Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Opportunities and pitfalls in mainstreaming accessibility

At the M-Enabling Forum in Düsseldorf, experts from the disability communities in the UK, Belgium, Germany and Denmark held a great panel discussion on “Latest Advances in Innovation and Impact on Solutions for Users”. What follows is a brief summary of some of the key points and comments raised during the discussion. 

One of the biggest trends we currently see is the mainstreaming of accessibility. What used to be specialized assistive technology (AT) is now embedded in mainstream technology. However, do accessibility features, like screen-readers for instance, work the same way, across brands and devices? It will be very important to standardize the different approaches to accessibility and to also include people with disabilities in the elaboration of the standards themselves, stressed Stein Erik Skotkjerra, Head of Accessibility Relations at Siteimprove in Denmark. 

People with disabilities should be involved in the design of products and services, however they also have their day-to-day life and cannot just volunteer for industry as test users. For this reason, Stein Erik emphasized, it would be important to find a way of abstracting the knowledge of the disability community in this regard and be able to share it with industry. 

He also advised industry to stop thinking about disability groups and rather focus on user groups. It does not matter why a user has a certain preference for doing things without vision, hearing, hand movement etc. It should only matter that the user does have the preference and how the device can address it. 

While Stein Erik pointed out that we need to focus on methods and process and not on one specific technology (like AI that is being hyped as the tool to revolutionize access to technology), Robin Spinks, Principal Manager for Digital Accessibility at RNIB in the UK is convinced that the trio of Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) will create great potential for accessibility. 

Beyond creating new solutions for everyday life, the 4th industrial revolution will also change the employment and labor markets radically as we move towards knowledge-based jobs that rely more on controlling ICTs. If these ICTs are accessible, they can provide new possibilities for people with disabilities in the workplace. 

Overall, Alejandro Moledo, Policy Coordinator at the European Disability Forum in Belgium, agreed that we see more and more mainstream accessible technologies taking over former tasks of AT. “But there will always be a need for AT”, he added. Unfortunately, there are still big hurdles to getting the most appropriate piece of AT or accessible technology to the person who needs it. 

In the beginning of the year, EDF published a report called “Plug and Pray”, looking at emerging technologies such as IoT, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, robotics, AI and automated decision making and highlighted some examples where these technologies advanced the accessibility and independent living of people with disabilities. The report however also stressed the risks and concerns in respect of accessibility standards, privacy, security, discrimination, bias in AI etc. Two major issues remain - the affordability of access to the most suitable piece of technology and the lack of digital skills among users with disabilities. The report ends with clear recommendations: 
  • for the ICT industry to make sure that teams are diverse – hire people with disabilities
  • for academia to work with people with disabilities and educate more professionals on accessibility
  • for policy makers to ensure the necessary legislative framework are in place; and
  • for organizations of persons with disabilities to help, be active at conferences and talk with people from all walks of life. 

Dagmar Greskamp, Expert Work and Inclusion at Aktion Mensch in Germany very much agreed with EDF’s point of view. They conducted a study called “parameter of inclusion”, which showed that ICT is seen as facilitator for change for people with disability although concerns remain, such as bias in ICT applications. The labor market must become more accessible and the exchange of knowledge on tools and solutions must be facilitated. 

“It is very individual how we approach and use technology”, said Lidia Best, Vice Chair of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People, coming from the United Kingdom. AI is seen as having great potential but we need to understand how we are interacting with it. She remarked that often information on how much technology will be able to help users with disabilities is overstated – as was the case with speech recognition, which was sold as a great solution long before the technology had matured. Even today, speech recognition often only works in an ideal environment and does not work so well in emergency situations for example. For this reason, the International Federation of Hard of Hearing and the World Federation of the Deaf issued a statement that we need to come up with a good way to measure where, when and how automatic speech recognition can work and be employed.

“We are not saying no, we welcome new technology but we need to assess its effectiveness,” said Lidia. “Also, we need to make others understand that while we like new solutions, we also want to keep what we have and what works well”, she continued and shared the example of telecoils often not being activated in hearing-aids since audiologists think that users now prefer Bluetooth connections anyway. However, depending on the country and situation, the access to telecoils and the ability to use them can still be very valuable. 

The discussion was moderated by Christoph Jo. Müller,  Board President of the Association of Manufacturers and Retailers of Assistive Technology (BEH) in Germany. 

About the M-Enabling Forum Europe: 

The second edition of the M-Enabling Forum Europe 2019 took place on 19 September 2019 in the Congress Center of Messe Düsseldorf parallel to REHACARE. The event is dedicated to promoting accessible and assistive technology for people with disabilities and senior citizens. The M-Enabling Forum Europe is organized by E.J. Krause & Associates, Inc and G3ict, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technology. It is a crucial opportunity to link policy to practice through current and emerging technologies for all. Next year’s Forum will be held on 24 September, 2020. More information can be found at:

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