CES 2021: How Verizon Media and Others are Advancing Accessibility for All

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Rod Serling's timeless TV classic The Twilight Zone often explored the impact of isolation on society through stories of individuals and individual communities finding themselves caught in strange circumstances.  Many individuals right now – especially those with one kind of disability or another -- find themselves alone at home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns implemented to control it.

How enterprises like Verizon Media, the media and entertainment services unit of telecommunications organization Verizon, seek through technology to empower disabled people was the focus of a CES 2021 panel late Wednesday afternoon. Verizon Media's efforts, spearheaded by principal product designer Kisiah Timmons, include modifying a number of Web sites -- from Yahoo! to Techcrunch -- to make them more easily accessible to anyone at any time.

"We make sure people are supported," said Timmons. He offered as one example Yahoo's fantasy sports application, which was implemented last year after Timmons, visually impaired since her mid-20s, connected with a league of blind fantasy football players. She was inspired by getting to know league members assembled from all over the U.S. and Canada. It was "an extremely rewarding experience," Timmons reflected. "The key takeaway is that the league can be connected and facilitate dialogue. They connect better with their opponents."

Using the app's special features, which are geared to provoke easy to maneuver actions, consumers with disabilities are highly engaged and feel less fearful of their circumstances. "They are closer and more connected to each other, and (for them), sports serve as a distraction to the pandemic," Timmons explained. "It's a way in which tech can be served for good, and we're fulfilling people's passions with inclusiveness in mind."

The session put the spotlight on several companies, including Caregivers Smart Solutions, which has another tech-driven approach to reducing pandemic-induced isolation. When placed in a house or apartment, the company's line of sensors, which are tied in with a smartphone app, allow homebound adults to communicate with their loved ones and make them aware of any health issues they are going through in much quicker fashion.

"Our aging loved ones are fiercely independent and don't want to be a burden to any of us," explained Caregivers' founder Ryan Herd. "They have a tendency to self-isolate. With coronavirus, they stay home even more. The question is, how can we use technology to enhance life for our aging loved ones?"

The mix of sensors and smartphone communication allows children to monitor their parents "so you can see things out of the ordinary," reach out and invite them to get medical attention, Herd advised.

For All Access Life, co-founded by Bradley Heaven, who was born with a form of cerebral palsy leaving him with no voice, Zoom and other video call formats are important tech advancements for people with disabilities, as they allow them to more easily communicate with others or to be educated online. Heaven uses computer software that serves as his "voice," with a feature that automatically presents his thoughts when he makes eye contact.

"Zoom became my new home," he said. "It allowed me to stay connected and have some sense of normalcy. I hosted my own meetings with friends and family. Over time, all my (college) classes were held over Zoom. That led to networking and realizing the value of meeting others."

Operating as a non-profit, All Access Life now showcases its communication products and services through a dedicated web site and a YouTube channel.

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