Technology has certainly come a long way, with advancements in speech recognition, wearables, and mobile apps being examples of how it is making the lives of people with disability more convenient than before. Yet there has historically been a lack of attention directed at providing people with disability with the necessary information and “access” to empower them to use technology.
In light of this, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) on Monday launched the country’s first independent telecommunications products resource dedicated to people with disability.
The project, titled Accessible Telecoms, is an interactive website and call centre that provides information on the accessibility features of both mainstream and assistive telco equipment suitable for people with disability, as well as information about available set-up, training, and ongoing support for these devices.
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ACCAN’s director of Inclusion Wayne Hawkins, who is a person with a visual disability and helped curate the Accessible Telecoms’ content, told TechRepublic that the project is a step in the right direction for improving accessibility of telecom technology.
“From my own experience with a visual disability, when mobile phones first came out, there were many features that were not accessible to me. I couldn’t use the contact list, couldn’t read texts … trying to find help on what handsets were accessible was very difficult,” Hawkins said. “It was really hard to get the information from providers for what devices I could use, or the software that was available to log onto mobile phones to make the screens audible.”
“That lived experience of disability and trying to access technology very much made me know what the needs are, and the importance of having readily available information to assist them.”
Over time, Accessible Telecoms also plans to expand the information available to also focus on accessible tablets, mobile apps, and software that will allow people with disability to be better connected to telecommunications networks, ACCAN said.
Wayne Hawkins also talked to TechRepublic about what it means to have “access”.
“With accessibility, there is a range, and it depends on what kind of disability the impaired person has. The iPhone has been a great boon to the vision and ear community because of all of the built-in accessibility functions such as the voice-over; it’s the same with the Android operating system with its talk-back functionality. But for people who are not using smartphones or a laptop, and just a regular phone, the text-to-speech functionality is not available for them,” he said.
“There’s still a lot of barriers for those who have not transitioned from a regular phone to a smart one; especially for elder people, there is a complexity behind using smartphones, and there is a barrier which keeps them out of the accessibility world and new tech. Similarly for people with physical disabilities, particularly those with dexterity issues, touch screens can be difficult too; the right level of touch or steadiness to be able to touch the screen at the right place to do what you want.”
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TechRepublic previously spoke with then-Harvard associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society Meryl Alper, who shared a similar sentiment that access varies among individuals and contexts despite advancements in technology.
Specifically, Alper gave the example of how voice input technologies often fail to represent women and minorities.
“These technologies are cheaper, and you can have access to them, but the voices that come out of them are overwhelmingly white and male … there’s a limited range of options for individuals who may vary outside of the norm,” she said.
“This emphasis on [people] having the technology thus you have all of the ‘things’ is really a false idea of what the complexities are around how personal our technologies become to us … the benefits can mask all those other ways in which people can, and should be able to feel valued.”
Accessible Telecoms is funded by a National Readiness grant from the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), and is delivered through disability services provider Information on Disability Education and Awareness Service (IDEAS).
It is available online at the IDEAS website and web chat, as well as via phone and text.
“It may be a surprise to many people who live without disabilities that accessing truly accessible telecoms hardware and software is very complex,” said IDEAS CEO Diana Palmer.
“While apps and screen modifications on smartphones can be of some assistance to people with disability, these specifications may not be right for people with particular mobility, sensory, and memory or cognitive conditions.”
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