Thursday, May 18, 2023

Celebrating 15 years of GARI and mobile accessibility development

Helping consumers find devices that work for them is the mission the MWF set out to accomplish by creating the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI). From its beginning in 2008 in the form of a spreadsheet with accessibility features, GARI has grown into an online database comprising 20 languages and information on over 1,500 mobile phones, tablets, Wearables and Smart TVs. 

Still today, a majority of users are unaware of the many accessibility and assistive functions mobile devices offer. A 2019 GARI research project confirmed that mobile devices make a huge difference for users with disabilities in terms of having access to services and society. However, it also showed that the penetration of mobile technology among people with disabilities is still lower than among non-disabled peers even in countries with very high mobile uptake, suggesting that the problem is even worse in low-income countries.

One of the issues identified is a knowledge gap among accessibility professionals and retail staff – limiting the advice being given to users with disabilities. GARI can effectively bridge this gap by providing an overview of accessible devices available on the market and helping users with specific requirements identify devices that will fulfil their needs.

While we continue to address those needs, we have come a long way over the last 15 years. Some of the milestones on this journey include: 

the creation of a freely available online database of accessible devices in 20 languages;

a repository of information on over 130 accessibility features in 1,500+ mobile phones, tablets, Smart TVs and Wearables;

a de-facto industry standard for accessible devices that help promote accessibility in all markets; 

the participation of over 30 different manufacturers; 

the adoption of the GARI database by government bodies and disability advocacy organisations around the world in order to advance mobile accessibility at a national level;

the completion of 6 feature reviews with participation from international and national organisations of persons with disabilities, representatives of consumer and senior citizen organisations, accessibility experts and national regulators; and 

the completion of research projects that have investigated a range of topics including the  social impact of GARI and whether accessible mobile phones can bridge the gap in the provision of assistive technology. 

To celebrate the 15 years of GARI, the MWF is working on updating the GARI feature guides and website, organising online educational sessions with key partners around the world and expanding our audience reach further.  Follow us on Twitter @GARIupdates to keep in the loop, and get in touch with us if you would like to learn more about GARI or join in our efforts to raise awareness about mobile accessibility solutions. 

Logo GARI showing the number 15 with the belly of the 5 representing a tablet

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. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Better Living Through Technology: matching people’s needs with technological solutions

End of September 2022, Miroslav Vrankić from the Faculty of Engineering Rijeka and founder of E-Glas, invited an audience of 200-300 people to attend the Assistive Technology and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ATAAC) Conference in Zagreb, Croatia. Most of the in-person attendees were practitioners working with people with disabilities and many with children with disabilities. They came to learn about new and old technologies available in the market, that can support independent living and increase the freedom and functionality of people with disabilities. 

Assistive technology and augmentative communication have tremendous potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities. But finding the right or even best solution for an individual is difficult and depends on the interplay of a person’s physical, cognitive, and sensory skills in relation to their goals and what they want the technology to help them achieve. This is further influenced and steered by personal factors such as the culture and beliefs of both themselves and their environment. It is also difficult to know how to assess if we found the best of the available solutions and if the chosen solution is the best acceptable to the person.

In his lecture, Charlie Danger, from The Children’s Trust and Ace Centre in the UK, shared his learnings from over 23 years of experience in matching children and adults with a wide range of skills and needs with technology that could help them. Indeed, our constant companion the smartphone already offers a wide range of accessible and assistive features. It can to some extent translate unclear speech to clear speech as Google’s Project Relate shows – an app custom-trained on people’s unique speech patterns. There are Touch Accommodations in iPhone and iPad, and apps that learn the pattern of customers’ keyboard use and predict what they will type in the next message.

Charlie showed us many examples where the mobile phone or tablet becomes the platform and is further enhanced with AT as the centerpiece to a whole technology set-up that can include voice, keyboards, touch, mouse & mouse alternatives, eye-gaze, switches, and brain control interfaces.

It was the perfect prelude to our presentation on the 2021 GARI research project which looked at the extent to which mobile phones can be considered assistive technology based on the functions they provide. The 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.

There are situations where the device is enhanced with a range of third party products, including emerging technologies and innovative software, where the complete package can be more clearly identified as assistive technology. In the conclusions, the researchers, therefore, argue that AT provision should be based on purpose and outcomes rather than an increasingly blurred distinction between accessible and assistive products.

David Banes complemented the discussions by looking at emerging technologies that have the potential to make a difference in providing access to assistive technology. He looked particularly at how low-cost emerging technologies are making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities.

The impact of digital technologies can be framed around the reduction of the cost they bring and the fact that a single – sometimes mainstream – device can provide the basis for multiple forms of assistive and accessibility functions. Furthermore, these devices often have multiple features integrated that provide access to content and can be enhanced with low-cost access devices such as switches and expanded with wearable technologies.

Lots of people use wearable tech already (fitness trackers, smart watches, go-pro cameras). They use those devices to monitor health, and falls, control other devices (in smart homes and IoT), receive information, communicate, and receive alerts and notifications. Such a setup can provide additional independence and environmental control. It is still not cheap but compared to what we had before significantly cheaper, and there are more low-cost applications of smart homes and IoT coming along.

Not yet so far distributed but certainly on the horizon are 3D-printing, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). Already, we use AI for automated complex tasks, such as YouTube captions and image descriptions, and AI supports a range of other emerging technologies in communication, mobility, cognition, and emotional support.

Beyond the cost and availability of these technologies, there are several important questions we need to address:

  • What are the benefits and dangers of offline vs online AT provision?
  • What are the implications and dangers of limiting access to technology or giving technology as a reward, as is currently often the case?
  • How can we counterbalance the sometimes wrong notion of too much screen time with clearly proven benefits of digital technologies in supporting children with disabilities?

We did not find any definite answers to these questions but should keep them in mind for our discussions going forward.

ATAAC 2022 conference program:

Saturday, October 15, 2022

10th M-Enabling Summit: Key trends in mobile accessibility

For the 10th time, the M-Enabling Summit is bringing together thought leaders from business, government and education to discuss “Digital Inclusion: Strategies for Equal Opportunities”. Susan Mazrui, Director for Global Public Policy at AT&T, has been a loyal attendee of the Summit and shares her insights on key trends in mobile accessibility and expectations for the Summit. 

How has accessibility evolved over the past three years from your perspective? In general and in regard to mobile services and devices in particular? 

Susan: Unlike many tech changes, which have a somewhat predictable patterns of adoption, the pandemic disrupted how we all learn and do business. Access to high speed internet service became critical. Because of existing disability rights laws and commitments to diversity and inclusion, many businesses and schools were forced to scramble to find ways to support people remotely that were accessible. Businesses and academic institutions needed on-line and mobile tools that could address the needs of people with disabilities and a wide range of user needs. Because of the huge demand, technology had to become accessible more quickly — and it did. 

What is something that device manufacturers and mobile service providers can do that would really advance accessibility for users with disabilities and older users? 

Susan: It is critical that people with disabilities, older people and those who are knowledgeable about accessibility and usability work together as part of the product teams throughout the product life cycle. People with disabilities and older users need to be part of the solution — and this will likely identify unintended use cases, as well. 

In hindsight, what would you consider the most important steps in making mobile communication more accessible? 

Susan: I think companies need the motivation to develop and purchase products and services that are accessible and usable. Those that developed products and services need to be able to show their investors that it made business sense to improve accessibility and usability. 

Do you think 5G can make a difference in accessibility? 

Susan: Absolutely! There are mobile applications that are possible with 5G that weren’t before. The high speed and low latency of 5G make travel more accessible, on-demand communications easier and in emergency situations, it may save lives. At minimum, 5G will improve the quality of life for most of us, especially those who are older or live with disabilities. 

What are the key trends you see in accessibility (both negative and positive)? 

Susan: The trend for work from home and hybrid workplaces mean that more video communications and mobile tools will need to continue to be accessible. The bar has been raised.  

Our biggest risk comes from assuming that automated decision-making tools will always work. They can provide amazing forms of accessibility, but they can also reinforce or amplify systems that already marginalize people. We need human beings who are willing to raise awareness. We need businesses, institutions, and governments to invest in research and adopt the best practices to address and prevent further marginalization.

What do you expect from this year’s M-Enabling Summit? 

Susan: I expect to learn from brilliant minds who work in accessible technologies, best practices from business and a better understanding of the most pressing issues in the disability and senior communities. 

10th M-Enabling Summit: 

10th M-Enabling Summit: What 5G can do for accessibility

Under the theme of “Digital Inclusion: Strategies for Equal Opportunities,” the 2022 M-Enabling Summit, in celebration of its 10th anniversary, intends to explore the latest innovations and major trends in business, government and education that are accelerating the pursuit of universal accessibility for digital products, contents, and services. One influential actor is this space is Verizon, the American multinational telecommunications provider. Their Manager for Strategic Alliances, Zach Bastian shares his expectations for this Summit and gives insights on how 5G can improve accessibility. 

How has accessibility evolved over the past three years from your perspective? In general and in regard to mobile services and devices in particular? 

Zach: The massive push to remote services made digital accessibility more important - when features don't work, customers are unlikely to use the product again. Disability is more equitably considered in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, creating more momentum for accessibility. The market for accessible start-ups is healthy, and they create products with wide appeal.

What is an initiative in accessibility that you and/or Verizon are particularly proud of? 

Zach: Our partnership with Waymap and Loyola Marymount University to bring accessible audio-based navigation to the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Learn more by watching this video and reading this short blog.

Where would you like to have support (and what kind of support) in advancing accessibility, both within the company as well as for your clients? 

Zach: Everyone and everything helps. I love to see big swings at problems, but small changes matter. Each person who recognizes the value of accessibility can advocate and bring others along. We thrive in an inclusive community.

Do you think 5G can make a difference in accessibility? 

Zach: Absolutely. 5G Ultra Wideband has better location accuracy, and as 5G antennas shrink, we can pushcomputation to the network edge, meaning services can be deployed on a less expensive lower power device.

What are the key trends you see in accessibility (both negative and positive)? 

Zach: Negative: unscrupulous vendors selling accessibility as a turnkey fix, marketing cheap automatic scripts to bring websites in ADA compliance. These services don't work and often make accessibility worse. Positive: An evolving conversation framing intersectional disability. Disability reflects both the individual and the world around them.

What do you expect from this year’s M-Enabling Summit? 

Zach: Great presentations, and old and new friends.

10th M-Enabling Summit: 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

More accessible information on accessibility

By 28 June 2022, all EU member states had to transpose the European Accessibility Act into national law. Some countries made the deadline, the others are close. Companies have another three years until 2025 to comply with the new regulation, and the question is: what will change for the consumer? 

The European Accessibility Act (EAA) promises to improve the functioning of the European internal market for accessible products and services by removing barriers created by divergent national rules. From 2025 onwards, the products and services within the scope of the EAA will have to fulfil the accessibility requirements across the Member States. The European Commission hopes that this common rule set will lead to more accessible products and services on the market, cost reductions and fewer barriers for people with disabilities and older citizens when accessing transport, education and the open labour market. 

A key element in the EAA is the provision of accessible information on the accessibility of products and services. This intends to empower consumers with information about existing accessibility solutions in the market and enable them to select products and services that best respond to their individual needs. 

The lack of information on existing solutions is indeed a persisting issue. During the European Accessibility Summit, co-organised by the European Disability Forum (EDF) and Microsoft at the beginning of June in Brussels, several stakeholders underlined the general lack of information, the complexity of understanding the full range of existing solutions and the high threshold in implementing accessibility in their countries and organisations. For many sectors impacted by the EAA, assessing the effort and scale of the necessary changes is difficult. 

“There is a lot more accessible technology than is being used or that people are aware of”, one of the speakers at the Summit said. Also, people often don’t know what’s available regarding technology. The new obligations under the EAA to provide better information will not change that in and of itself. It is only one step in the right direction. 

It will also need a mental shift in how the manufacturers and service providers promote accessibility. Users need to be open to trying and exploring the solutions. One speaker said, “amazing technology is available and even more if it is paired with the insights from people with disabilities”. We can only agree. 

So let’s recap what will change for the consumer when the European Accessibility Act enters into force in 2025. Most ICT devices, e-commerce, audio-books, audio-visual and banking services, and services related to air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport will have to fulfil functional performance criteria to be accessible for users with and without disabilities. Manufacturers and service providers will have to inform their customers about what accessibility features their products and services offer and how to use them. 

Some sectors, like the manufacturers of mobile phones and tablets, are already well prepared. The GARI database, for instance, has provided information on the accessibility of a range of devices since 2008 and supports consumers in finding devices that work for them. Other sectors, such as the providers of many of the services mentioned above, are only beginning this journey. 

The next few years will see significant changes in the amount of information made available about accessibility features – an excellent development with GARI continuing its leading role. 

Are accessible smartphones to be considered assistive technology?

In July, a panel of five international experts debated that question at the ICCHP AAATE 2022 conference in Lecco. The consensus was that accessible devices increase the independence of people with disabilities and hence should qualify for assistive technology funding. The panelists shared practical experiences from their work, evidence for the importance of accessible devices for users with disabilities and thoughts on the need to change our perception of who deserves technology.  

To what extent could accessible consumer electronics fill the gap in providing assistive technology (AT) to people with disabilities? David Banes kicked off the panel discussion around this question in Lecco with an overview of the results from a research project initiated by the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF) in 2021. This research aimed to investigate to which extent accessible mobile phones and tablets provide assistive functions and hence might be eligible for AT funding. 

The research team investigated funding schemes in six countries and found that in none of them, there was funding for smartphones or tablets even though people with disabilities emphasised how much they wanted and used those devices in everyday life. Currently, however, our funding systems are not prepared to cater to this need, effectively denying access to these devices to many people with disabilities and also ignoring a means to bridge the gap in AT provision with technology that is both wanted by the users and can potentially offer unexpected additional benefits. 

The actual value of accessible mobile tech devices, which already provide built-in text-to-speech, voice input, word prediction, screen-readers and a whole range of other accessibility features, lies in being the core for comprehensive and personalised solutions upon which other things can be built on – such as fall detection, AAC (alternative and augmented communication) functionality, sound-amplification, sound notifications and much more. The additional benefit is that mobile technologies are the preferred platform by users with disabilities. 

From the user perspective, Klaus Höckner from the Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired also questioned the distinction between consumer products versus unique products for people with disabilities. 10 to 15 years ago, no one would have predicted that smartphones would become the most used technology for people who are blind or visually impaired. Now it seems the smartphone might serve as a universal remote control to access all other devices and services – if the technologies are interoperable. People with disabilities prefer to access the smart home and the range of connected devices via the personal, accessible smartphone. 

From a policy maker perspective, Wei Zhang from the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed with David’s point that we should not fight over definitions but focus on the outcomes for the users, enabling people with disabilities to get the products and services they need to lead a dignified and independent life. 

The WHO just published The Global Report on Assistive Technology, which contains new evidence on the needs for and barriers to accessing AT worldwide. The WHO is looking at conventional AT and digital solutions regarding their effectiveness regarding money, time, and overall resources needed. 

Siobhan Long from Enable Ireland confirmed that the accessibility built into the major technology platforms has been a game changer and has accelerated the general use of technology by people with disabilities. Functions like voice assistance and smart home technology have transformed the perception of their relationship with technology and possibly even their personal life goals for and beyond independent living. Building on this, we need to trust people with disabilities to be the experts in their own lives and needs. They can share this expertise with the companies in developing new solutions in a co-design setup. 

One such new approach is the Assistive Technology Passport concept, developed by Enable Ireland and FreedomTech. The AT Passport is a digital record of AT needs that seeks to ensure the provision of assistive technology to people with disabilities and older people effectively and efficiently. It places the owner or consumer of the assistive or accessible technology at the heart of the process. 

To close the circle from industry, end-user, and academia to policy maker Brian Boyle shared insights from several of his studies at the University College Cork. Their research program was motivated by the recognition that people with disabilities use technology – whether the AT providers know about it or not. And that, for the most part, people with disabilities and their families were self-funding accessible technology outside the system. 

Rather than using the usual metrics to assess technology use, focusing on what deficit it was intended to equalise, Brian’s team wanted to investigate the unexpected side benefits and understand how people derive pleasure from the technology they use. One of the studies looked into teenagers and young children with disabilities who were using smartphones and laptops, as well as young adults who had been provided with technology at a young age, and explored the benefits of using the technology outside the traditional metrics. A more recent study looks at the use of smart speakers, smart displays, and smart home technologies by people with disabilities to assess their assistive potential. 

The team found that our current systems almost hold a bias about how much people with disabilities deserve the technology, focusing too intensely on the cost-benefit analysis. The focus is on filling a deficit, rather than allowing people to explore and discover what the technology can do for them, in a person-centred rather than service-centred approach. 

The panel session in Lecco was well attended, and the panellists expressed interest in pursuing the discussions to produce a policy paper by the end of summer. The purpose of that paper will be to outline the benefits of accessible consumer electronics to people with disabilities, their de-facto use and current self-funding, and recommendations on supporting a shift in national funding systems to include accessible devices in the provision of assistive technology. 

The panel was held during the Joint International Conference on Digital Inclusion, Assistive Technology & Accessibility (ICCHP-AAATE), which took place 13-15 July 2022 in beautiful Lecco, Italy. #ICCHP_AAATE_22

The conference programme can still be consulted at:

The panelists: 

  • David Banes, Director of David Banes Access and Inclusion Services & DATEurope 
  • Siobhán Long, Manager, National Assistive Technology & SeatTech Services, Enable Ireland
  • Klaus Höckner, Director, Hilfsgemeinschaft der Blinden und Seeschwachen Österreichs
  • Wei Zhang, WHO Assistive Technology Program
  • Bryan Boyle , Lecturer, University College Cork