Thursday, May 16, 2024

Looking Back and Moving Forward: How far have we come in 20 years with mobile accessibility?

The history of accessible technology and in particular mobile phones offers a case study in how these devices have made a significant difference in the lives of people with disabilities and older users. Just a few weeks in advance of #GAAD2024, the publication of Vol. 18 of the ATOP Journal provides a review of more than 20 years of mobile technology development, exploring how the three-pronged approach of policy initiatives, industry efforts, and end-user advocacy resulted in a wide range of accessibility features.


For its 20th anniversary, the Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits (ATOB) Journal dedicated the 2024 issue to "Looking Back and Moving Forward: 20 Years of Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits.” This was a good opportunity to explore the history of accessible devices , from mobile phones and tablets through to smartwatches, and how these devices have become both accessible and assistive. 


Under the title “Accessible Mobile Phones: Bridging the Gap in AT Provision and Service Delivery”, the MWF, with the support of David Banes, highlights how mobile technology has been at the forefront of improving communications and access to digital content for people with a disability for well over 20 years.


Legislation such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998) and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA, 2010) in the US certainly spurred developments along, particularly in the US. But device manufacturers had already started including features to help people with disabilities and older users with the use of the devices well before this. 


As the range of accessibility features and third-party enhancements (mobile apps and compatible assistive technology) expanded and evolved, it became essential to better inform users about the available options and solutions. While some countries had national requirements for information provision for those with disabilities, it was not until the creation of the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) in 2008 by the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF) that one comprehensive and global information source on the available accessibility features within mobile phones was established. GARI is still the central source of information helping consumers find accessible devices on the market. 


Today's smartphones include accessibility features that can complement—and in many cases, replace— specialized assistive technology (AT). Once separate, and often expensive, technology such as screen-readers, screen loops, speech-to-text programs, or alternative augmented communication (AAC) are now effectively all within a typical smartphone. Over the past decade in particular, the design of products that empower people with a disability has shifted from these specialized and dedicated products to features and functions that are designed for the use and benefit of all. 


Despite the advances on the technology front, the one element that still needs further attention is the lack of official recognition that accessible consumer electronics can replace the need for separate specialized equipment. Assistive programs in many countries still shun accessible consumer products such as smartphones, when that one device can provide so many features and is attractive and usable by everyone. 


So how far have we come on mobile accessibility in 20 years? It’s fair to say a long way. And with legislation like the European Accessibility Act, that will cement the need for accessibility to be a key design factor right from the beginning, the  greatest need now is to focus on informing consumers about the large variety of features that already exist and how to get started using those functionalities. 


For the full story of mobile accessibility development and a detailed discussion, we invite you to have a look at the paper “Accessible Mobile Phones: Bridging the Gap in AT Provision and Service Delivery”. The ATOP Journal is open access and you can download it for free following this link:



The ATOP Journal was launched by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) in 2004 in an effort to advance the assistive technology (AT) field and highlight new information on the outcomes and benefits of AT for persons with disabilities. ATOB is a leading, open access, peer-reviewed journal in the field of AT.