Thursday, March 20, 2014

“More than 80 percent of people with disabilities use wireless every day”

CITA, The Wireless Association representing the international wireless telecommunications industry, has a strong record in promoting mobile accessibility. We talked to Matthew Gerst, Director for State Regulatory & External Affairs at CTIA, about what they have achieved so far, how they see mobile accessibility evolving over the coming years and how GARI fits into it. 

How did CTIA-The Wireless Association® (CTIA) get involved in accessibility issues? 

Matthew Gerst: With more than 326 million wireless subscriber connections in the U.S., wireless products and services are central communications tools for everyone, including individuals with disabilities and seniors. As many of us now use wireless for everything from healthcare to education to transportation to energy, CTIA and our members believe that all consumers should be able to take advantage of innovative wireless products and services.

Today, the Wireless RERC has found that more than 80 percent of people with disabilities use wireless every day. CTIA and our member companies have a long track record of working with the accessibility community to highlight and educate consumers and policymakers on the many ways that wireless enhances the ways we work, live and play. Specifically, CTIA’s www.AccessWireless.Org has become the “first stop” for consumers and policymakers looking for information about wireless accessibility in the United States.

In addition, we’re proud to have worked with advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing, blind and low vision, cognitively disabled and seniors on a variety of accessibility issues, including Hearing Aid Compatibility (HAC), the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 and 9-1-1 emergency services. We’ve also won awards for these efforts including the HLAA National Access Award (2013) and the FCC Chairman’s Award for Advancement in Accessibility (2011). We remain committed engaging with the accessibility community and continue to help our member companies demonstrate how innovative wireless products and services meet the needs of everyone.

What would you consider the main issues in mobile accessibility? 

Matthew Gerst: There are four. Innovation, customization and regulatory flexibility are the key issues that drive mobile accessibility, as well as specific technology issues such as HAC.
  1. In the area of innovation, accessibility is a key component of the design and implementation of new products and services. Research shows that people with disabilities are adopting wireless communication methods in large numbers.
  2. Thanks to innovation, people with disabilities can create their own unique wireless experiences by customizing wireless services and devices through built-in features and apps to meet their needs.  With more than 35 percent of U.S. households “wireless only”, we know that people with disabilities who increasingly turn to wireless as their primary method of communication will find innovative services, devices and apps that can be personalized to fit their unique needs.
  3. As wireless networks and devices continue to evolve to meet market demand, the flexibility provided in new accessibility regulations will allow innovative solutions to meet the needs of persons with disabilities in ways previously unimagined. Examples include cloud computing, built-in accessibility features, and robust wireless services to handle heavy bandwidth applications, such as video.
  4. Finally, there are specific technology issues that the wireless industry continues to actively pursue, such as HAC. Through collaboration with the hearing loss community, hearing aid manufacturers and policymakers, the wireless industry continues to offer a wide variety of HAC handsets.

Why does the CTIA use GARI and what is the general feedback? 

Matthew Gerst: Thanks to the relentless innovation and competition, there is so much diversity in the wireless market that consumers, including individuals with disabilities, often need help sifting through the choices to find the best wireless device to meet their unique needs. The MMF’s GARI system is a great tool for consumers to find accessible wireless handsets and it’s the reason that CTIA partnered with the MMF to incorporate GARI into AccessWireless.Org. Whenever we talk to groups about accessibility, we receive very positive reactions, and this is due in large part to the popularity of the GARI search tool. We are excited to learn that the MMF has chosen to update its GARI tool to empower consumers even more in their wireless search.

What do you expect to happen in the area of mobile accessibility in the coming years? In terms of technological, societal and regulatory development? 

Matthew Gerst: The vast majority of people with disabilities use wireless devices in their everyday lives. We expect this trend toward adopting and incorporating mobile into all of our daily routines to continue. We also find mobile manufacturers increasingly incorporating accessibility features on the front end of product development. We expect that as the close working relationship between the disability community and the U.S. wireless industry continues, we will see further productivity in this area. For example, the “apps” market will continue to expand and improve the everyday lives of people of all abilities in almost every sector of our economy, including health, education and banking.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Many say technologies make things easier, for people with disabilities technologies make things possible”

This quote by Knut Ellingsen, vice president of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing (EFHOH), was one of the many interesting statements heard at the Zero Project Conference that took place on 27-28 February in Vienna, Austria. 470 people from around the world came together at this conference and discussed innovative policy and case studies in accessibility as well as the influence of the UN Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) on pushing the implementation of accessible solutions. 

The telephone was highlighted by one of the representatives of the European Commission as a good example for the ups and downs of accessibility in the evolution of a product group. The invention of the telephone in 1876 was actually a by-product of Graham Bell’s research on hearing and speech and his experimentations with hearing-aids. Both Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf. The telephone however then became a barrier for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, excluding them from a way of communicating that quickly gained importance in the life of the hearing society. This changed again with the introduction of text messaging and even more with the advent of video telephony. Mobile phones today, have become very accessible products, the representative of the European Commission said. 

And they are also an excellent means of mimicking what disability might feel like - ever tried to use your mobile when the sun is shining directly at the screen or talking on the phone in a very noisy environment? All of us can be confronted with disabling environments and benefit from accessible devices that help circumvent the inconvenience. 

“The convention is the beginning, not the end”

"Accessibility is not a mechanical issue. It is a discrimination issue," Ambassador Luis Gallegos pointed out. "People are hindered to live a full life because of society. Surely, as we age, all of us will be disabled. This is about all of us, and not about the disabled.” The full integration of persons with disabilities into society firstly requires a change in perception and mindset by the society, he continued.  

This is also supported by the experience of David Banes, CEO of the Mada Center, Qatar Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center. In Qatar assistive technology is free, yet not widely taken up by the disabled community. This shows that there are other issues than cost. One of which is information and awareness about existing technological solutions. 

"We need to include the media, we need the media at conferences like this, so that they get the message out there and help bring down barriers in the mind,” Helene Jarmer, deaf Member of the Austrian Parliament further underlines the same message

Information is key, not only to provoke this change of mindset in our societies, but also to educate persons with disabilities, their caretakers and friends about already existing solutions. 

For key quotes on mobile accessibility  from the Zero Project Conference go to and search for #ZeroCon14.

Life Cycle - Official Zero Project Clip on Accessibility (div. languages):