That reality inspired former NFL player Steve Gleason to take action. Diagnosed in 2011 with ALS—a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord—Steve can’t move, speak, or breathe on his own. So, he put forth a challenge in 2014: how could technology help people like him live more independently?
Technology has long been an important component of his charity Team Gleason, which works towards empowering people with ALS to live as productively and independently as possible. Team Gleason has provided almost $10 million in adventure, technology, equipment, and care services to over 15,000 people living with ALS—and countless others through advocacy, support, and finding a cure for the disease.
Because of these tireless disability inclusion efforts, Steve was recently honored with a Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor in the US for individuals who’ve made lasting contributions to humanity.
Most of what ALS takes away, technology can give back. I would call that a cure.Steve Gleason
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer, answered Steve Gleason’s challenge by pulling together an all-star team. At Microsoft’s hackathon, they designed and iterated until a prototype emerged: an eye-controlled app, offering the potential to drive a wheelchair using sight.
The next step was to involve the ALS community early on to ensure the tool was designed specifically to meet their needs. That’s where Ann Paradiso, Principal User Experience Manager for the Microsoft Research NExT Enable team came in.
Ann launched the pALS program (people with ALS), which connects people with ALS and their families with Microsoft researchers and developers. She engaged Team Gleason and local ALS chapters in early participatory design to learn where tech has failed people with ALS—and where it can uplift.
Microsoft’s immersive approach gave critical insight into ALS—allowing them to address usability flaws as they arose—and also gave their ALS collaborators direct feedback into the tools being designed for them. The resulting product was Eye Control, now available on Windows 10.
And his work has translated into advancements in technology, as well. Over five years after Steve’s initial challenge, Microsoft’s Windows eye tracking technology became available via APIs and open-source code that encourages anyone anywhere to collaborate and build more accessible experiences.
Team Gleason continues to use this technology and partner with Microsoft to develop life-changing assistive technologies. Microsoft and the Enable Team have provided valuable equipment to Team Gleason to support their mission and the pALS they serve.