During the Zero Project Conference 2021, a roundtable discussion was organised to examine how mobile technologies provide workplace accommodations for people with disabilities and what emerging technologies such as AI, wearables, the Internet of Things, and Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality will contribute in the future.
Mobile technology solutions today in the workplace
Digital technologies and, particularly, mobile phones have transformed the workplace and reshaped our understanding of work and how we do it. Recent developments, including the global pandemic, have accelerated the push towards digitisation. In developing countries, mobile tech opens the door for people to start their own business and participate in the online economy in a way not possible before.
Although it is hard to find concrete numbers, we know that mobile phones are the key for employment for people with disabilities in many developing countries, says Clara Aranda-Jan, Insights Manager at the GSMA. A GSMA report published in December 2020 showed that despite these benefits, there are fundamental gaps in mobile phone ownership. People with disabilities are less likely to benefit from using mobile access.
Two conditions are crucial: the availability of accessible and affordable devices and that users have the necessary skill level in their use. Lack of knowledge about existing accessibility features is a critical barrier in low- and middle-income countries. As a result, GSMA developed a mobile skills training toolkit to help network providers in these countries to train users. Additionally, GSMA developed a set of principles for the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities to support the mobile industry close the digital gap.
Accessible ICTs are a gateway to almost every aspect of today's life, including employment, Alejandro Moledo, Policy Coordinator at the European Disability Forum (EDF), confirmed. Whereas partially sighted users once needed many different devices such as a magnifier, telescope, scanner etc., to handle documents. Now, all of these functions are integrated into a mainstream mobile device.
For people with disabilities to fully benefit from technology, the "AAA" conditions must be fulfilled, Alejandro continued. Technology must be accessible, affordable and available, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first document to recognise access to technology as a fundamental human right.
It is vital to create the legal grounds for this to happen. On the one hand, countries must have anti-discrimination legislation that ensures equal access to employment and reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Whilst on the other hand laws such as the European Accessibility Act create a baseline of accessibility requirements for products and services.
The mobile device is a key to unlock other technologies and services that merge online. Mainstream mobile devices offer a wide range of accessibility features already, said Sabine Lobnig, Communications Director at the MWF, which has created the GARI database (www.gari.info). The database lists around 130 accessibility features for over 1,500 devices currently available in the market. Consumers can use this database to find a device that meets their access needs or to learn more about the accessibility features of a device they already own.
Despite the availability of many accessible devices, we still face two significant barriers, lack of knowledge of features and the skills to use them. Additionally, such devices challenge the traditional understanding and definitions of assistive technology. As a result, funding bodies do not consider mobile tech appropriate for funding despite their capacity to meet the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace.
Emerging technologies for the workplace
Mobile phones are and will continue to be at the heart of access and inclusion in the workplace as new technologies are delivered, building on mobile platforms, continued David Banes, CEO of Access and Inclusion Services.
Mobile tech's crucial role in providing access is undisputed. Still, no technology can be the solution for all, cautioned Klaus Höckner, Director of the Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired (Hilfsgemeinschaft). Klaus highlighted two issues often neglected in the discussion. First, the growing percentage of older adults in developed countries who are likely to acquire a disability, and the reality that the majority of people with disabilities are living in developing countries, where affordability and digital literacy are crucial.
One widespread accessibility app, "Seeing AI" from Microsoft, helps blind and visually impaired users experience the world around them by describing pictures, documents, reading out messages etc. The app uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) which demonstrates some of the challenges faced. It only works with a good internet connection though and requires users to both have a smartphone and the knowledge to use the device and app.
The AI relies on a large volume of data, which needs to come from users so that it learns appropriately. This data might be traced back to the user raising privacy concerns. GDPR laws in Europe offer a solution to protect privacy, but many questions remain unresolved.
Together with developments in sensor technology and connectivity, AI lays the grounds for the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT allows devices in our environment to collect, share, and interpret data and feed back to a central point, which can be a smartphone in many cases.
While IoT promises greater control over the environment, there appears to be little evidence of use as an accommodation in the workplace, says Luc De Witte, Chair of Health Services Research at the University of Sheffield. He leads a large research project in the UK looking at IoT application in health and social care.
Promising solutions include systems that allow users with smartphones to connect to beacons in the environment for orientation and additional information. They can also easily find a person in an emergency or where a user is disorientated or confused, to offer assistance. But actual use and application are surprisingly limited to date.
The Internet of Things harbours enormous potential for inclusion. We are only at the beginning of its deployment. Still, as with other innovations, we need to take care to direct growth so that IoT helps to bridge the gap for people with disabilities rather than increase it.
Even more challenging is to design Virtual Reality (VR) to be accessible. On a mobile device, the interface is flat. You interact with the device in two dimensions, explained Daniel Dyboski-Bryant, Director of Virtual Education & Platforms at Educators in VR. In Virtual Reality though, the user finds him/herself inside the technology and needs ways of representing him/herself. Today's VR platforms are not ready yet to allow users a complete representation of their abilities, but his is what users want.
As Virtual Reality allows people to share a three-dimensional virtual space, Daniel sees it as an opportunity for people with disabilities and every user to be represented in new and exciting ways, including in the workplace.
The pervasiveness of accessible mobile technologies across all aspects of the lives of persons with a disability is offering a unique opportunity to address barriers to inclusion. Much of traditional AT products' functionality can be reproduced upon a phone as an app or built-in feature, reducing cost and breaking complex delivery chains. Challenges remain to ensure equitable access to these opportunities, including cost, digital skills, and funding mechanisms' rigidity. New and emerging technologies are accelerating this trend to benefit people with a disability. Further work is needed by policymakers, developers, distributors and disabled people's organisation to address the challenges and unlock the potential for all.
- GARI database for accessible devices: www.gari.info
- EDF report "Plug and Pray?": A disability perspective on artificial intelligence, automated decision-making and emerging technologies – 2018, https://www.edf-feph.org/publications/plug-and-pray-2018/
- GSMA, Understanding the mobile disability gap: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/resources/understanding-the-mobile-disability-gap/