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Visually impaired engineers help design new health apps, improve accessibility

Jul 24 2015
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The group works together to identify trouble spots blind users might encounter and suggest ways that the design could be improved.

Apps and smartphones are becoming important tools to track and manage personal health, but millions of disabled Americans still face significant obstacles accessing that technology. iTriage wants to eliminate that barrier, so the Aetna-owned company has partnered with the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT) to have visually impaired engineers work with developers to make forthcoming versions of iTriage and an Aetna app for members that are designed with disabled access in mind.

Approximately 6.7 million Americans age 16 and older are visually impaired.

It’s a lofty goal for several reasons, said Michael Hess, the blind engineer who founder BIT. Approximately 6.7 million Americans age 16 and older are visually impaired, he said, so building apps they can access is crucial. So is finding them a job: The unemployment rate among the visually impaired is around 70 percent, Hess said, largely because jobs with the necessary accommodations in place are difficult to find – even though many of these blind workers are highly trained and highly skilled. He created BIT to improve employment prospects for visually impaired workers like himself, he said.

Mobile: the new frontier
Mobile tech represents a new frontier in access for the disabled. Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) made access the law of the land – in workplaces, public accommodations, and even to technologies like telephones. Subsequent changes modernized the idea of access, extending it to some aspects of website designs. But mobile tech has moved faster than standard-setting organizations, and as a result, while at this time there are no mandated legal requirements that specifically address mobile apps, there is some guidance offered by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines group. That means the need remains significant for accessible mobile tech, said Patrick Leonard, chief technology officer for iTriage and Aetna Innovation & Digital Products.

“Serving customers means meeting people where they are,” Leonard said. “Lots of people have different needs, whether it’s improved access for the visually impaired or something else. We think doing this type of work allows us to better engage with consumers so that they can manage their health – and we can be a partner that they want to work with and stay with.”

The unemployment rate among the visually impaired is around 70 percent even though many of these blind workers are highly trained and highly skilled.

The collaboration began a year ago, after a mutual friend introduced Hess and Leonard. They quickly realized how important and impactful working together could be. Since then, a team of about 10 engineers and developers have worked regularly with a pair of visually impaired engineers from BIT. The group works together to identify trouble spots blind users might encounter, and suggest ways that the design could be altered and improved. Those refinements and design changes will be incorporated into the apps, which will be released later this year.