you look up, you can take the message, you can read it, you can reply – and suddenly, these folks have faster access to texting than their friends did. Now these folks can actually reply quicker. They are the ones who are helping arrange stuff. They are the ones who are actually becoming the center of the social circle, and not the last ones to respond.”

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That effect -- and Google Glass's broader utility for people with disabilities -- is something Starner hadn't expected, a kind of surprise that's "been sort of painful for me" because he wishes he'd thought of it sooner. But now that he's aware of it, he's taking it to the next level: 

In addition to working at Google, Starner teaches at Georgia Tech, where a team had a paper accepted on how to use tongue waggles to use Glass. In short, by using a special tongue-stud, people who might normally have trouble speaking can simply move their tongues around to get their computers to "speak" 12 phrases.

Ashley attended a conference in Miami to demonstrate the device. While there, she snapped a photo of fellow attendees.
Ashley attended a conference in Miami to demonstrate the device. While there, she snapped a photo of fellow attendees.

"We try to do these crazy interfaces that Glass enables for these populations that are too small for [mainstream developers] to worry about," Starner says. "Like the tongue and magnet thing – how many people are going to pierce their tongue with a magnet? But for certain people, that can be a very big deal."

Perriello agrees.

"From AAPD’s perspective, technology including Google Glass is transforming the way that people with disabilities can participate society in a very fundamental way," he says. "No longer can we live in a day and age where people with disabilities need to stay at home. They can participate in the workplace, they can participate in society in ways that weren’t available just a few decades ago. It really is because change is happening so rapidly that it really is leveling the playing field in a really profound way."

That's certainly the case for Lasanta. She recently accompanied Busch to a conference in Miami, where she demonstrated the device and snapped photos of fellow attendees. 

"I can’t even tell you how many people came up to Ashley and were asking about it and just telling her that they loved the story," Busch says. "You could see it in her face. She was beaming." 


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  • Alan Neuhauser

    Alan Neuhauser is an energy, environment and STEM reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at aneuhauser@usnews.com.