Microsoft accessibility grants go out to companies aiming to improve tech for people with disabilities


The tech world has a lot to offer those with disabilities, but it can be hard to get investors excited about the accessibility space. That’s why Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants are so welcome: equity-free Azure credits and cash for companies looking to adapt AI to the needs of those with disabilities. The company just announced ten more, including education for the blind startup ObjectiveEd.

The grant program was started a while back with a $5 million, 5-year mission to pump a little money into deserving startups and projects — and get them familiar with Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure, of course.

Applications are perennially accepted, and “anybody who wants to explore the value of AI and machine learning for people with disabilities is welcome to apply,” said Microsoft’s Mary Bellard. As long as they have “great ideas and roots in the disability community.”

Among the grantees this time around is ObjectiveEd, which I wrote about earlier this year. The company is working on an iPad-based elementary school curriculum for blind and low-vision students that’s also accessible to sighted kids and easy for teachers to deploy.

Part of that, as you might guess, is braille. But there aren’t nearly enough teachers capable of teaching braille as students who need to learn it, and the most common technique is very hands-on: a student reads braille (on a hardware braille display) out loud and a teacher corrects them. Depending on whether a student has access to the expensive braille display and a suitable tutor at home, that can mean as little as an hour a week dedicated to these crucial lessons.

ObjectiveEd 2

A refreshable braille display for use with apps like ObjectiveEd’s.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could send a sentence to the braille display, have the student speak the words out loud, then have Microsoft’s Azure Services translate that to text and compare that to the braille display, then correct the student if necessary and move on. All within the context of a game, to make it fun,” said ObjectiveEd founder Marty Schultz.

And that’s just what the company’s next app does. Speech-to-text accuracy is high enough now that it can be used for a variety of educational and accessibility purposes, so all it will take for a student to get some extra time in on their braille lessons is an iPad and braille display — admittedly more than a thousand dollars worth of hardware, but no ever one said being blind was cheap.

Braille literacy is dropping, and, I suggested, no surprise there: With pervasive and effective audio interfaces, audio books, and screen readers, there are fewer times when blind and low-vision people truly need braille. But as Schulz and Bellard both pointed out, it’s great to be able to rely on audio for media consumption, but for serious engagement with the written word and many educational purposes, braille is either necessary or a very useful alternative to speech.

Both Schultz and Bellard noted that they are not trying to replace teachers at all — “Teachers teach, we help kids practice,” Schultz said. “We’re not experts in teaching, but we can follow their advice to make these tools useful to students.”

There are ten other grantees in this round of Microsoft’s program, covering a wide variety of approaches and technologies. I like the SmartEar, for instance, which listens for things like doorbells or alarms and alerts deaf people of them via their smartphone.

And City University of London has a great idea in personalizing object recognition. It’s pretty straightforward for a computer vision system to recognize a mug or keychain on a table. But for a blind person it’s more useful if a system can identify their mug or keychain, and then perhaps say, it’s on the brown table left of the door, or what have you.

Here are the ten grantees besides ObjectiveEd (descriptions provided by Microsoft, as I wasn’t able to investigate each one, but may in the future):

  • AbiliTrek : A platform for the disability community to rate and review the accessibility of any establishment, with the ability to tailor search results to the specific needs of any individual.
  • Azur Tech Concept – SmartEar : A service that actively listens for environmental sounds (i.e. doorbell, fire alarm, phone call) and retransmits them in colored flashes on small portable boxes or a smart phone to support the deaf community.
  • Balance for Autism – Financial Accessibility: An interactive program which provides information and activities designed to better match people with programs and services
  • City University of London – The ORBIT : Developing a data set to train AI systems for personalizing object recognition, which is becoming increasingly important for tools used by the blind community.
  • Communote – BeatCaps : A new form of transcription that uses beat tracking to generate subtitles that visualize the rhythm of music. These visualizations allow the hard of hearing to experience music.
  • Filmgsindl GmbH – EVE: A system that recognizes speech and generates automatic live subtitles for people with a hearing disability.
  • Humanistic Co-Design : A cooperative of individuals, organizations and institutions working together to increase awareness about how designers, makers, and engineers can apply their skills in collaboration with people who have disabilities.
  • iMerciv –  MapinHood : A Toronto-based startup developing a navigation app for pedestrians who are blind or have low vision and want to choose the routes they take if they’re walking to work, or to any other destination.
  • inABLE and I-Stem – I-Assistant: A serves that uses text-to-speech, speech recognition, and AI to give students a more interactive and conversational alternative to in-person testing in the classroom.
  • Open University – ADMINS : A chatbot that provides administrative support for people with disabilities who have difficulty filling out online academic forms.

The grants will take the form of Azure credits and/or cash for immediate needs like user studies and keeping the lights on. If you’re working on something you think might be a good match for this program, you can apply for it right here.

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