Friday, February 10, 2023

Accessible, Assistive, & Available: Addressing Barriers to Use of Consumer Technology

More and more of the technologies that people with disabilities want and use are built into accessible consumer devices and many assistive technology services are delivered on smartphones, tablets, and wearables. Yet these devices are not included in the majority of provision schemes for assistive technology (AT), and if they are, they are often locked - meaning that everything that does not strictly serve the functionality for which the device has been provided, is being locked, cutting the user off from a range of other useful features. 

There are several reasons why accessible mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and wearables are under-utilized in filling the assistive technology gap. For one, the lack of knowledge about the capabilities of today’s devices and the built-in accessibility features. Secondly the fear of cost, outdated definitions for what qualifies as assistive technology, and inappropriate criteria for AT funding as well as the fast pace of technological change. An additional perceived barrier is access to connectivity: subscription, availability, and cost. However, there are, at least in the US, many different venues to get that access to internet funding for people with disabilities. The issue is yet again knowing about the different funding schemes in this regard. 

If we don't get it right for providing accessible mobile phones to people with disabilities, how are we going to get it right for Smart Homes, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, Wearables, remote access (to work), autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, and the many exciting emerging technologies? How then do we merge the definitions for assistive technology, accessible consumer, and digital technology to allow for including the right device for the right person in AT provision? It becomes evident that the focus must be on function and feature, rather than detailed technical specifications that get outdated rapidly.

Most promising in effective assistive technology provision seems direct funding: it empowers informed users to choose the technology they want to fulfill the function they need. And this might be an accessible smartphone rather than a specialized device or software. In selecting consumer technology, however, accessibility is only one of the important factors. In addition, users are concerned about cost, style, enhancements, interoperability, support, etc. The potential of consumer technology in AT provision is huge through the ease of use, the wide reach, the ease of distribution, the lower cost, and those devices serving as universal remote control and as a gateway to participating in today's society. The latter two are true for users with disabilities just as much as for users without disabilities. 

At the ATIA conference end of January 2023 in Orlando, Florida, the MWF had the opportunity to co-chair two education sessions. The first focused on the above-outlined policy questions regarding the role and potential of accessible consumer electronics in the provision of assistive technology, while the second session presented ways to find accessible devices and learn about how to use in-built accessibility features. Both sessions were attended by occupational therapists, special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, and people involved in their state AT-ACT programs, interested in how to best integrate accessible consumer technologies in successful assistive technology provision. Get glimpses of the live discussions by reading through the tweets around #ATIA2023 and #ATIAcon.