Business, professional & real estate | Hands-free smartphone a hit for people with disabilities

Giora Livne just wanted to buy flowers for his wife.

But for the 65-year-old quadriplegic, who lost all but the smallest movements in his neck in an accident nine years ago, that small act of spousal romance was out of reach.

He was determined to change that.

That’s why he co-founded Sesame Enable, an Israeli company building what is believed to be the first completely hands-free smartphone. The Sesame Phone is designed for people with spinal cord injuries, ALS, cerebral palsy or other disabilities that hamper the use of hands and arms — a population that has been on the outside looking in at the smartphone revolution.

Three years in the works, the Sesame is a Google Nexus 5 Android smartphone that comes equipped with proprietary head-tracking technology. An advanced computer vision algorithm and the phone’s front-facing camera track head movements and allow users to control a cursor on screen. The cursor is essentially a virtual finger, letting users do what others can with a regular smartphone.

Sorin Hershko, who was injured in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, using Sesame phone with Sesame Enable CEO Oded Ben Dov photo/jta-basti hansen

Sesame recently won a Verizon Powerful Answers Award, which came with $1 million in prize money. The company previously received a grant from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist, which was matched by a private angel investor.

Meanwhile, the company is using the $38,000 it raised from a recent crowdfunding campaign — the Indiegogo video showed Livne using the phone to order those flowers for his wife — to donate Sesame phones in its target market. At approximately $1,000 per phone, Livne plans to give away about 30 phones to people with disabilities nominated by their peers. The five recipients so far include Sorin Hershko, a former Israeli soldier who was injured in the Entebbe raid of 1976, and a boy in the United Kingdom with muscular dystrophy.

Before the phone’s development, Livne said he was “completely dependent” on people around him. After his injury, making a phone call — no less a private one — was no longer possible, as someone needed to dial, hold the phone and hang up for him.

“My life quality jumped from the Stone Age to the smartphone age,” he said.

Now Livne regularly texts and sends WhatsApp messages to his friends and three children. The phone has helped ease some of the social isolation experienced by many people with disabilities, especially the young.

“Disabled people are the largest and loneliest population in the world,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates on behalf of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.

A smartphone is not just a window into the social world; it’s necessary for many lines of work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that only 17.6 percent of those with a disability are employed.

“We live in an age where you have to use technology to compete and function in the workforce, and if that technology isn’t built in a way that allows you to participate, you are essentially frozen out of the workplace,” Ruderman said. “This isn’t just for one individual; we are talking about millions of people around the globe in the same situation.”

Livne came up with the idea for Sesame after seeing a TV demonstration for a game controålled with head movements. With a background in electrical engineering, he immediately recognized the technology’s potential to help him.

“Being [an] engineer, and especially an electrical engineer, I had so much envy for the people who could use the new gadgets, and my engineering mind helped me come up with the idea,” he said. “When I saw them playing the game with head gestures, it just clicked to me.”

He called up the TV station, which put him in touch with the game’s designer, Oded Ben Dov. Turns out Ben Dov and Livne lived just three blocks from each other.

After meeting with Livne, Ben Dov closed his software house and began working on Sesame. The first phones that were ordered via Indiegogo were shipped in March; a larger tablet version will be released later this year.

Sesame is just one of many Israeli technology startups. And Ruderman said there is a growing emphasis on creating technology solutions for people with disabilities. Notably, the Israeli company VoiceITT recently developed an application called Talkitt that enables those with motor, speech and language disorders to communicate using their own voice.

Sesame is an exciting prospect for Jacob Williams, a seventh-grader who was in a car accident when he was six weeks old and has been a quadriplegic and on a ventilator ever since.

Michael Dadey, the assistant vice principal at Jacob’s Pennsylvania school, stumbled upon Sesame when researching hands-free devices for Jacob.

“All Jacob has ever talked about to people is being able to use a phone,” Dadey wrote in an email. “Most teens can’t wait to get a driver’s license — Jacob knows that will probably never happen for him — so the next big moment for him in his life is to have his own smartphone.”

For Ben Dov, the prospect of helping to change lives has been transformative.

“These devices are literally a window into the entire world,” he said. “We called it Sesame because it indicates our desire to open up worlds for people.”

In fact, the phone turns on with two simple words: Open Sesame.

This article is a part of JTA’s partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Guided by Jewish values, the foundation advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community. To learn more, visit