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The Innovative Product That Can Enhance Accessibility Tech

Kelsey Pommer, Manager, Digital Media, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)
When Doppler Labs created Here Active Listening, they were on a mission to create wearable technology that makes computing more immersive and human. However, when many from the hard-of-hearing (HoH) community reached out, Director of Accessibility and Advocacy Kristen “KR" Liu realized the future possibilities for the technology. 
We had a chance to speak to Liu about how her personal experience has influenced her career in the tech industry.
How have your personal experiences influenced your work? 
From a very early age, I had to learn how to adapt to a very noisy world by learning how to read lips to communicate with others. It was a very frustrating and challenging process for me, which took many years to perfect. I constantly felt left out or not be able to participate in activities just because I couldn't hear properly. I had to work very hard at being aware of my environment, being patient with myself and others.
These same skills I had practiced intensely for many years to communicate with the world have served me well as a leader.  At the age of 17, I was given the opportunity to enter the technology industry as a technical support intern. Within six months, I was offered a full-time position. From there, I would work my way up in the industry, and by the age of 26, I was heading up a national sales division.
I've spent most of my 20-year career in early-stage startups in consumer electronics. I’ve held executive positions and launched some of the most disruptive consumer accessories brands on the market. From iPhone cases, portable power, wireless headphones and speakers, smart watches and now augmented audio devices.
What does the next generation of accessible technology look like?
As someone who has worn hearing aids for over 35 years, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in the technology (e.g., analog to digital to app-enabled controls). Now what we’re seeing is hearing aids that are smaller and smaller, because manufacturers think that’s what consumers want—something discreet that doesn’t look like you’re wearing a hearing aid. Making hearing aids smaller only fosters the social stigma around hearing devices. No one should feel like they have to hide their hearing issues.
I’m looking for more fashion-forward, socially-acceptable brands with lower cost options to get into the space. I think this will help remove the stigma around wearing hearing devices. If we don't change the perception around hearing, it will still be a challenge to get consumers to address hearing issues.
In the tech space, some of the major smart watch players, like Apple and Pebble, have collaborated to develop a hearing control app compatible with Starkey’s Halo, a made-for-iPhone hearing aid. This kind of collaboration is just the tip of the iceberg, but shows the potential for what’s possible.
I believe we’ll see more collaborations like this in the near future, where consumers will have more freedom to control their listening environment.
How is Doppler Labs actively including communities with accessibility needs in its product design?
When Doppler Labs first launched Here Active Listening over a year ago, we intentionally focused on one novel function that would allow people to control their live music experience. But when we announced the product, we received hundreds of letters from the HoH community and consumers with hearing issues asking if they could use our product to help them control how they hear the world better.
Here isn’t a medical device, but it made us think about how our device might evolve and eventually become a product for everyone, no matter where you are on the hearing spectrum. As the industry changes, we are able to be nimble and adjust our strategic direction quickly.  I have a personal connection to this community and can bring the right people to the table to help us explore future possibilities.
Vote for the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA’s) panel Unlocking Technology for People with Disabilities to be part of official SXSW 2017 programming. In addition to Lui, the panel features speakers from CTA,    Microsoft and University of Colorado. Check out the panel summary and vote to show your support. Voting ends Sept. 2.