Mobile Phones as Assistive and Accessible Technology for People with Disabilities

Mobile Phones as Assistive and Accessible Technology for People with Disabilities

John T. Morris, James L. Mueller, Michael L. Jones
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8239-9.ch116
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Mobile phones have contributed substantially to greater levels of social participation and independence by people with disabilities. Mobile phone technologies (including tablets) have become increasingly powerful, sophisticated, flexible, and ubiquitous since the first commercial mobile wireless phone call was made on October 13, 1983. In 2007, the launch of the first iPhone with its capacitive touchscreen interface ushered in a new era of accessibility, usability, and assistive technology for people with disabilities. Still, important economic and accessibility barriers to greater mobile phone use by people with disabilities remain. The evolution of mobile phone behaviors of people with sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities is closely intertwined with the development of ever more powerful and flexible mobile phone technology, as well as the evolution of statutory and regulatory requirements for accessibility and use. This article summarizes these developments, by first identifying and defining disabilities, then distinguishing between assistive technology and accessible technology. Finally, the complex evolution of mobile phone technology and mobile phone behaviors by people with disabilities is reviewed.
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Usefulness and usability of mobile wireless technologies are as important to people with disabilities as to their non-disabled peers. Referring to them simply as “phones” is an increasingly obsolete practice. As these technologies become ever-more powerful, they become even more important to users with disabilities, incorporating features and functions previously provided only through specialized “assistive technology”. Notably, many of these features and functions have been adopted by users without disabilities as well.

This article addresses how wireless technology has profoundly affected, and been affected by, the population of people with disabilities. Understanding these affects requires an understanding first of the key concepts of disability, assistive technology, accessible technology, and universal design. Defining these concepts requires a review of social and legislative changes over the past five decades.

What Is Disability?

The definition of “disability” might seem straightforward, but the operative meaning of this term can vary with the context of relevant laws or programs (U.S. Department of Labor; Cornell University). U.S. laws intended to prevent discrimination and promote accessibility use the most general definition, established in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA defines disability as: “with respect to an individual:

  • 1.

    A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;

  • 2.

    A record of such an impairment; or

  • 3.

    Being regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working” (U.S. Department of Justice).

Research on disability in the United States often relies on definitions of disability used by the U.S. Census bureau, or disease or injury diagnoses, both of which focus on functional loss by the individual. The American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau relies on six categories of difficulties: seeing; hearing; walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying; learning, remembering, concentrating, or making decisions; self-care (taking care of one’s own personal needs, such as bathing, dressing, or getting around inside the home); independent living (basic activities outside the home alone) (Ruggles, et al. 2010). The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of the U.S. population with disabilities in 2010 was 56,672,000 (U.S. Census Bureau).

Internationally, the United Nations adopted a broad definition of disability in the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which became effective in May 2008. The CRPD defines persons with disabilities as including “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers [emphasis added] may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (United Nations. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). The World Health Organization estimates that about 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, have disabilities under similar definition (World Health Organization).

This social view of disability – in contrast to an individual or medical model (Anastasiou and Kauffman 2011) – informed the barrier free movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, and subsequently the development of principles of Universal Design (Hamraie 2013, see below), both of which view disability in part as a result of the design of the built environment, including consumer products, as well as buildings and public spaces.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Divide: Differences in regular, effective access and ability to use technologies, by which people with disabilities use technology (including mobile ICT) at lower rates than the general population.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): U.S. statute signed into law in 1990 which prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. It also mandates the establishment of telephone relay services.

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies (Wireless RERC): Research and engineering center funded by the U.S. Department in 2001 that is dedicated to research and development of innovative wireless products and services that meet the needs and improve the quality of life and community participation of individuals with disabilities.

Discoverability: The ease or difficulty in finding assistive or accessible technology features, functions and apps for mobile devices.

Universal Design: Design of products and environments for use by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Disability: A physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act): U.S. statute first passed in 1988, reauthorized in 1994 (P.L. 103-218) and again in 1998 (P.L. 105-394). It was designated as a systems change grant and is often called the “Tech Act” for short. Congress passed this legislation to increase access to, availability of, and funding for assistive technology through state efforts and national initiatives. The 1998 law reaffirmed that technology is a valuable tool that can be used to improve the lives of Americans with disabilities.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA): U.S. statute signed into law in 2010 requiring products and services using broadband telecommunications to be fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Assistive Technology: Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Telecommunications Access: Research and engineering center funded by the U.S. Department in 2004 dedicated to advance accessibility and usability in existing and emerging telecommunications products for people with all types of disabilities. Telecommunications accessibility is addressed along all three of its major dimensions: user interface, transmission (including digitization, compression, etc.), and modality translation services (relay services, gateways, etc.).

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