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Global Accessibility Awareness Day puts inclusive tech in the spotlight

Microsoft’s new adaptive Xbox controller lets more gamers join in on the action.

James Martin/CNET

The tech world needs an occasion like Global Accessibility Awareness Day. At a time when our attention is hopping from products like the OnePlus 6 to internet phenomenons such as Laurel vs. Yanny (#TeamLaurel), it’s easy to forget that technology can offer some truly life-changing technology.

And no, I don’t mean in a portrait mode-on-your-phone-camera kind of way. Think the blind running a marathon guided by a remote assistant and smart glasses, or prosthetic limbs that offer a real sense of touch.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day puts inclusive tech in the spotlight

Now Playing: Watch this: Microsoft helps disabled gamers with their own £99 controller

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The world of accessibility has long leaned on technology as an enabler, but in the last several years, major companies like Apple and Microsoft have put the issue front and center, making accessibility marquee parts of their keynote addresses at major product launches. It’s why in 2016, CNET began the Tech Enabled series to highlight the work that’s being done in this field.

Which brings us back to GAAD. It’s no surprise that companies are making a bigger deal than ever of this day. Here’s a roundup of what’s been announced.

Microsoft’s adaptive controller

Since nearly the very beginning of the industry, video games have been built with a few basic assumptions about the players: They can hear, they can see and they have two fully functioning hands.

The first video game controllers, from Atari and Nintendo, were designed with joysticks and buttons. To help them play on their own terms, some people in the disability community hacked together solutions by breaking apart the controllers and attaching buttons, switches and other gizmos that allowed them to send signals to a game using their feet or elbows, by bopping their head against a button or even by blowing into a tube. But building specialized controllers is onerous, expensive and time-consuming.

Worse, the setup process doesn’t always work. Microsoft’s answer is a new product called the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The £99 device is designed to help gamers of all shapes, sizes and abilities play games however they can.

It offers ports that players can plug switches, buttons, pressure-sensitive tubes and other gear into in order to control any function a standard controller can do. The controller will be released later this year.

Apple’s more accessible coding tools

Apple has been aggressive in getting its Swift programming language into more hands, including programs such as Swift Playgrounds for children. On Thursday, Apple said that the blind and deaf communities across the US will be able to access a specially designed curriculum called Everyone Can Code for Swift in schools.

“Apple’s mission is to make products as accessible as possible,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “We hope to bring Everyone Can Code to even more schools around the world serving students with disabilities.” The company worked with engineers, educators and programmers from different accessibility communities to ensure Everyone Can Code is as applicable to as many people as possible. Apple was already out in front of GAAD, talking about its accessibility work on Monday.

Bringing students and teachers together

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Oath are teaming up to launch an accessibility program as part of TeachAccess initiative.

It’s supposed to bring together students, industry partners and faculty from partner universities to explore the areas of accessibility. Facebook specifically said it’s using data to understand how people with disabilities use its social network, allowing it to build a more accessible product. In a recent survey of Facebook users in 50 countries, more than 30 percent of people reported difficulty in at least one of these areas: seeing, hearing, speaking, organizing thoughts, walking or grasping with their hands.

AT&T takes smart glasses for the blind global

Aira sells Google Glass paired with a remote guide to offer the blind visual assistance on the go.

It’s how one visually impaired runner was able to get through the Boston Marathon. AT&T, which offers the cellular connection on the glasses, on Thursday said it has extended its agreement with Aira to be its global data provider as Aira expands to Australia, Canada and the UK. “We chose GAAD to make this announcement because bringing accessibility to everyone forms the very core of Aira’s mission,” Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti said in a statement. “Working with AT&T to make our service available around the globe is the next step in using this technology to improve daily lives.”

Editors’ note: We’ll be updating this story as more announcements roll in.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech’s role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

Hands-on with a robot duck: CNET got to spend time with My Special Aflac Duck which was designed to help kids suffering from cancer.

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