Monday, July 28, 2014

Bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities

An incredible number of apps is being created and published ever day, many of which claim to provide better accessibility for persons with disabilities. Be it by providing a colour or currency identifying function, sign language support, or communication for tools with persons with autism etc. However, in the absence of an international accepted quality control for accessibility related apps, it is very difficult to assess whether an app will hold its promises before downloading it, which sometimes can be quite costly. 

The platform BridgingApps is trying to fill this gap. BridgingApps is an online community of parents, therapists, doctors and teachers who share information on how they are using mobile phones and tablets with people with disabilities, publishing a newsletter with information on accessibility related apps that they have tested. Cristen Reat, co-founder of BridgingApps, told us a little bit about their motivation and background as well as how they carry out their assessment of apps. 

Can you shortly explain the mission of BridgingApps and where the motivation for its foundation came from? 

Cristen: BridgingApps’ mission is to bridge the gap between technology and people with disabilities. Recently developed mobile technology, if properly used, has the ability to empower people of all ages with disabilities to reach their fullest potential. These touch-based, low-cost, commercially available tools can augment or, in some limited cases, replace traditional therapies, expensive equipment, and/or curricula, leading to better physical, educational, and social outcomes for people of all ages.

BridgingApps began as a support group of parents of young children with special needs and therapists who were exploring how these devices paired with apps could help build skills and address developmental goals. We immediately saw the power of the technology for engaging, motivating, and allowing our children to independently control an educational tool in astonishing ways. We joined Easter Seals Houston to help extend the reach of our work.

How do you select and evaluate the apps that you are appraising every month? 

Cristen: Anyone can submit an app to be reviewed on our website. We value our community of parents, therapists, doctors, teachers, people with disabilities, assistive technology professionals, and developers and have received suggestions from all of these groups.

What sets our app reviews apart from other review sites is although anyone can rate and comment on apps housed on our site, only professionals can write an app review. Our reviewers are speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers and assistive technology (AT) professionals. We use standards-based measures to assess an app, and one of the requirements is that they must trial the app with at least one person who has a disability before they write a review. A BridgingApps app review has such valuable information that we consider them to be mini-trainings. We view our site to be a shortcut for finding apps for specific needs.

If you could address the whole app developer community at once, what would be your key message to them? 

Cristen: Our message would be to please keep in mind Universal Design principles and user customization when developing products. Good design with considerations (to the greatest extent possible) for everyone regardless of age, ability or status in life means that all users benefit!

What advice would you give to a person searching for mobile accessibility solutions? 

Cristen: Always consider what goals you have in mind when looking for a particular solution. We find that many people unintentionally make purchasing mistakes because they don’t fully consider which specific goals they are trying to achieve. Instead of buying a device and/or software first, then looking to see what it can do for you, make a list of goals that you have or tasks you need to do and then match those with the features of a device and apps. For example, many parents of children who are non-verbal have purchased an e-reader thinking they could load a sophisticated communication app on it, but have been disappointed to find out that particular app is not available for that platform. 

What is your vision for the future for BridgingApps? 

Cristen: We hope to grow our community of shared knowledge to become a recognized center of excellence in mobile device technology for people with special needs. Our long term goal is to become the premier website where people of all ages with disabilities and those who support them come to find mobile technology solutions that includes training, best practices and original research to enhance lives.

You can sign up for BridgingApps’ newsletter here: