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Thursday, March 20, 2014

“More than 80 percent of people with disabilities use wireless every day”

CITA, The Wireless Association representing the international wireless telecommunications industry, has a strong record in promoting mobile accessibility. We talked to Matthew Gerst, Director for State Regulatory & External Affairs at CTIA, about what they have achieved so far, how they see mobile accessibility evolving over the coming years and how GARI fits into it. 

How did CTIA-The Wireless Association® (CTIA) get involved in accessibility issues? 

Matthew Gerst: With more than 326 million wireless subscriber connections in the U.S., wireless products and services are central communications tools for everyone, including individuals with disabilities and seniors. As many of us now use wireless for everything from healthcare to education to transportation to energy, CTIA and our members believe that all consumers should be able to take advantage of innovative wireless products and services.

Today, the Wireless RERC has found that more than 80 percent of people with disabilities use wireless every day. CTIA and our member companies have a long track record of working with the accessibility community to highlight and educate consumers and policymakers on the many ways that wireless enhances the ways we work, live and play. Specifically, CTIA’s www.AccessWireless.Org has become the “first stop” for consumers and policymakers looking for information about wireless accessibility in the United States.

In addition, we’re proud to have worked with advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing, blind and low vision, cognitively disabled and seniors on a variety of accessibility issues, including Hearing Aid Compatibility (HAC), the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 and 9-1-1 emergency services. We’ve also won awards for these efforts including the HLAA National Access Award (2013) and the FCC Chairman’s Award for Advancement in Accessibility (2011). We remain committed engaging with the accessibility community and continue to help our member companies demonstrate how innovative wireless products and services meet the needs of everyone.

What would you consider the main issues in mobile accessibility? 

Matthew Gerst: There are four. Innovation, customization and regulatory flexibility are the key issues that drive mobile accessibility, as well as specific technology issues such as HAC.
  1. In the area of innovation, accessibility is a key component of the design and implementation of new products and services. Research shows that people with disabilities are adopting wireless communication methods in large numbers.
  2. Thanks to innovation, people with disabilities can create their own unique wireless experiences by customizing wireless services and devices through built-in features and apps to meet their needs.  With more than 35 percent of U.S. households “wireless only”, we know that people with disabilities who increasingly turn to wireless as their primary method of communication will find innovative services, devices and apps that can be personalized to fit their unique needs.
  3. As wireless networks and devices continue to evolve to meet market demand, the flexibility provided in new accessibility regulations will allow innovative solutions to meet the needs of persons with disabilities in ways previously unimagined. Examples include cloud computing, built-in accessibility features, and robust wireless services to handle heavy bandwidth applications, such as video.
  4. Finally, there are specific technology issues that the wireless industry continues to actively pursue, such as HAC. Through collaboration with the hearing loss community, hearing aid manufacturers and policymakers, the wireless industry continues to offer a wide variety of HAC handsets.

Why does the CTIA use GARI and what is the general feedback? 

Matthew Gerst: Thanks to the relentless innovation and competition, there is so much diversity in the wireless market that consumers, including individuals with disabilities, often need help sifting through the choices to find the best wireless device to meet their unique needs. The MMF’s GARI system is a great tool for consumers to find accessible wireless handsets and it’s the reason that CTIA partnered with the MMF to incorporate GARI into AccessWireless.Org. Whenever we talk to groups about accessibility, we receive very positive reactions, and this is due in large part to the popularity of the GARI search tool. We are excited to learn that the MMF has chosen to update its GARI tool to empower consumers even more in their wireless search.

What do you expect to happen in the area of mobile accessibility in the coming years? In terms of technological, societal and regulatory development? 

Matthew Gerst: The vast majority of people with disabilities use wireless devices in their everyday lives. We expect this trend toward adopting and incorporating mobile into all of our daily routines to continue. We also find mobile manufacturers increasingly incorporating accessibility features on the front end of product development. We expect that as the close working relationship between the disability community and the U.S. wireless industry continues, we will see further productivity in this area. For example, the “apps” market will continue to expand and improve the everyday lives of people of all abilities in almost every sector of our economy, including health, education and banking.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Many say technologies make things easier, for people with disabilities technologies make things possible”

This quote by Knut Ellingsen, vice president of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing (EFHOH), was one of the many interesting statements heard at the Zero Project Conference that took place on 27-28 February in Vienna, Austria. 470 people from around the world came together at this conference and discussed innovative policy and case studies in accessibility as well as the influence of the UN Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) on pushing the implementation of accessible solutions. 

The telephone was highlighted by one of the representatives of the European Commission as a good example for the ups and downs of accessibility in the evolution of a product group. The invention of the telephone in 1876 was actually a by-product of Graham Bell’s research on hearing and speech and his experimentations with hearing-aids. Both Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf. The telephone however then became a barrier for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, excluding them from a way of communicating that quickly gained importance in the life of the hearing society. This changed again with the introduction of text messaging and even more with the advent of video telephony. Mobile phones today, have become very accessible products, the representative of the European Commission said. 

And they are also an excellent means of mimicking what disability might feel like - ever tried to use your mobile when the sun is shining directly at the screen or talking on the phone in a very noisy environment? All of us can be confronted with disabling environments and benefit from accessible devices that help circumvent the inconvenience. 

“The convention is the beginning, not the end”

"Accessibility is not a mechanical issue. It is a discrimination issue," Ambassador Luis Gallegos pointed out. "People are hindered to live a full life because of society. Surely, as we age, all of us will be disabled. This is about all of us, and not about the disabled.” The full integration of persons with disabilities into society firstly requires a change in perception and mindset by the society, he continued.  

This is also supported by the experience of David Banes, CEO of the Mada Center, Qatar Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center. In Qatar assistive technology is free, yet not widely taken up by the disabled community. This shows that there are other issues than cost. One of which is information and awareness about existing technological solutions. 

"We need to include the media, we need the media at conferences like this, so that they get the message out there and help bring down barriers in the mind,” Helene Jarmer, deaf Member of the Austrian Parliament further underlines the same message

Information is key, not only to provoke this change of mindset in our societies, but also to educate persons with disabilities, their caretakers and friends about already existing solutions. 

For key quotes on mobile accessibility  from the Zero Project Conference go to https://twitter.com/GARIupdates and search for #ZeroCon14.

Life Cycle - Official Zero Project Clip on Accessibility (div. languages): http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5B37BDmdNW_23KAQWzU4RoNBm7UweFrK&utm_source=&utm_medium=&utm_campaign=

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

HelpTalk on GARI: the story of creating an accessibility app

Applications have opened a new dimension in mobile accessibility. Whether it is apps that are genuinely accessible to everyone or specifically designed accessibility apps that respond to the specific needs of a certain user group. As interesting as it is to learn about the multiple functions that they can add to mobile telecommunication devices, it is instructive to learn about the motivation that pushed the developers to create them. HelpTalk, one of the great accessibility apps already listed in GARI, has shared their story with us:

How did you get the idea to develop HelpTalk?

Mónica Rebelo:
 The idea for HelpTalk came up when one of the members of our team, who is a nurse at the intensive care unit of our local hospital, was discussing how difficult it was to communicate with ventilated patients. When she explained how they managed to minimize those difficulties by asking the patients to point to charts with symbols representing the most basic human needs, we realized that using a mobile app we could accomplish a lot more. We could create an app that would actually speak for the patients.

What has been the most challenging aspect of developing HelpTalk?

Mónica Rebelo: The first version of HelpTalk, which served as a proof of concept, included a set of fixed actions that represented the most basic needs a patient in an intensive care unit might need to express.
As we were developing it, but mostly after a public release, we realized that the app would be helpful in a lot of other scenarios: aphasia, muteness, autism, tracheostomized, different language, small children, etc.
Although we were very excited to see so many possible uses for the app, we soon figured that it would be impossible to create a single set of actions that would address everyone's needs. That was when we decided that the most powerful way we could overcome this was by empowering our users and letting them create and share their own sets of actions. 

How did you ensure that the app meets the requirements of your target audience?

Mónica Rebelo: With HelpTalk 2.0, we aimed to empower our users and letting each one decide which set of actions better represented their communication needs.
To that end we not only updated the app but also the web site www.helptalk.mobi.
On the web site, users can register and create multiple profiles, which are a hierarchy of actions and symbols in a certain language. Then, on the device, they can download these profiles and switch between them easily so that they can have a profile for every communication scenario they can think of.
By allowing users to share their profiles with others or clone and improve other public profiles, our goal was to create a community around the app, where users can help each other and share their experiences.
At the moment there are currently 30 public profiles and a lot more private profiles, in 12 different languages.

Did you base yourself on a scientific concept in developing HelpTalk? Did you work with experts from communication science for example?

Mónica Rebelo: One of the members of our team is a nurse at our local hospital's intensive care unit and is very experienced in the subject having participated in studies and multiple conferences about it. Her experience and research were invaluable to the project.

What are the next steps for you in regards to developing accessibility apps?

Mónica Rebelo: The experience of developing HelpTalk made us all very aware of the importance of accessibility and how technology can have a significant impact on improving the lives of those suffering from a disability.
Although we are currently very focused on promoting and improving HelpTalk, we're ready to create other apps if we find an area where we can make a positive contribution.

Are there already broadly accepted app developer guidelines that you would recommend app developers to follow? 

Mónica Rebelo: For Android, which is the platform where HelpTalk is available at the moment, we would definitely recommend reading the developer guidelines for accessibility:
In a broader way, we think that a good first step is to just take people with disabilities into consideration while planning or developing an app. If a developer does that, the most crucial obstacles will be easy to spot and then it will just be a matter of researching what methods are available to overcome them.

If you want to know which devices support HelpTalk, have a look at HelpTalk in the GARI app section: http://www.gari.info/findapps-detail.cfm?appid=39

If you are interested in uploading your accessible app on the GARI database, have a look here: http://www.gari.info/developers.cfm

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The mobile phone: central station for tele-care, tele-health and communication

The mobile phone is always with us. No matter where we go, most of us have the mobile in the pocket. So it seems a logical next step to integrate functions of tele-care that older and sick people sometimes heavily rely on for their safety. Indeed, some of the tele-care equipment providers exhibiting in November at the TSA Conference in Birmingham do offer feature phones equipped with SOS buttons, that either allow to call the emergency services or pre-assigned contacts in the phone book. And some advocate the extension of tele-care services via smartphone apps. This later aspect however rises a number of questions. 

What is the difference between tele-care apps and health apps? 

There are no established definitions yet, but the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made a first step by issuing a "final guidance for developers of mobile medical applications, or apps, which are software programs that run on mobile communication devices and perform the same functions as traditional medical devices". In this guidance, the FDA specifies that it " intends to focus its regulatory oversight on a subset of mobile medical apps that present a greater risk to patients if they do not work as intended" because "the majority of mobile apps pose minimal risk to consumers".

In practice this means that the FDA will regulate mobile apps that 
  • are intended to be used as an accessory to a regulated medical device, or
  • transform a mobile platform into a regulated medical device

The FDA will not regulate apps that 
  • help manage conditions without providing specific treatment suggestions
  • help track the user's health information
  • facilitate access to information about certain conditions and general health information
  • monitor a patient's medical condition and help communicate this information to the health care provider
  • automate simple tasks for health care providers
  • enable patients or providers to interact with Personal Health Records (PHR) or Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems

A detailed explanation on which kind of apps will not fall under FDA review can be found on the webpage Examples of Mobile Apps for which the FDA will exercise enforcement discretion.

Barely standards, no regulations 

Still, the world of smartphone apps to date is the wild west. No established authority controls the quality or reliability of health apps. No regulations or internationally accepted guidelines exist on the minimum requirements for apps that can have an impact on the user's health. Apart from the FDA as one of the first government agencies to attempt formalising a regulatory approach to apps, some sort of quality control by peer review emerges in specialised areas. Websites like iMedical Apps (http://www.imedicalapps.com/) for instance offer regular reviews of apps by experts in the field, in this case healthcare professionals; while myhealthapps.net lists apps that have been "selected by 456 distinct patient groups, disability groups or empowered consumers as their favourite apps. The reviews from these groups are supplied for each app, as well as weblinks to the groups themselves."

In this context, one of the participants in the Workshop "Integrating Apps so that they apply to you and me" held during the TSA Conference, asked a very pertinent questions: "When your tele-care app does not work, who are you going to blame? The developer of the app? The mobile phone manufacturer? The operating system? The tele-care equipment manufacturer? Who?" 

The overall tenor of workshop participants who partly came from network operators, partly from tele-care equipment manufacturers and partly from national agencies, was that they are very interested in the idea of employing apps as extension of or help in tele-care but that they are worried about quality control and liability. Guidelines or quality labels would certainly help. 

Exploiting the competitiveness of human nature

In the world of fitness, smartphone apps have been taken up very rapidly. The challenge to sticking to goals, the support via the community of all the people who also use the app to improve their life, are motivating factors. Some workshop participants whose background was in rehabilitation pointed out that it might be worthwhile to think about how to transfer this competitiveness and playfulness witnessed in fitness apps also to tele-care apps in order to help people engage more actively and give them incentives to follow instructions to possibly improve their condition.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Discussing mobile accessibility over lunch in the European Parliament

On 27 November 2013, MEP Dr. Ádám Kósa invited policy makers, industry and representatives of European disability organisations to a lunch event entitled "With GARI and the Real Time Sign Language App to a more accessible European Union". The intention was to discuss openly what industry is already providing in terms of accessibility features of mobile telecommunication devices, how persons with different disabilities are using these features, what from their perspective is still missing and how European policy can contribute to making mobile accessibility a success. 

The Hungarian Member of the European Parliament Dr. Ádám Kósa said: "I have a disability that you can’t see but I have no communication problem." Deaf persons like him have for decades been excluded from telecommunications, but this has changed thanks to the advent of smartphones. "Nowadays, I feel fully included in the communication of society. Thanks to new technologies, thanks to apps, and certain programs which help me. At the same time, we haven't achieved full accessibility yet," he continued. 

Together with his colleague MEP Werner Kuhn, Dr. Kósa proposed last year the project of a real-time sign language application to the European Commission. The idea is to facilitate communication of deaf and hard of hearing persons with the European Institutions by providing a platform independent application offering real-time sign language interpretation as well as captioning. The budget for the realisation of the project has been approved and the European Commission has launched a call for tender, which has already been closed but the winner has not been announced yet. The Commission’s call for tender referred to the design of a total communication system, combining in a coherent and coordinated way voice, real-time text and video in order to be able to have access to sign language at the same time. The platform will in a first time be hosted by the Commission but there will be pilot services with the different institutions. Ideally, the platform would be ready to be tested for the European Parliament elections in May 2014, and if it works well would be taken up also by Member States in order to facilitate access to their institutions. 

Mrs. Inmaculada Placencia-Porrero, Deputy Head of Unit for Rights of Persons with Disabilities within the Directorate General for Justice, spoke about the Commission's plans for the European Accessibility Act and the influence that the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has had already in policy discussions.  After the European perspective on accessibility, the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) took the floor to provide an update on the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative. Following this Jean-Daniel Ayme, Vice President, European Telecom Operations at Samsung Electronics and Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet both demonstrated what mobile accessibility translates to in real life for users with a disability using either a Samsung or Apple device.

The list of accessibility features that are included in devices is certainly getting longer and longer. Relatively simple features such as the flash light, can give visual alerts for the deaf, while integrated sensors can tell the blind user if the light is switched on. Other features such as adaptive sound, where the user can test their own hearing with the mobile phone and adapt the sound accordingly opens new ways to customise the device for all users, including those with a hearing impairment. As one of the speakers reminded the audience - all of us can be temporarily disabled - whether by injury or an unfavourable environment - and in these moments we all benefit from the mainstreaming of such features. 

Mobile accessibility has certainly advanced quite rapidly in the last decade and work still continues. One can only imagine what the devices of tomorrow will offer.

Read here the press release by MEP Dr. Kósa: http://www.kosaadam.hu/news_display/smartphones_for_people_with_disabilities/

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mobile Service designed for the Blind

As accessibility gains in importance in the public debate and many governments have legislated on minimum requirements to grant access to services for persons with disabilities, one new operator in the United States has turned the tables, designing his service to cater specifically to the blind and vision impaired community. We talked to Robert N. Felgar, general manager of Odin Mobile to learn more about the motivation and the business case for a network operator focusing exclusively on blind and vision-impaired customers. 

What was your motivation to create an operator dedicated to the blind?

Robert:  For me a business has to satisfy two criteria: (a) it has to provide substantial public benefit, and (b) it has to be economically interesting.  It is hard to motivate oneself and others if a business does not have an important mission.  However, a business with an inspiring mission is not sustainable if it does not generate a reasonable profit. 

What sets you apart from traditional operators and their accessible services?

Robert: Our entire focus is the blind and visually impaired.  Serving this community is not an afterthought for us, it is our sole focus.  We are determined to sell the most accessible devices in the world and to improve the customer experience with one-on-one training sessions for certain devices, providing accessible user guides in welcome emails, provide usage alerts through text messages as well as IVR* messages and offer rate plans that are attractive to a lower income demographic.  We also donate a percentage of our revenue to organizations dedicated to the blind and visually impaired.  

Is there really a business case for accessibility?

Robert: There are approximately 6 million Americans who are significantly visually impaired.  This is a large market.  If Odin Mobile is able to attract a modest percentage of these consumers, it will be a sustainable business.  To do this we need to differentiate ourselves from the primary operators and offer blind and visually impaired consumers handsets and services that others do not. 

What is your biggest challenge? 

Robert: The biggest challenge is reaching blind and visually impaired consumers.  Traditional marketing is not possible.  As a result, Odin Mobile needs to market through associations with substantial numbers of blind members.  In addition, we will market through organizations and governmental entities that provide rehabilitation services to the blind.  This type of marketing requires substantial relationship building and takes time, effort and patience. 

How is the feedback so far? 

Robert: Feedback so far has been encouraging.  Consumers have commended us on our efforts and organizations have been supportive and eager to form marketing partnerships with Odin Mobile.  I anticipate forming partnerships with the major associations and organizations dedicated to the blind in the United States.  As long as Odin Mobile offers real value, there will be support.  The key is to identify that value. 

What are your next steps/projects?

Robert: We have many plans.  Soon we will be selling the Nexus 4 with our unique instructional package and the widget developed by IDEAL Group. This widget highlights on the home screen eight applications that may be particularly useful to people who are blind or visually impaired.  With Talkback, the Android tool for eyes-free use, the user can explore the widget by touch.  As the user moves his or her finger over an application, Nexus 4 announces the application’s name, describes its purpose and guides the user to the Google Play™ Store app if he/she wants to install it. 

Next, we will be selling a basic mobile phone manufactured by gold GMT, a Swiss company.  In the meantime, a number of states, including California, have programs to subsidize telecommunications equipment for the disabled.  We are working on participating in that and other state programs.  This is important because many people who are blind are also low income.  As a result, affordability is an important component of any service. 

If you would like to know more about Odin Mobile's offer and service, please have a look at the website: http://odinmobile.com

*Interactive Voice Response

Sunday, November 17, 2013

It is not as much about hearing as it is about communicating

A common misconception is that getting a hearing aid enables people to simply hear again. As the wearing of hearing aids is still considered by many users a stigma, it has been reported that people are getting hearing aids on average a decade later than they actually need them*. This means that their hearing has already degraded and they need to learn how to make sense of the information that they get from their hearing aid. When getting the hearing aid, they need to work with the hearing aid technician to manage their remaining physical capacity of hearing (individual audiogram), their subjective hearing capabilities, their hearing environment and finally their personal objectives (whether they want/need to function in a private or professional environment, whether they need to talk on the phone a lot etc.). 

Many people are still disappointed, because getting a hearing aid does not guarantee a return to 'normal' hearing as they once enjoyed. It gets even worse when they pick up the phone and notice that it does not work well together with their hearing aid. "We have all the technical elements needed for successful integration of hard of hearing people in the working place and of course for giving them the capabilities to communicate on the phone", said one of the participants in the recent HÖRKOMM workshop in Berlin. "But the issue is that people are not informed enough about what is technically feasible today, they do not know who to ask, and then of course there is also the problem of financing it."    

How do phones work with hearing aids? And what is the M- and T-rating? 

In general, hearing aids use their microphone to pick up sound waves in the air and convert the sound waves to electrical signals. The signals are amplified as needed and converted back to audible sounds for the user to hear. The quality of this acoustic coupling is qualified for phones by their M-rating (M=microphone). The hearing aid's microphone, however, does not always work well in conjunction with telephone handsets. The acoustic connection between hearing aid and handset can be distorted and surrounding noise can interfere.

One of the most common technologies of avoiding these problems and making phones work with hearing aids is inductive coupling by using a telecoil. The telecoil in the hearing aid converts the magnetic fields generated by telephones into sound and allows the volume control of a hearing aid to be turned up without creating feedback or "whistling" on the phone. The higher the T-rating of the phone, the better they work with hearing aids in the telecoil setting. For the hearing aid user it is important to verify that the telecoil in the hearing aid is activated and that the device is set to telecoil mode. Telecoils are also used to interface with other assistive devices and an additional benefit is that they can easily be made available in public spaces. Places such as railway stations, service kiosks, churches and many tourist attractions have installed induction loop systems that in conjunction with the telecoils, magnetically transmit sound to hearing aids and cochlear implants. 

Mobile phones with M3/T3 rating comply with the US standard for hearing aid compatibility and the best currently available reach M4/T4 ratings. However, the subjective hearing of the user as well as his/her hearing environment play a major factor and some users may feel that they can better communicate with a phone that has a lower M/T rating. The only way to tell which mobile phone will work best for a person with hearing aid is to test the devices together in different settings.**

A newer technology for transmitting the audio signal directly into the hearing aid is bluetooth. There are two issues with this technology: it necessitates the pairing of devices and bluetooth is more power intensive (as compared to hearing aids) than the hearing aid which shortens battery life. The advantage is that bluetooth is an industry standard. Some of the hearing aid makers are also experimenting with near field communications (NFC) which would have the potential to become a standard for the interface between hearing aids and other audio devices, including the mobile phone.  

Elaborating guidelines for the successful integration of the hard of hearing in the work place

HÖRKOMM is a project financed by the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs with the objective of developing guidelines for the successful integration of hard of hearing employees at the workplace. In the framework of this project, a workshop took place on 4 November 2013 in Berlin, Germany bringing together representatives from the hard of hearing community, hearing aid and mobile phone makers, federal inclusion bureaus, and hearing aid technicians, to discuss how to make telecommunications more accessible for the hard of hearing. The conclusion was that we have the necessary technological means but that there is an overwhelming lack of information among users and hearing aid technicians. A further barrier is of course the financing of the technical solutions. 

* All participants at the HÖRKOMM workshop on 4 November 2013 in Berlin, including hearing aid technicians, hearing aid manufacturers as well as several representatives of associations for the hard of hearing in Germany, seemed to agree on this statement. 

** Information on M- and T-ratings is available only the GARI database only for models marketed in the US.