Communications Technologies, Friend Or Foe?

Reflecting on the global gathering of 60,000 telecommunications and tech business executives at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month we often forget the full extent of how communication technologies are so vital for people with disabilities. Many people take technology for granted or often never need to consider using additional options when taking a call or messaging someone.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the power and potential of technology to enable connection. From video conferencing to grocery shopping on our phones, innovations in technology and communication have allowed people around the world to connect and collaborate virtually in new ways over the past two years.

But for people with disabilities, digital connection is even more important. According to the United Nations, communication is a fundamental human right and for many people with disabilities it is often only possible to communicate digitally.

Thankfully, in recent years, there have been some major inclusion breakthroughs when it comes to digital communications, which have massively benefited the disabled community. Software advances such as captioning features on video conferencing platforms like Microsoft Teams and social media platforms like Instagram have enabled making calls and watching videos online more accessible to the D / deaf communities.

In May 2021, tech giant Apple also launched a series of powerful new software features designed for people with mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive disabilities, including a new service called SignTime, which enables customers to communicate with AppleCare and Retail Customer Care by using sign language, right in their web browsers. Among Apple’s other updates were AssistiveTouch for Apple Watch to support users with limited mobility, and VoiceOver, an industry-leading screen reader for blind and low vision communities.

Hardware developments such as smartphone-ready hearing aids have also been hugely beneficial for people with disabilities. Major technology companies have been working with hearing aid designers to ensure their handsets are compatible with the hearing aids that people rely on every day.

Other hardware developments include smart glasses, which use a camera and connectivity to bring assistance to people with visual impairments. Brands such as AIRA use trained assistants to provide spoken feedback about what the user is looking at, effectively offering a pair of eyes to guide people through unfamiliar routes, indoor surroundings or outfits.

However, while innovations like these can foster inclusion, it is equally important that digital communications technology does not conversely create barriers for people with disabilities.

Recently, the GSMA, the industry organization representing the interests of mobile providers, released a report revealing that the global disabled community has lower levels of mobile ownership than their non-disabled counterparts. The research found that the disability gap typically widens at each stage of the mobile internet journey. In almost all countries surveyed, disabled users were more likely to own basic phones, which have either no or fewer built-in accessibility features and may not be internet-enabled. In September, the World Economic Forum also published the revelation that Americans with disabilities are three times more likely to never go online than those without a disability (15% vs. 5%).

Lack of accessibility of online services is another key problem facing the disabled community. Whilst the internet can provide easier access to banking, healthcare, employment, and entertainment, and a lack of accessibility excludes people with disabilities from these fundamental services. At a time when the pandemic has accelerated digital transformations across the globe, it is more essential than ever that tech companies continue to adapt to include the disabled population. In June 2020, a review of 10,000,000 websites carried out by accessiBe found that 98 percent of menus and 71 percent of online forms failed to meet accessibility guidelines.

This is a problem Verizon is trying to solve by cofounding Teach Access, a coalition of top tech companies, major universities, and leading advocacy organizations on a mission to infuse accessibility concepts and skills into higher education curricula. Together, they empower students studying design, computer science, and human-computer interaction with the knowledge necessary to create a more inclusive and accessible world. Talking about the program CEO of Verizon, Hans Vestberg, said accessibility has “been in our genes and in our values ​​for a long time and of course we’re trying to get better all the time, learn all the time.”

Another key problem is the lack of access to assistive technology such as screen-readers, adaptive keyboards and pointing devices. Although the use of digital Assistive Technology has been proven to enhance the independence and productivity of disabled people, many people with disabilities are not able to benefit from it. The GSMA estimates that approximately 90 percent of the global population does not have adequate access to the assistive technologies (AT) they require. This is due to a number of factors such as cost and lack of awareness.

Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, said “Mobile connectivity is a massive enabler to reach sustainable development goals. People living with a disability face obstacles that could be overcome with technology that better serves them. It can play a major role in ensuring that people feel part of the community and ultimately can contribute more to society. ”

We need to demand mobile providers realize the benefits of designing with inclusion and accessibility in mind using people with disabilities in the process. This is no longer about realizing a market worth $ 13 trillion every year, made up from the disposal income of people with disabilities and their friends and family, – it’s about future proofing and the risk to businesses of failing to act. Designing for people with disabilities means better design for everyone and the benefits are huge. It’s important not to forget that so much of the technology we take for granted today was originally designed with disability in mind. The typewriter, the ancestor of modern keyboards, was created to enable blind people to type, while the remote control was designed to make television more accessible to people with limited mobility. And speech-to-text and voice recognition software? You’ve got it – that was originally designed for people with disabilities too.

When we design technology to be accessible, we drive innovation and lay the path for the next generation of progress. We need the mobile and technology industries to act as a force for enabling and driving inclusion, to create a better world for all.

The foe to this debate is often how easily forgotten the disability community is. How many podcasts, a popular go-to for many, do not include subtitles or transcripts which means they’re excluding an entire audience.

Its shocking to look at public announcements by government officials, that do not provide sign language. The technology and solutions exist but are not always embraced. There is a similar story in the business world where utilizing these types of solutions can be overlooked, or seen as an added cost or another job on top of many other things to deliver. In many situations, it’s just not thought about. We need to move to a culture where accessibility is included as part of everyday life, so when you next go on a Teams call make sure everyone is aware of the transcript option.

Shame on us if we emerge from the pandemic doing the same things and making the same mistakes. Accessibility and inclusion is a human right and we need to ensure we are designing for our future. Accessibility in all its forms is no longer optional, it should be mandatory.

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