Current mobile phones are very accessible and can help users with disabilities not only access the device and online services, but also their environment and improve participation in society. However, smartphones can be expensive and so far, do not qualify for funding. Is there are a case to be made that smartphones are assistive technology and should be funded for certain user groups? A 2021 research project looked into that.
Today’s mobile phones include a long list of accessibility features that can support people with disabilities in accessing electronic content, using online services and participating in our increasingly online life. However, these devices can be expensive and people with disabilities often live in precarious economic situation, which increases the importance of funding to get access to technology.
For this reason, the MWF in 2021 initiated a research project to investigate whether devices listed in GARI fulfil the requirements of assistive technology (AT) and could be eligible for national assistive technology funding. A team of researchers from the Global Universal Design Commission Europe (GUDC-EU), and David Banes Access and Inclusion Services analysed the current policy environment in six countries, analysed eligibility, approval, funding, and provision of assistive technology – checking against user needs, and developed initial indicators for the social return on investment (SRoI) for including mainstream consumer technology in AT provision schemes.
Their analysis of the key features that support accessibility for smartphones and tablets showed that these features focus on making the device more usable for people with disabilities and from this aspect do not directly fall under the definition of assistive technology. However, a comparison with international standards revealed that 25 of the over 130 features listed in GARI are assistive in nature and match the requirements laid out in the standards applicable for assistive technology.
If the device is furthermore enhanced with a range of third-party products, including emerging technologies and innovative software, the complete package can be more clearly identified as assistive technology. Such a package is unlikely to be used by a person without a disability and therefore falls within the definition of assistive technologies.
The research further underlines the potential for AT to offer wider participation in employment for people with disabilities and increase their independence in everyday life. Mainstream AT devices supplied to people with disabilities based on their individual needs can widen the availability of support and choices based on each individual’s preference. The benefits of widening the reach significantly outweigh the cost of supporting funding for mobile assistive technologies.
Overall, GARI listed devices could bridge the gap in what is provided to people with disabilities and their specific needs. The GARI list describes many devices that can be helpful to people with disabilities having in mind that these devices are equipped with built-in accessibility features which are of great use and beneficial to people with disabilities. Supporting disabled people with access to AT can significantly reduce loneliness and allow them to be more active and participate in society.
To share the findings of this research more broadly, two publications in peer reviewed journals are currently under preparation.