Monday, September 7, 2020

Equal access for people with disabilities – can mobile phones make a difference?

It is often said that mobile technologies can be a key to inclusion for people with disabilities, giving them access to services otherwise inaccessible and offering new opportunities to participate in society on more equal footing. Data to support this claim has however been missing so far. For this reason, the GSMA undertook a research project to explore if people with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries have access to mobile phones and if yes, what difference it makes for their daily lives. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15% of the global population have some form of disability, with their majority living in low- and middle-income countries. Anecdotal data shows that mobile technologies can have an even higher impact on this population group than on the rest of society, by substituting expensive assistive technology (AT) and providing access to economic and societal life hitherto impossible. However, there is a lack of statistics that would quantify the impact of access to mobile technologies on the economic well-being and inclusion of persons with disabilities on a global or national level. 


For this reason, the GSMA’s research team in 2019 set out to investigate mobile access, ownership and usage of mobile phones among people with disabilities living in Kenya and Bangladesh as example of low-income countries in Africa and South Asia. Their research found a “disability gap” in the ownership of mobile phones, with smartphones for the most part unaffordable for people with disabilities. While mobile phone ownership is high, 70% of people with disabilities in these countries own only a feature phone or basic phone. Relatives and caregivers play a key role in providing access to mobile phones for those who do not have their own device, but with restrictions in usage time and costs. 


Many different factors influence whether a person with a disability living in Bangladesh or Kenya will have their own device including for example: level of education, type of disability and gender. Interestingly, visually impaired persons are less likely to own a smartphone, even if they are not the least likely to own a mobile, but often their device is a basic or feature phone, the report states. 


On the other hand, the researchers found that people with disabilities can also be power-users of specific services: In Kenya, 63% of smartphone owners with disabilities use mobile internet daily, as compared to only 56% of non-disabled smartphone owners. A slightly higher percentage of Kenyans with hearing or speech impairment than non-disabled Kenyans have their own mobile money accounts. But only 10% of mobile phone owners overall in both Kenya and Bangladesh say they use accessibility features in their devices. 


One possible reason for this non-use of available accessibility functionalities – e.g. screen readers, magnifiers, voice control, color contrast, speech output etc. – is a lack of knowledge about either their existence or how to use them. A first step in remedying this issue is the inclusion of a video dedicated to the presentation of accessibility features in the GSMA’s Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT). This concise 2-minute video gives an overview of the most important accessibility features found in today’s devices. 

All those who then would like to find out more about what kind of features their own device has to offer, can go to the GARI database, look up their own or a similar device model and see the full list of available accessibility features. In a next step, the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF) will provide short videos for the most prevalent accessibility features, explaining where in the device to find those features and how to activate them.  


The GSMA’s report concludes: “Mobile phones play a life-changing role for many persons with disabilities, who report that mobile phones help them to increase their independence, break some social barriers and isolation, and stimulate their participation in many areas of education, employment and social life.” But also: “Regardless of these benefits, persons with disabilities face barriers at all stages of the customer journey of mobile phone access, ownership and usage.”


Coming back to the question we started with – “Can mobile phones make a difference?” – yes, they can and they already do. And if we work together on making the access to the device easier and combine it with better information on what the device can actually do for users with and without disabilities, we will significantly improve access to what society has to offer to the individual.