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Apple debuts wheelchair app

Apple debuts wheelchair app

SAN FRANCISCO - Among the fanfare during the keynote address at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 13 was the announcement that an upcoming free software update for the watchOS will include an app specific for wheelchair users.

“The team has been working hard to enable features to allow more people to use the activity apps, and one group that we've been thinking a lot about is wheelchair users,” said Jay Blahnik, director of fitness and health technologies for Apple, during the WWDC keynote address.

Instead of “time to stand,” the app's activity tracker will notify wheelchair users that it's “time to roll.”

The app will also include two workouts and rings optimized for wheelchair pushes.

“We couldn't be more excited,” said Blahnik, a fitness instructor, consultant and author.

To develop the app, Apple first had to do some research. Because wheelchair users use different techniques to push their wheelchairs over different terrain, for example, it had to figure out how to track each technique.

“We knew we couldn't use the same algorithms,” Blahnik said.

Apple worked with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego-based charity providing grants to athletes with physical disabilities; and the Lakeshore Foundation, a Birmingham, Ala.-based nonprofit that advocates physical fitness for people with disabilities. With their help, the company recruited about 300 wheelchair users for more than 3,000 hours of research.

“We knew to do this right, we'd not only have to do a lot of studies but we'd also have to enlist the help of experts,” Blahnik said.

Apple expects to offer the update, including the wheelchair app, later this year.

Wheelchair users: Long-time Apple fans

Wheelchair users, who have favored Apple products for years, couldn't be happier about the company's plans to offer a specific wheelchair app as part of an upcoming software update for its watchOS.

“I'm very appreciative of Apple's sensitivity to our needs as a community of active users,” said Kristina Rhoades, a T-5 complete paraplegic and national sales manager for El Dorado Mobility in Salina, Kan.

Rhoades says she uses the existing activity tracker but knows it's not customized for rolling vs. walking.

“I'm excited to see how this enhancement improves the user experience with more accurate analytics on what is happening with my body as I use the app,” she said.

Clinicians and wheelchair users have long preferred Apple products because they offer “swipe not type” technology.

“This is a key functionality for people who have limited hand dexterity or other mobility issues,” said Lisa Wells, director of Wheel:Life, an online community for wheelchair users.

For a company like Apple to more specifically and publicly acknowledge wheelchairs users is huge, Rhoades and Wells say.

“The trend toward more apps in smaller devices caters naturally to people who rely on a range of mobility equipment or hands-free devices,” Wells said. “This type of technology makes the world more accessible for people with disabilities.”


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