- McDonald’s in Israel will outfit all of its stores with a voice navigation app to assist blind customers, or potentially those suffering from dementia, The Algemeiner Journal reported. Sensors placed throughout the restaurant interact with a central dashboard managed by the venue and with the customer’s phone to read out custom voice instructions — a “ramp for the blind,” as RightHear CEO and co-founder Idan Meir described the system to The Algemeiner.
- An Israeli startup started in 2015, RightHear launched in the U.S. last August. The technology, now in 600 spaces, can be added to most public building types, including malls, universities, airports, supermarkets and restaurants, according to Healio. Customers download the app for free on Apple and Android devices, connecting immediately with existing RightHear systems.
- As the largest chain in Israel, McDonald’s Israel, a private company, operates more than 180 restaurants, about 50 of which are kosher. It is the first chain to implement a solution for the blind systemwide.
Since McDonald's Israel restaurants operate independently from McDonald's corporate, it's unclear if this technology will permeate the chain's global network. Still, as Meir pointed out to The Algemeiner, having such a well-known brand adopt this app could inspire other companies to follow suit.
Restaurants in the U.S. must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but many don’t venture far past wheelchair accessibility. The director of sales at National Braille Press told Mic in 2016 that foodservice lacks awareness of the challenges blind customers face simply by dining out and rarely supply braille menus, which can cost $125 to print. Online menus fulfill ADA requirements, Mic reported, but those don’t help a customer in the restaurant.
Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy’s, Legal Sea Foods and Starbucks offer braille menus, according to Mic. Another startup, TappyMenu, lets diners search for accessible menus through an app on their smartphone. Applebee’s has perhaps reached the farthest, partnering with its table management provider PrestoPrime to develop text-to-speech capabilities for tablet menus for customers to use at the table, according to Ability Magazine.
Reading the menu is only half the battle, though, as blind diners might also need assistance cutting their food, for instance, or finding their way to the bathroom — an issue exacerbated if they have no idea where it is. Staff can help by informing them right when they’re seated, and management can spend even a couple hours training their employees about accessibility.
Starbucks, for example, has invested in full-on inclusive concepts with two signing cafes in Malaysia and Washington D.C., both of which employ deaf employees. The D.C. store was designed with deaf customers top of mind, with two-way keyboards for customers to type their orders and digital screens that display menus and announce prepared drinks.
RightHear showed off their technology at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego last March and won over at least one big fan: Stevie Wonder. The Jerusalem Post reported that the app had 400 clients at that time and aimed to solve physical obstacles for the blind, rather than the more commonly discussed barriers to computers and the internet.
The system uses small, rock-like, self-powered sensors — called a physical accessibility spot, according to a video on RightHear’s website, installed in select locations of the building, to detect movement, which pings the app to voice instructions. Building owners control the app from a content management system. Upon reaching a set of three stairs in a museum, for instance, the customer could hear, “Please watch your step for three stairs.” When passing the entrance to a new exhibition, the app could announce a welcome message. For a quick-service restaurant, the system will likely mean instructions for a double-doored entry, the order counter, or directions to the restroom.
Still, because the RightHear technology relies on sensors, it might run into trouble in busy restaurants where staff and patrons swoop in and out. Customers might have to close the app while seated to avoid unwanted announcements of another person passing by the stair sensor.