Speak With Facial Expressions

02.23.15 9:55 PM ET

Now You Can Use Stephen Hawking’s Tech to Speak With Facial Expressions

The technology used by the famous physicist is now open source and free for all of us.

Last night, Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The critically acclaimed film, which has also been controversial among viewers with disabilities, traces Hawking’s journey from a cocky PhD student at Cambridge to the celebrity scientist and unofficial face of ALS that we know today.

But while Professor Hawking’s work in theoretical physics is unquestionably groundbreaking, the technology that powers him each day is equally so. Tech enthusiasts applauded when Hawking and Intel recently unveiled the new state-of-the-art communication system, the Assistive Context Aware Toolkit (ACAT) that allows the professor to communicate through speech as well as access his computer and deliver lectures. The innovative system is designed to respond to Hawking’s minute facial movements.

But aside from the sheer marvel of its design, there was something else newsworthy about the system: ACAT is open source and free to use. The open-source movement is taking the democratization of the digital realm to the next level: technology for users, by users. But for people with disabilities—a population that has historically been barred from participating in democracy—open-source software can mean so much more.

For anyone who has trouble accessing computers the standard way, software like screen readers for visually-impaired users and alternative access products, like joysticks and eye-control systems, are a vital part of everyday life. But there’s a quandary within the assistive technology (AT) industry—with an almost-infinite range of abilities among disabled users, simply knowing a diagnosis isn’t enough for AT developers to predict how consumers will use their software. It’s virtually impossible to design commercial software for blind users or stroke victims, for example, which could meet each user’s personal needs completely.

The obvious solution would be to customize each application for each consumer, but of course, this is impossible from a financial perspective.

“The better your assistive technology is—the better the design is—the smaller your customer base is,” says Jutta Treviranus, director of OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto, which advocates for universal access to the Internet and emerging technologies. It’s a catch-22 for developers, who are in reality forced to produce one-size-fits-all solutions in order to survive.

But for people like Hawking who rely on their software to earn a living, this just isn’t good enough.

For Treviranus and other experts, open-source designs are the answer. “Creating an open-source system where by the sort of standard features are available to everybody and then people can innovate from there—it becomes a platform for additional functions—is really the only strategy that I think can address this huge problem that we’re facing,” says Treviranus.

A growing number of open-source AT solutions have become available recently, but so far the market is proving less than hospitable toward them. This isn’t because of lack of demand from consumers with disabilities, but rather good ol’ fashioned bureaucracy.

Even 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, rampant workplace discrimination and accessibility barriers contribute to an 11 percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities in the United States. Because of this, disabled consumers have typically relied on government programs, such as state rehabilitation services, to access their assistive tech. These government programs almost exclusively work with proprietary software vendors, who have proven track records and the ability to provide on-call tech support when things go wrong. And unfortunately, this takes resources and time—two things that many cutting edge open-source developers simply don’t have.

“Open-source versions have great difficulty in gaining use because of these well-intentioned service policies that say that support and funding will only be available for these qualified, certified assistive technologies,” says Treviranus.

Richard Schwerdtfeger, CTO of Accessibility at IBM, agrees that support is king when it comes to working with third-party AT vendors. “A lot of the open-source assistive technology that is being developed is extremely good,” he says. “But at the end of the day, companies want to have support for their assistive technology, and if the open-source vendor isn’t providing it, that creates issues.”

Another problem issue in replacing government-funded assistive tech programs with open-source software might be that the open-source software is simply too sexy. When applications are designed well enough to benefit not only users with disabilities, but also mainstream consumers as well, the government may get nervous that demand will get too high. For example, Treviranus recounts how Ontario’s assistive device program once resisted buying a less-than-$1,000 iPad system for its beneficiaries, instead preferring a $4,000 proprietary device for fear that the flood gates of applicants would suddenly be thrown open at the mention of Apple products.

But the price difference and easy availability of open-source solutions mean that people with disabilities can now directly access AT themselves, without needing to go through government channels. And herein lies the most important benefit of open-source software for people with disabilities: self-determination.

“There’s been a long, long history of paternalism and infantilization of people with disabilities,” says Treviranus. After spending their whole lives listening to doctors, caregivers and perfect strangers’ opinions of what they need and are capable of, suddenly having the ability to control their own assistive technology through open-source systems is a game-changer for people with disabilities.

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“As a person with a disability, the greatest difference for me between closed, proprietary software and open source is that with one of those, if it doesn’t meet my own personal accessibility needs, I have the opportunity to change it so that it does. Discovering that is what inspired me to be a Web and Mozilla Add-ons developer,” writes Ken Saunders, an expert in Firefox accessibility who is also legally blind, in an email interview. “Since open source coding is freely available, I’m able to dig into it, learn it, and manipulate it so that the product is more usable and works better for me. I can also freely distribute the end result for others to use and benefit from and I have done that and continue to do so. None of that is possible with proprietary software.”

As the number of people with disabilities continues to grow worldwide, international efforts like the UN’s G3ict initiative and the World Wide Web Consortium are doing invaluable work to ensure that the Internet is an inclusive and accessible place.

Both Schwerdtfeger and Saunders say they’re already seeing progress being made—a good sign of things to come. “With open source, people typically can’t put a barrier in front of you. It means you can actually go out and instrument change,” says Schwerdtfeger. “And that’s pretty powerful. And I think we’re seeing a lot more people contribute to open-source offerings for those reasons.”