Friday, January 30, 2015

The way forward in hearing-aid compatibility with mobile phones

A great number of people in our ageing societies have to deal with hearing loss. Hearing-aids are an essential tool in dealing with diminishing hearing capacity and demands are high to make them work in all hearing environments that people encounter in daily life. Most importantly, people using hearing-aids need them to function well with other devices of common use such as mobile phones. We have talked to Marcel Vlaming from EHIMA, the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association, to get his inside view on today's state-of-the-art and future outlook for hearing-aids and mobile communications. 

What do you see today as the biggest challenge of making hearing-aids work with mobile phones? 

Marcel: Hearing-aids should help persons to use mobile phones as easy as normally hearing people. Currently a hearing-aid compatible mobile phone will have a magnetic device built-in that communicates with the T-coil that is built-in many hearing-aids. Most phones will not have this magnetic device as it an extra in design and costs (see compatibility statements and T-rating). However many mobile phones offer Bluetooth connectivity. Therefore it is a big challenge that mobile phones will use new Bluetooth functionality to offer communication with hearing-aids. And for hearing-aid manufacturers to integrate a Bluetooth chip in their hearing aids, without size increasing too much and without battery consumption getting too high. For this reason, a new worldwide Bluetooth standard is under way, that may give first products in one or two years. Some first wireless hearing-aid products are available already, but these will not give general connectivity as yet.

This new Bluetooth wireless connectivity will give improved sound quality (low noise; increased audio bandwidth; stereo), easier use and an advanced appeal that even normally hearing users do not always use (compare to using a headset for phones and for music players).

Do you consider the US HAC rating scheme useful to consumers? Or what kind of information would consumers rather need to efficiently use their hearing-aids for mobile telephony? What kind of information should hearing-aid manufacturers and mobile phone manufacturers provide to help the consumer? 

Marcel: The HAC rating scheme is useful, but only the ratings T3 and T4 will have acceptable quality for hearing-aid t-coil use (see ANSI C63.19). In Europe the ETSI standard ES 200 381-2 must be used that allows phones to be classified hearing-aid compatible when a minimum T-coil performance is met (comparable to US T3 category). Phones that have improved performance may be denoted as T4 which means that they have improved signal to noise ratio for use with hearing-aid t-coils. All other phones should be denoted as non-HA compatible. Mobile phone manufacturers/vendors should be invited to publish more actively the HA compliance of their models. 

How will the new Bluetooth standard that the industry is working on, impact the experience of hearing-aid users in regards to mobile telephony?

Marcel: The T-ratings and ETSI ES 200 381-2 standard will become obsolete gradually when the new Bluetooth standard for hearing-aids is going to be used in phones. It is expected that most phones with Bluetooth will sooner or later support this new HA standard, together with the roll out and use of new Bluetooth chips.

The new Bluetooth standard is suitable not only for mobile phones but also for many mainstream audio devices. This means that hearing-aid wireless connectivity will get integrated in personal music players, televisions and other applications such as audio in theatres, cinemas, churches, public announcements and alarms. This development is expected to go along with mainstream Bluetooth audio developments that will get supported by variants of the new Bluetooth standard.

What would you consider the single most important action that the mobile industry could do to make mobile telephony more accessible for the hard-of-hearing community? 

Marcel: To support the new Bluetooth hearing-aid standard (i.e. from end 2016) and implement into products. Before that they should publish which phone models are hearing-aid compatible for T-coils.

For more information about EHIMA, please look at: 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let your accessibility app be rewarded - Deadline 12 December 2014

Can your app help make the daily life of persons with disabilities a little bit easier? Does your app help overcome barriers? Does it facilitate access for senior citizens? Then you should definitely submit your app to the Global Mobile Awards.

In 2013, GSMA introduced for the first time a category for accessibility in the Global Mobile Awards, through some work done with the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) organisation. UCP educates, advocates and provides support services to ensure a life without limits for people with a spectrum of disabilities, and approached GSMA with the idea of introducing an accessibility award. 

In 2014, the 20th edition of the Global Mobile Awards puts for the second time accessibility on the forefront, this year with even two categories: Best Mobile App, Service or Initiative for Accessibility & Inclusion and Best Device for Accessibility & Inclusion

The winner is...

Last year’s winner in the accessibility category was the app Turkcell My Dream Partner. The app is an IVR and mobile application service that enables blind people to access information in a fast and independent manner, free of charge. Through the use of speech to text technology it brings services, news, educational materials and navigation systems to blind people as well as enabling them to take notes on these subjects more easily. Turkcell, Turkey’s leading telecommunication and technology company, developed this app for Turkey, where only 5% of the 800.000 visually impaired are well educated due to the difficult access to education and information for blind people. Turkcell’s free-of-charge service My Dream Partner was launched in 2012 and has served the visually impaired with more than 350 thousand calls that add up to about 2 million minutes. The project is also considered to be exported and implemented in Ukraine.

Huge market potential

“We felt that we were underserving accessibility at the Mobile World Congress where we cover such a wide range of topics. Not only in the sense of need to serve, but it is a tremendous market opportunity to develop apps and services for a market that is potentially a billion people who are confronted with physical or mental impairments, not to mention the ageing population”, says Mark Smith, Marketing Director at GSMA, and responsible for the organisation of the Global Mobile Awards. 

A panel of independent judges coming from journalism, research, academia with expertise in the specific categories, assesses all submissions and decides on which apps are going to be shortlisted and in the end rewarded. 

The shortlist will be published by the GSMA during February 2015, and one winner in each category will be announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on 3 March 2015. The Mobile World Congress 2015 will furthermore feature sessions on inclusion and accessibility and open the floor to many interesting discussions. 

The Awards are a wonderful way to raise awareness about apps that help overcome barriers and can both help raise awareness in about the importance of mobile accessibility in general as well as help well done apps to gain traction. 

Deadline for submissions is Friday, 12 December 2014. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

At the intersection of wellness, health and accessibility

Two events took place in London last week, both discussing mobile apps. The first one was a workshop on health apps to meet patients’ unmet needs organised by PatientView. PatientView carried out a survey among international patient organisations about which features their ideal app would have to have. In the following discussions, it became evident that many of the wished for features are already covered by a variety of available apps: simple tracking and monitoring of the patients' condition, analysis of influencing factors, education on the illness, practical support for managing the condition. However, the most strongly emphasised feature - the ability to share the data with the treating physician and the attending nurses - is missing today.

Another largely debated aspect was not so much the security of the data as rather the authority over the data - patients want to have the power to choose what kind of data they are sharing and they insist on the right to know what the data is used for. Interestingly, the aspect of these apps needing to be accessible was only mentioned as an afterthought and did not trigger any further debate. 

What about prevention? 

An interesting point was made by a representative of the International Self-Care Foundation. He underlined the need for an app that helps people maintain their health rather than help them cure or treat disease. The International Self-Care foundation has a seven pillar model based on health-literacy, self-awareness, physical activity, healthy eating, risk avoidance or mitigation, good hygiene and rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines.

Given the popularity of lifestyle and self-monitoring apps, a more sophisticated app based on this model might indeed be able to help maintain and manage health in many people, as well as help people that already have a health condition to achieve or maintain the best possible level of wellness. 

Apps World Europe - accessibility not even on the sidelines 

The second and large-scale event last week in London around apps was the Apps World Europe exhibition and conference. It was disappointing to see that among the 300 exhibitors there was only one single accessibility app on display - Equaleyes which we are happy to have listed on GARI. Two days of presentations and panel discussions with 250 speakers - yet no mention of accessibility.

Even the panel discussion around Examining the importance of performance - improving the quality of app delivery through pre and post launch management strategies only focussed on data flow, server communication and developing across platforms, screen sizes and device generations, but did not at all consider the thousands of users that are never reached when the app is not accessible. This shows that the lack of awareness about the importance of accessibility in app development is still the biggest hurdle today.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

General public ignores reality of hearing loss

Almost everyone will be confronted with declining physical capacities when ageing, including hearing loss. According to the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People (EFHOH), around 51 million people are currently diagnosed with hearing loss in the European Union. And yet, there is a great need for further awareness of the situation of hard-of-hearing and deaf people because it is very often not well understood, said French Senator Claire-Lise Campion. In her speech at the hard-of-hearing congress organised by Bucodes SourdiFrance on 27 September 2014 in Paris, she emphasised the need for associations to raise awareness but also to be present with their user experience whenever solutions are implemented.

Accessibility - there is no one size that fits it all

Anne-Marie Desmottes, president of the Association des Devenus Sourds et Malentendants de la Manche made a point of emphasising the need for accessibility that is tailored to the person and the situation. Indeed, for someone who is hard-of-hearing, the accessibility mode of choice might be audio feed via telecoil or speech-to-text interpretation - or both; for a deaf person, it could be sign language interpretation; for a person that lost hearing later in life it might be only speech-to-text.

Mobile accessibility features - available today

Luckily, there are already a number of features that can help persons with hearing loss adjust to their condition, while still taping into the full potential of mobile communications. Some of the most relevant accessibility features for the hard-of-hearing include:

  • Improved Call Quality
  • Vibrating Alerts
  • Visual Indicators for battery status, network coverage etc.
  • Messaging Options (instant text, email, text phone etc.)
  • Video Conferencing
  • Hearing Aid Compatibility Settings
  • Adjustable Maximum Volume Control Allows you to change default volume control limit
  • Closed Captioning for Web Video or Streaming

These features can be further improved and supplemented by dedicated apps that focus on optimising the adaption of the mobile phone to the user’s individual hearing. This year’s winner of Window’s Imagine Cup competition for example is the Project AMP, the goal of which is to replace "expensive hearing aid frequency processing with Windows Phone 8 and a Bluetooth headset”.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Apps for all Challenge - Vision wins over Gaming

A cash prize of $1500 awaited the winner of the Apps for All Challenge, organised by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) together with the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

The winners, announced at ACCAN’s 2014 conference, were rewarded in the categories of 

  • Most accessible mainstream app - ACCC Shopper

The ACCC Shopper app provides useful consumer information to users and includes tools to keep copies of receipts. It can be used to set reminders for lay-bys, warranties and gift vouchers, write complaint letters to businesses or ask common shopping questions such as “when can I get a refund?”

  • Most innovative app designed for people with disability or older Australians - OpenMi Tours

OpenMi Tours provides information to users at museums, art galleries and cultural venues in a variety of inclusive formats. These include audio only, audio with captions, Auslan with captions, audio description as well as foreign languages.

  • Most accessible children’s app - Row Row Your Boat & Positive Penguins 

The Row Row Your Boat app provides an interactive learning experience with educational ideas, games and sounds to encourage the development of listening and language skills in young children. The app is particularly useful to families of children who have reduced hearing or language problems.

Positive Penguins was created as a tool to help children understand their emotions come from their thinking and teach them to challenge (or problem solve) the negative stories they tell themselves. The app was created by a Melbourne student with the idea initially being created in a PowerPoint presentation on healthy mind, healthy body.

Interestingly, no nominations were entered for the fourth category of most accessible gaming app. 

In total, almost 30 apps were submitted, including a number of government services apps. The majority of nominated apps targeted persons who are blind or vision impaired. 

The objective of the challenge was to raise awareness about the need to ensure accessibility in designing smartphone applications, as to making them usable for everyone, including persons with disabilities and older citizens that start being confronted with hearing or vision loss, reduced mobility and cognitive impairments. 

The Apps for All Challenge was sponsored by Australian operator Telstra, who just recently launched an accessibility initiative, including the full integration of GARI’s search function for accessible mobile phones in a dedicated web portal

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Major Australian telecom operator using GARI to offer accessibility information to customers

Australian telecom operator Telstra has launched a new integrated web portal fully integrating the GARI database to allow their customers to search for devices with specific accessibility features related to speech, hearing, vision, cognitive impairment and reduced mobility.

“Telstra is the first carrier in the world to fully integrate data from the mobile industry’s Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) - As a result, access to mobile communications has just become a lot easier for Telstra’s customers who live with a disability,” said Michael Milligan, Secretary General of the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF), in a press release issued today.

The new Telstra web portal - - is a wonderful example of how GARI can be used by operators to help older people and those with a disability search for mobile devices that best suit their specific accessibility requirements. For example, a customer with vision impairment can now use the Telstra web portal to search for a new smartphone that has a built-in screen reader that will read out screen content. Likewise a hearing impaired person might want to see which devices are hearing-aid compatible or that support closed captioning. 

GARI around the world

Just recently, GARI has also expanded to Rumania and South Africa. The Rumanian telecommunications regulator ANCOM has integrated a rumanian language version of GARI into their website, allowing the website visitors to directly access the GARI search interface, and the South African Electronic Communications Association SAECA has created in their website a section dedicated to GARI to offer the same service to their members. 

Telstra, ANCOM and SAECA join a number of governments, regulators and associations around the world that use GARI in different forms but all with the common objective of giving people access to information on available mobile accessibility solutions. 

Have a look at who else is using GARI: 

Learn how to use GARI on your own website: 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Accessible apps: The sky is the limit

Audio description is an important element in making media accessible for people who are blind or vision-impaired. We talked to Joel Snyder, founder of Audio Description Associations, LLC, who is one of the pioneers in audio description, about how audio description fits into mobile accessibility and how he sees audio description evolving in a mobile ecosystem. 

How did you start in audio description and how do see the impact that mobile technologies like the smartphone and tablet have on audio description? 

Joel: I have been working with audio description probably longer than anybody, around 34 years now. I was part of the group of people to really expand on the idea of audio description and develop the first ongoing audio description service in the beginning of the1980s in the Washington DC area. I had been working with a radio reading service, the Washington Ear, and they developed the service in response to discussions with Arena Stage, one of the nation’s finest regional theatres. 

I have not worked with Arena Stage in many years but one of the current contracts my company has is with the American Council of the Blind. I direct its Audio Description Project and one of their initiatives involves a grant to work with Arena Stage during this next season to make audio description available for every performance of two productions. Typically, audio description in performing arts is only offered at one or two performances in a run.  That, of course, restricts the ability of audio description consumers to access a theatrical event.  

My company works on audio description in all its genres and formats. We still do work with performing arts, museums, and media but also a great deal of work in training and speaking on description. I have helped introduce audio description in almost 40 countries and most of the United States. That has been a great honour. 

What are in your opinion the most valuable accomplishments in mobile accessibility so far? 

Joel: Mobile technologies present exciting new opportunities for the performing arts, but perhaps even more so for film, DVDs, and streaming content. My company is working closely with a group, Compass Interactive, and one of their projects is an app called Parlamo. Downloading this app enables you to use your smartphone to access audio description in any environment. It can be used primarily to access alternative language tracks for movies, but it also can provide downloads of free audio description tracks for movies, TV programmes, or arts events. Furthermore, the app has a feature, Crystal Sound, that enhances sound for the benefit of people who are hard-of-hearing. People who use assisted listening devices need more than simply increased volume; more importantly they need clarity. Crystal Sound essentially fulfils the function of an equalizer. It adjusts frequencies to enable people to hear more clearly, while it offers increased volume.  

So this app can enable people who speak other languages to access to content that may originally be in English. But it also allows people who are blind to access audio description and enables people who are hard-of-hearing to hear more clearly. 

All of this can apply to the performing arts as well,  As I mentioned earlier, theatrical productions may run for, say, six weeks of performances but audio description is often only provided at one or two performances.  Mobile apps can allow blind users access to the entire run of performances via their own devices. 

We have the Parlamo app already listed in GARI’s accessibility app section and are very happy about it. These apps also show wonderfully how audio description fits into the mobile ecosystem. What about tablets though? 

Joel: I have used apps like Parlamo on my desktop and, of course, they can also be used on tablets.  If you have your tablet on your lab in a movie theatre, you can plug in your earphones and use the app to access the audio description, alternative languages, or the Crystal Sound capability. Also, this allows the theatre to reduce the need to maintain and distribute cumbersome receivers and headsets. Generally, people have to receive a receiver and headset from the theatre, but as you might imagine batteries run out, other people have used the same equipment, users often are ill-trained in how the equipment operates and so on. The apps liberate the theatre and the consumer by letting consumers use their own equipment. The consumer simply downloads the alternative language or the audio description for a given film -it’s a win for both sides. 

What does the US Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) prescribe in terms of audio description? 

Joel: The CVAA mandates by law rules that were earlier developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding audio description for broadcast television. It provides for approximately 4 hours of audio description per week for each of the top 9 broadcasters in the US. These audio descriptions must be provided in the top 25 markets.  

At the M-Enabling Summit we talked about the increasing impact of mobile apps. From your perspective as an audio description expert, what would be your key message to app developers? 

Joel: I think the only limit is the extent of a developer’s own imagination and technical skills. Apps like Parlamo represent the future for media access. I honestly think that wireless opportunities will open up the world to far greater access for people who are blind or have low vision. For instance, I am working with another company on an app that can identify products. Every smartphone has a camera that can be used to send  an image to a sighted person or be recognized via the app. This would provide swift access to information that might otherwise be unavailable. 

So our own creative and technical skills can foster apps that can help people with any kind of disability. They can offer an important sense of freedom, letting people do without a lot of hardware, like money identifiers, for example. So, the smartphone and new apps can be liberating in many ways. 

Have a look at the Parlamo app on GARI:

The website of Audio Description Associations, LLC: