Original by Kevin Carey, humanITy, RNIB/World Blind Union. Edited by Axel Leblois, Executive Director, G3ict. Resources selected by Ben Lippincott, Industry Relations, Wireless RERC/Georgia Institute of Technology and Axel Leblois, G3ict
Wireless phones, the most common communication platform around the world, have given disabled people a substantial improvement in their functional capacity. The phones have done away with the need to struggle to inaccessible and difficult kiosks, and have put a variety of communication options in the hands of the disabled. In recent years, there has been an effort to make such devices more accessible, because of pressures from interest groups, increased availability of processing power, and the realisation that the disabled and the elderly constitute a rich market for phones.
The main accessible features of phones include adjustable displays, text to speech software, and video based services. With phones likely to provide increasingly more functionalities, the assistive services are only likely to expand. The main area for focus needs to be on effective customer care and support for people with disabilities.
With over 4 billion subscribers worldwide, wireless phones have become the most ubiquitous ICT platform around the world with substantial penetration of both developed and developing countries markets.
This rapid development of wireless telephony (and wireless-enabled computing) has provided disabled people with a substantial improvement in their functional capacity; no longer do blind and visually impaired people need to locate a public telephone kiosk while wheelchair users no longer need to struggle with inaccessible kiosks. Deaf persons have embraced text messaging all over the world, opening an entirely new way to communicate with others. Elderly and disabled persons enjoy simple emergency call procedures. Wireless (cell or mobile) phones are portable, personalised and always on, for work, leisure and emergencies.
While critical accessibility issues affected early generations of handsets, substantial progress has been made by manufacturers to boost their accessibility driven by three major factors:
The increasing availability of enhanced processing power for handsets coupled with innovative software for user interfaces such as voice recognition or text to speech
Pressures from user groups and regulators to solve basic issues such as hearing aid compatibility and visually inaccessible handsets
Realisation by wireless operators in saturated markets that disabled and elderly persons represent a large untapped market (see NTT DoCoMo success story with the Raku-Raku product line for disabled persons in Japan)
Accessible hardware and software is available today which can address the needs of users with various types of impairments: visual, cognitive, hearing, speech, physical. For example:
blind and visually impaired people can adjust display settings such as font size or color contrast;
blind or visually impaired people can use text to speech to access menus, receive audio feedback and have text, such as SMS, read aloud;
pictorial address books (containing an image of the person beside their name and phone number) has considerably empowered some people with cognitive disabilities to use cell phones;
deaf persons can use a range of services including:
SMS text messages
sign language via video calls (on 3G networks)
other video-based services such a text to Avatar
persons unable to use a keypad can use voice recognition software.
As technology continues to evolve, mobile phones and high end PDAs become a prime platform for assistive technology by providing additional functionalities not traditionally available on phones such as easy to use emergency keys, integrated GPS for geo-positioning, text scanning capabilities with optical character recognition to read documents aloud with text to speech software, or a mini Daisy reader to read downloaded books aloud. For specific conditions such as hard of hearing users, bone conduction to transmit sounds to the inner ear is available. Furthermore, by using 3G connectivity, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies, smart phones will likely become platforms of choice to enhance proximity and mobility services for persons with disabilities.
Disabled customers, however, require dedicated customer support services with trained personnel to take full advantage of those new features. While dedicated point of sales and service have appeared in Europe and Japan, most operators around the world do not have such facilities. And few operators have accessible services such as Braille invoices or dedicated remote phone support. NTT DoCoMo, Orange or AT&T Wireless are examples of wireless service providers providing various forms of dedicated support.