July 22, 2020

Technological advances mean more possibilities for people with disabilities. I ground my work in making tech useful.

First-person essay by Eric and Nick Sinagra
Photograph of brothers Nick and Eric Sinagra standing outside Nick's house. They're both smiling at the camera. Nick is sitting in a power wheelchair, and Eric is standing beside him.
Nick and Eric Sinagra (left to right) in front of Nick's home in Whitehall. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act 30 years ago, technology has made tremendous advances that have significantly improved the lives of people with disabilities. The smartphone, a flourishing internet and now even autonomous vehicles are part of mainstream conversation. Technologies like these help people with disabilities, like my brother, Nick, do things every day that many of us take for granted.

My brother, Nick, explains how products like power wheelchairs and smartphones have changed his life:

“When I was about 7, I received my first power wheelchair and I have been using one ever since. Before then, I would use a manual chair that was pushed by my parents. I cannot imagine my world today if there were no power wheelchairs. My wheelchair gives me the independence and mobility to be able to go where I want, when I want. My van is modified with a ramp and docking system so that I can get in and secure my wheelchair on my own. My wheelchair even connects to my smartphone via Bluetooth, and I am able to control it with a mouse on a screen by using my wheelchair joystick. Before this technology, I would rely on family and friends to Google something or even just send a text message. These advances, which seem simple to many, allow me to be more independent; they even allowed me to take a cruise last year. I can turn my lights on and off now with Alexa and Google Home — imagine that.”

These advances, which seem simple to many, allow me to be more independent...

In 2014, I, Eric Sinagra, started pathVu, a Pittsburgh startup whose mission is to map the world’s sidewalks to improve accessibility and walkability. pathVu is a spinout of the University of Pittsburgh and Human Engineering Research Laboratories [HERL], which focuses on disability research and developing assistive technology. I started pathVu after graduating from Pitt with my master’s in rehabilitation sciences and conducting research at HERL to study the effects of rough sidewalks on wheelchair users.

I wanted to see my research put to use to help people rather than sit and collect dust. I wanted to help people like my brother, Nick, and co-founder, Jon, who both use wheelchairs, and my father-in-law, Greg, who is blind. Now, Nick is our Director of Technology and has led the development of our pathVu Navigation app, which provides real-time pedestrian navigation based on the user’s ability to navigate routes, ensuring the route is accessible.

We believe technology like pathVu will continue to improve accessibility for all. One of our goals is for pathVu Navigation to be available in every major city around the country, and one day around the world, so people with disabilities will be able to know which routes are most accessible. The app is part of a project with the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop technology that will help all individuals take an accessible “complete trip” from their home to their destination and back. When digital driving maps like Google Maps were created, we had no idea of the potential to help vehicular navigation. We feel that pathVu will revolutionize accessible pedestrian travel in a similar way.

We see much potential for pathVu moving forward, but there have been many other technologies developed since 1990 that are helping people with disabilities to be more independent.

For people with visual impairments, like my father-in-law, technology means possibilities. A few years ago, my father-in-law started using a smartphone. Although reluctant at first, he quickly became overjoyed by what it could bring. He now has the ability to search the internet, text friends and family and pay bills, all at his fingertips. He can even Facetime us to make sure he grabbed the right can of food. Features like VoiceOver and Siri allow him to navigate the phone like any person with sight. When using the computer, he uses a software called Jaws, which is similar to VoiceOver. Jaws reads aloud the selected items on the computer and the letters which he has pressed. This software and similar tools enabled him to work at a local bank for nearly 40 years before retiring. On a more basic level, things like talking scales and thermometers have become more popular and help him with more basic daily tasks.

Technology can bring freedom and provide people with disabilities with the ability to find jobs, stay employed and do those jobs well.

As more startups form and technology evolves, we are starting to see an endless world of possibilities. There are companies like Aira that connect people with visual impairments with a real person over video chat to help identify objects and obstructions around them. Artificial intelligence in devices like Alexa allow someone to hold up an object in front of the screen and it will read back what the object is that you are holding. Another Pittsburgh startup Xogo is making video gaming accessible. Ridesharing is making it easier for people to get around, although wheelchair accessibility is still a challenge. Wheelchairs that climb steps are starting to become a common topic. Autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars may one day allow someone who is blind to drive a car. Research continues to make significant advances for many diseases and disabilities, which could help someone walk again or even for the first time.

Technology will continue to provide more independence, mobility and improved quality of life for people with disabilities. Although we have made much progress in the past 30 years, there is more to be achieved ahead.

We encourage technology companies and developers to prioritize accessibility because it makes the product usable by all and improves the lives of all individuals. Technology can bring freedom and provide people with disabilities with the ability to find jobs, stay employed and do those jobs well.

Eric Sinagra launched pathVu, a Pittsburgh startup whose mission is to map the world’s sidewalks to improve accessibility and walkability. His brother, Nick Sinagra, is Director of Technology and has led the development of the pathVu Navigation app. They can be reached at eric.sinagra@pathvu.com and nick.sinagra@pathvu.com.