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User examines Sesame Enable technology

How many of us have been tempted to chuck our smartphones into the ocean while on vacation to stop the incessant buzzing of incoming emails and texts from interrupting what is supposed to be down time?

While many of us have become increasingly desperate to unplug – there’s even a growing industry of “digital detox” vacation spots – in our love-hate relationship with our smartphones, love ultimately conquers all.

We wouldn’t dream of cutting the cord for more than a day or two max. After all, mobile connectedness has become so critical to modern life that according to research by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, even people living on less than $2 a day reported owning a mobile phone – cutting back on food purchases if necessary.

But while our smartphones have practically become an extension of our body, an entire population has been left behind. A huge swath of the disabled community – quadriplegics, ALS patients, people with cerebral palsy to name a few – have never used a smartphone to dial, text, browse or read emails, let alone post on Facebook, play a game or download an app.

Our phones, regardless of income level, age or gender, are largely viewed as the primary enablers of our social lives, professional careers, and a major source of entertainment. In other words, a phone is hardly just a phone anymore.

How a Phone Call Changed My Life

About three years ago, my phone rang, and on the other end was a voice that would change the course of my professional journey. At the time, I was a video game developer and had just appeared on a TV show to demo a gesture-controlled game for the iPhone.

Calling me was literally impossible for the man on the other end of the line; he needed outside assistance because he could not hold a phone or dial on his own. When Giora Livne introduced himself, he explained how an accident several years back had left him a quadriplegic. An electrical engineer by trade, Giora realized when watching me on TV that gesture technology could be used to empower people like him.

“This might sound a bit forward,” Giora had said as he recruited me to team up with him to develop the first touch-free smartphone. Over the next few months, we planned and launched Sesame Enable, to build a hands-free smartphone that is operated by head movements, so those with paralysis or limited hand use can operate it just as anyone else would.

Until the moment I got that call from Giora, I had assumed smartphones were a luxury.

Many of us have reached a saturation point in our digital consumption and are pushing for an offline existence. Encouragement by Danah Boyd, a senior Microsoft researcher and author, advises on “How to Take an Email Sabbatical,” as does Randi Zuckerberg, who advocates a “Digital Sabbath.” People are trying so hard to unplug, desperate to find solitude in an era of constant connection, while others, like Giora, never had the opportunity to plug-in in the first place.

Read the full feature on Tech Crunch.

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