Ali Stroker: Staging an Encore

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By Brady Rhoades

Don’t be surprised if one day you see Tony Award-winning actress and singer Alyson “Ali” Stroker on the Big Screen, and don’t think twice if you’re smiling.

“I want to create content that makes people feel good,” Stroker, who won a historic Tony for portraying Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, told DIVERSEability Magazine. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in the world and we as artists have the ability to change that.”

Stroker is the first actress in a wheelchair to win a Tony. It happened on June 9 of this year. Hearts fluttered, heartbeats quickened, tears flowed and…

“It’s been unbelievable,” said the 32-year-old native of New Jersey. “For the disabled community it’s really cool to see yourself represented in this arena.”

Stroker, paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was 2, is a role model for the disabled. While she avoids sermonizing, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about the virtues of work, perseverance and independence.

“Putting your destiny in someone else’s hands is never going to make you feel powerful,” she said. “I’m more inclined to tell disabled people to create communities of people you trust, and then create your own work. It’s better to do that than to talk.”

And for all young artists, she has a question.

“What do you want to create?”

That’s a core challenge for Stroker. It’s at the heart of being an artist.

It’s what she asked herself as a child (“I sang all day, every day”) and what she asks herself as an adult, and as a star.

Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show.
Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show. 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
TOC: PHOTO BY WALTER MCBRIDE/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES
But it should be stressed that Stroker earned the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for just one reason: she’s really, really good.

“It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, you did something to overcome being in a chair,’” she said. “It was actually, ‘We’re recognizing you for being at the highest level of your field.’ That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

Stroker was born with a passion for the stage, but it took hold—with the strength of a farmer—when she was 7, in a backyard production of Annie.

“When I got on stage, it was the first time that I felt powerful,” Stroker said. “I was used to people staring at me, but they were staring at me because I was in a wheelchair. And when I was on stage, they were staring at me because I was the star… I particularly feel that I can’t hide on stage and that’s a gift.”

It’s fitting that, 25 years later, she’s wowing crowds on Broadway as Ado Annie, who is so unwilling be anything but herself that her catch-line is, “How can I be what I ain’t?”

“She doesn’t ever apologize for who she is,” Stroker said. “She doesn’t have any shame about who she is. Her wants, her desires, are so clear.”

Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York, Sunday, June 9 on the CBS Television Network. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.
Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.

Alyson Mackenzie Stroker was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned a bachelor of fine arts. She was the first actress in a wheelchair to earn a degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

After graduation, she auditioned for The Glee Project at a casting call in New York City. Stroker is a Mezzo-Soprano but because she is paralyzed, she cannot engage her diaphragm, so she created her own singing techniques “to develop resonance so my voice would carry.”

Stroker guest-starred on Season 4 of Glee, then her agent sent her to audition for a Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening.

In 2015, Stroker won the role of Anna. When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway, Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage.

The show was a smash. So was Stroker.

She has had several stage, TV and film parts, and she will have many more, but to date she is best known for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But there’s more to her than her craft. Did you know she’s a strong swimmer, and is learning to surf? Did you know she’s co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City? And she’s a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign which tours the country connecting with thousands of students each year. She’s also gone to South Africa with ARTS InsideOut, where she has held theater classes and workshops for women and children affected by HIV and AIDS.

She credits a strong support system for her success. That support system includes her parents and boyfriend. “I’m so glad to have a partner who gets it,” she said. “He encourages me when I’m scared to go after the things I want.”

When Stroker won her Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall, she did not emerge from the crowd. She was backstage. Like many old buildings, the Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was not wheelchair accessible from the audience.

Stroker said the Music Hall did the best it could, but was limited by

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" performs on April 2, 2019 ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC
Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC

its infrastructure.

It’s not a problem unique to the Music Hall, but it is emblematic.

For the disabled community, access is a profound word.

Access to stages. To roles. To higher education. To jobs. To Stroker and thousands upon thousands of others, access is opportunity.

“As a society, we have to work on improving access,” Stroker said. “I’ve found that theaters being built now are doing that.”

William Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

If that’s true, then Stroker is a player in the limelight, staging her encore. As she stated in a recent interview with The New York Times, “I know in many ways that this is what I was born to do…it’s so clear I was meant to be in this seat.”

Clothing Size Guide In Works For Those With Down Syndrome

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young man with Down Syndrome looks on as two women review clothing laid out on a table

It’s often difficult for people with Down syndrome to find clothes that fit, but now researchers are working on a solution: the country’s first size guide for this population.

When Jayden Niblett wakes up each morning, his mind races to remember what he is doing that day, and what he can wear to impress his friends.

The last often leads to annoyance. Jayden, 11, who has Down syndrome, struggles to find clothes that fit his unique body type and are accommodating of his motor deficits, an issue that people with physical disabilities face every day in a world where fashion is built on single-size body standards.

“It’s really frustrating for him,” said Janet Littleton, Jayden’s grandmother. “It absolutely affects his mood and how his whole day is going to go.”

People with Down syndrome have shorter limbs, rounder bodies and common sensitivities to tags and fabrics, which make it difficult to find everyday clothes, like jeans, that fit them and feel good. Jayden would often wear women’s capri pants because they fit his waist and shorter legs. But as he has grown into a more muscular body, capris are no longer working.

Now, though, Jayden and his grandmother are working on a solution: They’re participating in a research study at the University of Delaware’s Innovation, Health and Design Lab to generate the country’s first size guide for people with Down syndrome. The lab’s mission is to provide a whole community with access to outfits that help them function with more independence and confidence.

At the end of the study, Jayden and the nearly 1,000 other participating children with Down syndrome will receive a free custom-made pair of jeans that accommodate their size and limited motor functions.

The lab, which opened in September 2018, is powered by the vision and leadership of Martha Hall, a fashion designer turned biomechanical engineer. Hall, who was born in Newark, Del., earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Delaware and then a Ph.D. in biomechanics from the school in 2018. She started her career designing cocktail dresses, but once she saw the work that University of Delaware professor Cole Galloway was doing for children with motor deficits, she dedicated her work to improving minority populations’ quality of life through functional clothing.

“People think of fashion as a sort of fluffy science,” said Hall. “But I’ve always encouraged people to consider fashion as being all about self-advocacy and self-expression.”

The lab started with two students working on four projects, and now has 34 students — and a wait list — with 22 projects, which address everything from inclusive apparel and athletic wear to medical devices that can increase the survival chances of premature babies. Its work centers around improving quality of life through clothing, and has been so successful that by fall, Hall plans to launch health design as a major at the university, the first program of its kind in the country.

Some brands have tried to make accessible, sensory sensitive clothing lines, but they’re not using accurate size guides, said Hall.

“There’s not a lot of evidence for the design decisions that (some brands) are making,” said Hall. “It’s great that there are designers interested in serving the population, but you have to talk to the community and understand what the actual issue is … in order to design something that actually suits them.”

That’s where Hall’s student researchers come in. With the Down syndrome size guide and jean project, Kiersten McCormack interviews caregivers to learn their child’s specific needs. Senior Elizabeth deBruin built an “obstacle course” for kids to pick out fabrics, designs and colors for their jeans. Sydney Solem, a senior majoring in medical diagnostics, manages the body scanner. Together, the group focuses on fashion, function, fit, fasteners and fabric.

To generate the size chart, the lab uses a three-dimensional scanner that scans participants’ bodies and creates a 3D colored avatar with exact measurements of their size and shape. Once all participants are scanned, the company that created the machine, Human Solutions, will take the measurements, create a size guide, and sell the guide to companies, which will be able to design clothing based on accurate measurements for this population of people.

While learning to dress themselves independently is a key rite of passage for children, for those with disabilities who need assistance, it can become one more thing that makes them feel different from their peers.

Continue on to DisabilityScoop to read the complete article.

T-Boz Talks TLC’s Legacy, Touring with Chilli and Beating the Odds

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TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins is pictured sitting on a red chair with a colorful blue and red themed outfit

The superstar spills the deets on her health, her 30-year career in the music industry and her brand-new business endeavor.

TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ life is one filled with overcoming insurmountable odds and finding blessings in unexpected places.

Watkins was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of 7 and spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals due to episodes with the potentially fatal condition. She was told she wouldn’t make it past early adulthood.

Her family’s move from Des Moines, Iowa, to Atlanta when Watkins was 9, and a chance meeting former singer and music executive Perri “Pebbles” Reid and her then-husband L.A. Reid would launch T-Boz, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas into the stratosphere as the biggest-selling American girl group in music history; in addition, they earned four Grammy Awards and have sold 65 millions albums worldwide to date.

For all its success, TLC has endured a roller coaster of ups and downs over the past 30 years, the biggest blow being the loss of group member Left Eye in a 2002 car cash, which took away one-third of the lightning in a bottle that made them superstars.

Resolute in their will to go on, T-Boz and Chilli have continued to record music and tour, most recently co-headlining a tour with Nelly and Flo Rida that continues through this summer.

These days, T-Boz, author of the 2017 memoir A Sick Life, is reveling in the most recent chapter of her life as mom to daughter Chase and son Chance and co-creator of her newly launched line of CBD-infused healthy and beauty products, aptly called TLCBD.

Continue on to Ebony to read the interview with T-Boz.

Lexilight is a reading lamp designed to help people with dyslexia

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The Lexilight is pictured on a desk

The precise causes of dyslexia remain a mystery, though research out of France two years ago suggests the condition occurs when someone has two dominant eyes, rather than the usual one.

This means letters appear mirrored or blurred, making it difficult to read. The Lexilight lamp tackles this problem with LEDs — it pulses at a customizable rate, enabling the brain to process information from a single “dominant” eye and clearing up mashed-together letters instantly.

The Lexilight is completely adjustable — knobs on the back of the light change the pulsation, allowing users to find the rhythm that works for them.

Lexilife is a new company out of France, and it showed off at the Lexilight at CES 2020.

The lamp itself is available now in Europe and will come to the United States soon, according to Lexilife founder Jean-Baptiste Fontes. It costs €549, and is available for a free 30-day trial.

Lexilife partners with dyslexia support organizations, and it’s tested the lamp on more than 300 people with dyslexia. Ninety percent of them found it improved their reading abilities.

Continue on to Engadget to read more.

Actress With Autism To Debut In New TV Comedy

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Kayla Cromer is standing in front of a background with colorful butterflies wearing a bright blue floral dress

Autism is set to be front and center on a new television series starring a woman who’s on the spectrum. The cable network Freeform, which caters to teens and young adults, will introduce the show “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” this month.

The half-hour comedy is about a 20-something who steps in to take care of his two teenage half sisters when their father dies of cancer.

Matilda, one of the half sisters, is a high school senior with autism. The character is played by actress Kayla Cromer who disclosed last spring that she has the developmental disorder herself.

Cromer has spoken up about the need for people with disabilities and other differences to represent those like themselves on screen.

“So many characters on television today, they’re portrayed by people that do not have a difference. And, honestly, people with a difference, we’re fully capable of portraying our own type and we deserve that right,” she said while speaking on a panel at the Freeform Summit last March. “With so many changes in the industry right now, why not now? Just give us our chance. Include us. We can do this.”

Freeform said the show will tackle “navigating autism, budding sexuality, consent, parenthood, adolescence, family and grief” while following a family discovering the “importance of finding happiness in the middle of really difficult moments.”

Continue on to the Disability Scoop to read the complete article.

American Girl introduces doll with hearing loss for 2020 Girl of the Year

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American Girl Doll Joss Kendrick wearing hearing aid and surfing with her dog on the surfboard

By Rachel Paula Abrahamson

Meet American Girl’s 2020 Girl of the Year: Joss Kendrick.

The 10-year-old surfer and competitive cheerleader from Huntington Beach, California, has long brown hair and a penchant for hooded sweatshirts.

Joss also wears a hearing aid in her right ear. She can’t hear at all in her left.

American Girl introduced a wheelchair in 1996, and went on to offer items such as service dogs, diabetes kits and leg braces, Joss is the first doll whose disability is a storyline in her book series.

“We’re proud to welcome Joss Kendrick, whose stories are sure to instill confidence and character in girls who are learning to think about the possibilities in their own life,” American Girl’s general manager Jamie Cygielman said in a statement.

To make Joss as authentic as possible, the Mattel-owned company worked with a team of experts including pro surfer Crystal DaSilva, who was born deaf.

“Deaf children should know that they can accomplish anything in life with hard work and dedication,” DaSilva, 35, told TODAY Parents in an email. “They should not be afraid to do anything they set out to do in life simply because they have a physical challenge.”

American Girl also partnered with Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and donated $25,000 to support the organization’s education and awareness programs.

Continue on to Today to read the complete article.

Abilities Expo is back in Los Angeles February 21-23

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Los Angeles Convention Center for the Abilities Expo is pictured with blue skies and palm trees

Abilities Expo is about bringing necessary products and services together under one roof for the community of people with disabilities, their families, caregivers, seniors, and healthcare professionals.

It’s about introducing opportunities that can enrich your life …especially ones that you never knew were out there.

What’s in Store for you at Abilities Expo?

New products and tech. High-impact workshops. Fun, inclusive recreation including an all-inclusive climbing wall.

 

Special Features include:

Adaptive Sports
Dance Performances
Can’t Miss Experiences
Service Animals
Face Painting

Workshops include:

Accessible Home Design
Can I retrofit my master bathroom to include a spacious roll-in shower? What must I do to install an elevator in my two-story home? How can my flower garden be made more accessible? Who should I hire to make sure my home renovation project will fit my needs?

Mosquitos, Mess Halls, and More Like Me: The Importance of the Summer Camp Experience for Youth with Disabilities
Is summer camp relevant for my child? Is it really the best use of our time and resources? How does the camp experience prepare my child for their future?

Watch the video to find out more about the Abilities Expo!

Abilities Expo Los Angeles has it all so register for free today!

Jim Ryan and the Wheelie 7: A Game-Changer For Mobility

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HOOBOX Robotics' Wheelie 7 kit allows users to pick from 10 facial expressions to control their motorized wheelchair moving forward, turning and stopping. Instead of invasive body sensors, the Wheelie 7 uses a 3D Intel RealSense Depth Camera SR300 mounted on the wheelchair to stream data that AI algorithms process in real time to control the chair

By Jaeson “Doc” Parsons

The date of March 30th, 2016, will be forever etched into the mind of Jim Ryan. That day, while vacationing in Maui with his wife, Isabelle, a wave struck him in waist deep water, driving him into the sea floor. He surfaced, unconscious and unresponsive. In that split second, Ryan was paralyzed, becoming a quadriplegic from his C4 vertebrae down. In that moment, his life was changed forever.

Ryan is not alone. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, nearly 288,000 people in the United States are living with spinal cord injuries, and there about 17,700 new cases each year.

For those with movement-limiting conditions like Ryan, getting around can exact a terrible toll on quality of life and autonomy. A 2018 study found that physical mobility has the largest impact on quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries. Mobility is often enabled through caregivers or through a motorized wheelchair with complex sensors placed on the body that require special education to operate.

With this in mind, technology company Intel partnered with robotics company Hoobox to create the first-ever artificial intelligence-powered wheelchair that translates facial expressions into freedom of movement.

Using a combination of Intel hardware and software, Hoobox developed ‘The Wheelie’—a wheelchair kit that utilizes facial recognition technology to capture, process, and translate facial expressions into real-time wheelchair commands, finally providing individuals such as Ryan with autonomy, regardless of the physical limitations they’re facing. This system is a kit which can be installed on any motorized wheelchair system and, at under 7 minutes for installation, is relatively easy to implement.

Like many individuals suffering from spinal cord injuries, Ryan was using a conventional motorized system, one that uses a head array to translate gestures into movement.

“Before the Wheelie I drove my wheelchair with the head array. It is like a horseshoe around my head with five buttons that I used to turn left, right, forward, back, and change modes,” Ryan said. “Because of the head array, I am unable to look left and right. Nor can I wear hats of virtually any type. The hats get in the way of my buttons.”

Hoobox saw this limitation and found a way through it. By incorporating AI and a camera, the Wheelie 7 operates without invasive body sensors, providing users with independence and control over their location. It translates 11 different facial expressions into wheelchair commands in real time with 99.9% accuracy. And its performance improves over time as the algorithm learns to recognize the user’s expressions, allowing for increased freedom of movement.

“The Wheelie allows me to turn my head left and right and wear any hat I want,” said Ryan, who was introduced to Hoobox’s Wheelie through a group in Vancouver. He is one of more than 60 individuals who are testing the new technology to help Hoobox developers understand their needs and requirements.

Since being introduced to the Wheelie 7, Ryan has improved not just his mobility, but his lifestyle as well.

“I now can look left and right, up and down. I can wear a sun hat or baseball hat in the summer and nice winter hat or hoodie in the winter,” he said.

As technology continues its march forward with advances in AI systems, the limitations on mobility for those suffering from debilitating injuries like Ryan are beginning to see a transformation.

Wheelie 7 is a game changer in improving access to mobility solutions for those with conditions resulting from nearly 500,000 spinal cord injuries per year. But through continued research and development by companies such as Intel and Hoobox, and with the help of individuals such as Ryan, mobility is becoming a reality.

“For a person like me it gives a tremendous amount of freedom,” he said. “By using facial expressions instead of head movements, the Wheelie allows me more freedom and comfort in my wheelchair. And for anyone else with limited movement like me, it can be at true asset.”

Nurse adopts man with autism so he can have a heart transplant

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Nurse and man with autism who had heart transplant stand side by side in hospital smiling

Jonathan Pinkard wasn’t eligible for the procedure because he didn’t have a support system.

By Rachel Paula Abrahamson

When Jonathan Pinkard, a 27-year-old man with autism, was taken off the heart transplant list, all hope for his survival was gone.

Then, Pinkard found Lori Wood.

Wood, an ICU nurse at Piedmont Newnan Hospital in Georgia, was assigned to Pinkard in December 2018.

Lori Wood became Jonathan Pinkard’s legal guardian so he could have a heart transplant. Lori Wood became Jonathan Pinkard’s legal guardian so he could have a heart transplant. Courtesy of Lori Wood
“Jonathan was very sick, but he wasn’t eligible for a transplant because he didn’t have a support system,” Wood, 57, told TODAY Health. “One of the requirements is that you have someone to care for you afterwards.”

Because there are so many people on waiting lists for donated organs, before receiving a transplant patients are evaluated to make sure they are responsible enough to protect their health, including taking anti-rejection medications, if they receive one.

“They’re going to look at things like do you show up for appointments and follow doctors orders?” said Anne Paschke, spokesperson for United Network for Organ Sharing, a group that decides which patients receive life-saving organ transplants in the United States. “If you get a transplant and don’t take your immunosuppressive drugs, you’re going to lose it.”

Pinkard, who had been in and out of the hospital since August, was often discharged to a men’s shelter because he had nowhere else to go.

So, after knowing Pinkard for two days, the single mom asked Pinkard if she could become his legal guardian.

“I had to help him. It was a no-brainer,” Wood revealed. “He would have died without the transplant.”

Though Wood “didn’t know a thing” about Pinkard when he moved in, the two bonded quickly over football and “Family Feud”.

“Jonathan has his chair, and I have my chair,” Wood said. “We like game shows and high five back and forth if we get an answer right. He is very loving.”

Lori Wood, seen here with Jonathan, was honored by Piedmont Healthcare for making a positive difference. Lori Wood, seen here with Jonathan, was honored by Piedmont Healthcare for making a positive difference. Courtesy of Piedmont Healthcare
Pinkard calls Wood, “Mama.” She monitors his medications — he takes 34 pills a day — and shuttles him to doctors appointments. Wood is also helping Pinkard to improve his credit score and teaching him the life skills he needs to live independently.

Continue on to Today to read the complete article.

Carnival Cruise Line now certified as ‘Sensory Inclusive’

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Carnival Cruise Ship pictured at dock

Cruises can be a dazzling display of lights and sound with an overwhelming amount of things to do – and for some people with autism, ADHD, PTSD, Down Syndrome and other sensory disabilities, that can lead to sensory overload. But Carnival Cruise Line has gone out of its way to be more accommodating to its guests, and that has paid off with the company becoming the first cruise line to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to accessibility and inclusion for individuals with sensory needs and invisible disabilities.

All of Carnival’s South Florida-based ships are now certified, with the rest of the fleet scheduled to also earn that distinction by March of 2020.

“Carnival Cruise Line and KultureCity share a heartfelt commitment to acceptance and inclusivity,” Vicky Rey, Carnival’s vice president of guest care and communications and the company’s ADA Responsibility Officer, said in a statement. “Working together, all of our guests can maximize their enjoyment and be the truest versions of themselves during their time on board.”

KultureCity co-founder Dr. Julian Maha echoed her thoughts.

“We’re proud and grateful to partner with Carnival Cruise Line, offering guests with sensory needs an opportunity to more fully enjoy their vacations and create wonderful memories with their friends, families and loved ones,” he said. “We appreciate Carnival Cruise Line for taking this important step in making their vacations accessible to everyone.”

Carnival’s rollout of the sensitivity training began in October. Hundreds have been trained to understand and help adults, youth and children with sensory-related questions or needs.

Continue on to Fox News to read the complete article.

Google Seeks Help From People With Down Syndrome

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A man with voice recognition on his phone

Voice computing is the future of tech— devices like smart-home systems and internet-enabled speakers are leading a shift away from screens and towards speech. But for people with unique speech patterns, these devices can be inaccessible when speech-recognition technology fails to understand what users are saying.

Google is aiming to change that with a new initiative dubbed “Project Understood.” The company is partnering with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to solicit hundreds of voice recordings from people with Down syndrome in order to train its voice recognition AI to better understand them.

“Out of the box, Google’s speech recognizer would not recognize every third word for a person with Down syndrome, and that makes the technology not very usable,” Google engineer Jimmy Tobin said in a video introducing the project.

Voice assistants — which offer AI-driven scheduling, reminders, and lifestyle tools — have the potential to let people with Down syndrome live more independently, according to Matt MacNeil, who has Down syndrome and is working with Google on the project.

“When I started doing the project, the first thing that came to my mind is really helping more people be independent,” MacNeil said in the announcement video.

Continue on to Business Insider to read the complete article.