A lack of information about existing mobile accessibility solutions among those who would benefit the most from these features (persons with disabilities and seniors) is still the major issue. That is the conclusion from policy makers and representatives of persons with disabilities from Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia sharing their experience on promoting mobile accessibility in their countries at the M-Enabling Summit 2015 that took place 1-2 June in Washington.
The first day opened with keynotes speeches and panel discussions with speakers of mostly technical background. From discussions around the Internet of Things and how it might serve to make the lives of persons with accessibility needs easier, to the efforts by major mobile phone manufacturers to make their mainstream devices accessible and wireless carriers to offer services such as text relay nationwide, passing by the presentation of a smartphone that can be operated entirely without touch developed by an Israeli startup, technological developments for accessibility do not seem amiss.
Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK, challenged his panel by asking how to leverage the economic aspect of making all these pits of generic technology work for accessibility. One possible answer to this was given by Lama Nachman from IntelLabs who was part of the team working on the upgrade of Stephen Hawking’s communication system. In a fascinating talk about how they worked with Stephen Hawking to adapt the system to his needs, she explained that in the process the team realised that they often did not need to invent new features from scratch but that they could build on accessibility features that existed in other contexts (such as predictive text in mobile phones). Her short answer to the question how to make generic technology work for accessibility was therefore “integrative systems” - systems that integrate already existing accessibility solutions and bring them to the persons who need it most. Intel also decided to make the system they developed for Dr. Hawking open-source so that more researchers and technicians around the world might work on adapting it for people suffering from motor neurone disease and quadriplegia.
Trained assistance versus crowd-sourced help
The afternoon session on Assistive Mobile and Wearable Solutions for Blind and Low Vision discussed the fast expanding sector of mobile apps and services available to users with visual impairments.
An interesting discussion ensued about a payable service that TCS Associates is working on where an app would connect blind users to "visual agents" for remote visual assistance versus free services such as BeMyEyes that connect blind users with sighted volunteers that lend them their eyes via the smartphone camera. The visual agents of TCS Associates receive specific training to best help low vision and blind users and they can build relationships over time with the persons they help more often, which makes helping them more efficient as needs are better understood and can be anticipated. BeMyEyes on the other hand crowd-sources help and puts someone in need of assistance in touch with a random volunteer willing to help. Both system clearly have advantages and disadvantages and only the personal preference of the user can decide which one is better for a given situation. But both solutions empower blind people and allow them to finally “just be friends with their friends” instead of feeling the need to use their eyes, as one woman from the audience put it.
The closing session was dedicated to the US Federal Communications Commission’s fourth annual Awards for Advancement in Accessibility (FCC Chairman’s AAA) which recognises and honours innovative achievements in communications technology that benefits people with disabilities. We were happy to hear that the Award for Augmented Reality went to one of the apps listed in GARI: BlindSquare. The app uses GPS and a compass to help blind travellers navigate routes, discover points of interest in the environment and network with friends around venues of mutual interest.
More information on the FCC Accessibility Awards: http://globalaccessibilitynews.com/2015/06/03/winners-of-us-annual-awards-for-advancement-in-accessibility-announced
More information about BlindSquare: http://www.gari.info/findapps-detail.cfm?appid=200
More information about Intel working on Stephen Hawking’s communication system on wired.co.uk: http://bit.ly/1JKkUrP