Thursday, May 18, 2017

A history of mobile accessibility - how far have we come in 9 years?

The Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is a good opportunity each year to take stoke of how much progress we made in promoting and implementing accessibility. In April, the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF) published the GARI Annual Report 2016. This report does not only give statistics about use and content of the GARI database, but in this version also tells the story of GARI’s creation, evolution and outlook. And since GARI is the central if not only source of information on mobile accessibility worldwide, this summary of its development gives key insights into the evolution of mobile accessibility as such. 

In 2008, GARI started out as a simple spreadsheet listing accessibility features available in mainstream mobile phones. Since then, the database has grown to provide information on the accessibility of over 1,100 mobile phone models around the world, almost 100 tablet models, over 340 accessibility related apps, and since the end of 2016, over 100 Smart TV models. 

Some key facts: 
  • the GARI database currently provides accessibility information on
    • 110 features for mobile phones
    • 67 features for tablets
    • 57 features for Smart TVs
    • 52 features for Wearables
  • in 2016, the GARI website attracted on average over 16,300 unique visits and almost 330,000 page views per month 
  • in addition, several organisations use the GARI data via xml feed (available for 12 countries) 
  • the majority of visitors to the GARI online portal are coming from North America and Europe (28% and 35%) but the percentage of GARI users coming from Latin America has doubled in 2016 due to an increased focus in the region on mobile accessibility
  • 8 out of the 10 top searched for features in the GARI database relate to hearing and features to support hard-of-hearing users 

GARI’s strength lies in the participation of most of the major mobile phone manufacturers and the high number of devices the database provides accessibility information on. Its success is furthermore supported by the active use of the GARI database through national regulatory authorities, organisations of persons with disabilities, network providers and consumer organisations around the world. 

A further strong point is that GARI follows a bottom-up approach. Every 18-24 months, the MWF organises a feature review in which all accessibility stakeholders are invited to comment on the current list of features in the database, suggest new features and submit suggestions for improvement for the database. In fact, the 4th GARI feature review is under way and will officially be launched by the end of May. 

Lessons learned 

But what lesson do we learn from 9 years of promoting mobile accessibility? While over the years, a good number of accessibility features have become mainstream, information and education of consumers remain two of the biggest challenges to tackle. Still today, many users do not know about the features in their devices that can potentially help them overcome barriers in daily life and we still have older users, hard-of-hearing users, blind users who believe that there is no mobile device for them. 

So on this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we are happy to join the call for raising awareness about the importance and daily implementation of accessibility, and invite all of you to take out your mobile, check out its accessibility features, and more importantly inform your family and friends about these features whenever they would need a special function to help them use the device. 

More information about the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF): 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Discussing "accessibility & inclusion in business on the web & beyond”

… this is the mission of #AXSchat, a live Twitter chat uniting key influencers in the online accessibility discussion every Tuesday, 8pm UK time, on Twitter. The MWF/GARI was honoured to join the chat as official invitee, to explain about the GARI project, and to tackle the questions raised by the #AXSchat community: 

Q1 @neilmilliken predicts mobile will remain the most important tech for #inclusion in 2017 is this a fair assumption, if so why? #AXSChat

A1: More people than ever have a mobile phone which count among the most accessible product groups today. Furthermore, mobile phones become the hub to access services, other devices etc. This trend will even increase with the Internet of things. (Just heard somebody recently calling the smartphone the remote control to our life). All the more important therefore that mobile phones are accessible and that consumers are educated about the different accessibility features available in devices today. 

Q2 If you buy a car the features don’t change over time. This isn’t true with phones how do you keep on top of #a11y in updates? #AXSchat

A2: In the GARI database you find information on the availability of hardware and software accessibility features available in mobile phones, tablets, apps, Smart TVs and Wearables. Furthermore, we try to provide information on latest updates to the operating systems and peer review videos on GARI’s resource page. 

Q3 How can we make older & novices users aware of how to use the accessibility features in the phones that they already own #AXSchat

A3: Consumer education is crucial: we provide the information about the GARI database and accessible mobile phones for older users to senior organisations. But it is important to understand that seniors are not looking for accessible devices - they just want to have a device that helps them hear and see better (see blog post Senior adults aren’t seeking accessibility - they just need a device that helps them see and hear better,

Q4 How important are accessibility user reviews during the process of buying a new product? And where can people find them? #AXSChat

A4: GARI provides objective information on accessibility features available in mobile phones, tablets, Smart TVs and Wearables. In a second step, to help consumers choose among a number of accessible devices peer review is crucial and often provided by Organisations of Persons with Disabilities who review products for their members. 

Q5 Should new electronics products come with #Accessibility Information for commonly occurring disabilities on the packaging #AXSchat

A5: In most cases, consumers get the packaging only after having purchased the product. It is much more practical to have one central source of information where consumers know that they can find information on the accessibility features of devices. And that is exactly the mission of the GARI database: inform and empower consumers so choose a device that best suits their individual needs. 

Q6 As all the appliances that we use today become connected, what’s being done to guarantee interoperability & #accessibility #AXSchat #IOT

A6: That is a big challenge but our member companies try to ensure Interoperability via their active contribution to the development of international standards. 

The #AXSchat is a wonderful opportunity every week to tap into the knowledge of the accessibility experts community and we are looking forward to following and learning. 

Have a look at the video interview: 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Expanding GARI to Smart TV's and Wearable's: More Devices, More Information and More Choice

The 3rd of December - International Day of People with Disabilities - is a day to reflect on what we have achieved over the last year on mobile accessibility by raising awareness, spreading the word and empowering consumers to find devices adapted to their individual needs. This year we are also able to provide our colleagues and friends in the disability community a sneak peek at what we have been working on over the past few months:

New smart devices are being constantly launched, each with the ability to improve the way we live, work and engage with others. They offer different features and cater to the varying needs and degrees of capabilities among consumers. Since GARI has been so successful in providing information on the accessibility features of mobile phones, tablets and apps, we wanted to venture further and expand the GARI database to cover a range of new products.

So, on the International Day of People with Disabilities, it seems fitting to invite you to have the first look at two new sections on GARI – one for Smart TV’s and the other for wearable devices.

Together with our member companies and accessibility experts we worked on identifying the accessibility features of these devices, resulting in 57 features that participating companies will report against. Like mobile phones, there are many accessibility features in these devices but it can be hard for consumers to learn about which devices have which features. GARI is the perfect platform to address this need. It is the ‘go to’ information source on accessible devices and is used by stakeholders around the world.

Now that we have begun the process of adding devices to these sections  we hope to gradually grow both so that they will cover the majority of devices in the marketplace. We have managed to do this with GARI’s mobile phone section which today provides consumers with information on the accessibility features of more than 1,000 phones available in 16 languages.

So on this important international day, we invite you to look at the site, peruse the list of accessibility features and share with us what you think. The Smart TV and Wearables sections will be subject to regular feature reviews just like the Mobile Phone and Tablet sections have been in the past.  The feature list that we report against will therefore continue to grow and evolve.  We really welcome your feedback and indeed this will help us ensure that GARI can assist everyone find a device that best suits their particular needs.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Accessible Americas III & Mobile Applications for Accessibility

Smartphones have become the most popular way of accessing the internet and apps are the shortcuts to the services we want to consume online. But while the accessibility of mainstream mobile devices has progressed steadily over the past years, apps are still lagging behind. To help raise awareness about the importance of accessibility among app developers and to promote the development of dedicated accessibility apps, the Latin America Regional Office of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) organised with the support of Samsung Brazil the ITU’s Applications for Accessibility Award.

The award aims to promote the creation of innovative and creative solutions to benefit persons with disabilities, bringing more social inclusion and interaction, comfort and quality of life to their daily routine through mobile technologies. The award criteria center around the creativity of the solution, the technical quality and feasibility of the app as well as the user experience. The finalists and winners of the award are being presented at ITU’s Accessible Americas III event, taking place in Mexico City 28-30 November 2016.

The Accessible Americas III event focuses on the importance of actively promoting accessibility policies and invites policy makers, regulators, industry and the disability community to work together in developing a framework to improve the accessibility of ICT, mobile communications, television and video programming. In order to contribute to the development of policies and implementation strategies of ICTs accessibility in the Americas region, the ITU will furthermore offer participants a training program to improve and reinforce their knowledge on this subject.

Accessible Americas III follows the events Accessible Americas and Accessible Americas II, held in Brazil in 2014 and Colombia in 2015 which have helped to raise awareness among governments and assisted ITU Members in the process of elaborating and implementing national ICT policies in regards to accessibility with a view of fulfilling their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).

The winners of ITU’s Applications for Accessibility Award will be invited to list their apps for accessibility in the GARI database.

Read about Accessible Americas II: LATAM: Promoviendo la accesibilidad móvil, una app por vez

Monday, September 26, 2016

Accessible story telling

Pictures and images are important. What we cannot imagine in our mind, we do not think is possible. When we see the upper body of a young guy on a picture, ball in his hand and in the movement of shooting the ball into the basket, we would never assume that he is sitting in a wheelchair. That is only one of many examples that Jo Spelbrink tells us about at the Accessibility Day in Vienna, Austria.

His second example: the old versus the new symbol for disability. The old symbol showed a person sitting passively in a wheelchair, waiting to be pushed by somebody. The new symbol shows a person leaning forward, pushing the wheels themselves and heading off dynamically to wherever they want to go. The two pictures convey very different conceptions of disability, but if we see them every day they influence how we ourselves see and interpret disability.

As Jo continues on with examples of where we are missing accessible story telling, he comes to speak of marketing and that consumers with disabilities are often lacking information. Our first assumption was that they are lacking information on the accessibility features of products and services - of course, that is what projects like the GARI database are trying to remedy. But actually no, that is not what Jo meant. His point was that the marketing itself was not accessible and that a deaf consumer like himself cannot know what commercials on TV are about if there are only plenty of nice pictures but no text. Consumers with disabilities do not only have to know about the accessibility features of products - they need to know about all the basic features and functions and properties as well just as any other consumer. Many of today’s brands and companies have not yet realised this need and potential.

Companies would also benefit from rethinking their definition of target groups. Jo is deaf himself, but he has many hearing friends and business partners. In situations where he communicates with hearing people, he needs solutions that work for both deaf and hearing users. The target group for a product or service in this case is a group of mixed deaf and hearing people, not just a group of deaf persons and a group of hearing persons.

A refreshing talk in Austrian Sign Language that made us aware of some of our own unconscious biases.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Accessibility of white and brown goods at the IFA 2016

The IFA taking place every year in Berlin is one of the biggest consumer electronics fairs. Hall after hall, manufacturers present the latest solutions for smart homes, smart household electronics, smart washing machines, smart TVs…. everything smart. While “smart” is supposed to make things easier for the consumer, it might inadvertently make devices inaccessible - especially for blind and low-vision users. For this reason, the German blind association DBSV organised a side-event dedicated to “Usability and accessibility of household and consumer electronics”, which was well attended with almost 100 participants.

The heads of design and accessibility at white goods manufacturers Miele and BSH explained how these big companies are tackling accessibility, how it is integrated in the design process, how they get feedback from the disability community and what is expected from the user to make it work. An important aspect for intuitive design to have the opportunity to work, is that consumers need to be willing to experience and test new approaches. If they insist on having what they know and always had, new and better features have a hard time getting implemented. Both companies agree on two points: cross disciplinary solutions are key to achieving human centred solutions, and “adding on” accessibility at the end is always the least ideal solution.

To complete the picture, Oliver Nadig from the German blind association DBSV, and Dr. Heidrun Mollekopf from the umbrella organisations of German senior citizen associations, talked about experience and requirements from the perspective of users with disabilities or senior users. Mr. Nadig gave through some concrete examples of how touchscreen interfaces and smart devices can make the use of these devices difficult, even impossible for persons with disabilities. Be it that the menus have no clear starting point and ending point and run through in a circle, giving blind users no indication where in the menu they are. Be it that there is no indication of activated functions or having functions activated at the first touch, meaning a person exploring via touch inadvertently activates these functions right away. They emphasised that from their perspective, smart accessibility means that devices adapt to the individual needs of users and remembers the necessary settings.

The panel discussion concluding the event, came to three practical conclusions: 1) we need sensibilisation and awareness among policy makers and consumers - regulation is not forcibly the right solution, but can lead the way in the right direction; 2) we are lacking the necessary information about existing accessibility solutions - especially among consumers as well as among sales personal and carers; 3) we need norms and standards for accessibility to allow coherent implementation.

So while the awareness of accessibility - its importance and implementation - has not made its way on the general show floor of the IFA yet, the well attended side event clearly showed that the need is there, and that accessibility is gaining in traction.

Link to the event programme:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The future of accessibility - through the lens of technology, policy and economics

Public Procurement Directive, Web Accessibility Directive, European Accessibility Act… in the context of these regulations coming into force, under revision or being discussed, Microsoft’s event on “The future of accessibility - through the lens of technology, policy and economics” brought together in a timely manner an interesting group of stakeholders.

Keynote speaker Mark Pollock set the stage. He told his personal story from loosing his sight at 22 to loosing the ability to walk years later. Mark found comfort in technology that helped him overcome certain barriers and gave him back a semblance of normalcy - at least in certain situations. Following speakers in the panel agreed with Mark that one of the biggest advantages of accessible or assistive technologies is to “feel slightly normal again” and that technologies such as Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape can help filling gaps “which I did not know I have”. Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape is a technology that helps blind users to more independently, liberating movement, and facilitating “normal” street experience. Kirstie from Guide Dogs UK shared her experience with this technology and how it helped her gain back some independence and freedom. 

While technology can liberate, legal and policy aspects play into ensuring these technologies are available to all users that need them. The European Commission explained their motivation for proposing a European Accessibility Act, underlining that the market development in ICT over the past 20 years has failed to create a truly harmonised and interoperable offer in accessible and assistive devices. And Prof. Anne Lawson from the University of Leeds expanded on the role of legislation and policies moving accessibility forward. Equality laws have been successful in some countries to push the accessibility agenda, but she sees the greatest potential in governments using their research and innovation agendas to push for accessibility. 

Robin Spinks from RNIB put the question out there: why is existing legislation not enforced? If you race down the highway, you get a ticket right away, but if you infringe on accessibility obligations, there are no consequences. One possible answer: the governments do not have their own house in order (meaning they are not very good in applying accessibility rules themselves, starting with making their websites and apps accessible….), so they are reluctant to police accessibility implementation in general. 

Geoff Adams-Spink, former BBC Age & Disability Correspondent, and moderator of the panel discussions, challenged the innovators panel to speculate on what the future will hold for accessibility. The panel members came from a background of touch based and eye controlled computers solutions for special education (Tobii), dyslexia screening (Optolexia), ICT consulting (Softjam) and the Internet of Things (Univera Sade). As varied as their background were their answers: speculations ranged from wearables to cloud computing, passing by sensors and the Internet of Things. 

While the innovators panel was convinced that the time has come for accessibility to go mainstream - with or without regulation - some pointed out that there still is the misconception that accessibility is only to be done for compliance reasons, that there is no room for creativity. But in reality, many of the features initially developed to help persons with disabilities, have become popular features for everyone: voice recognition, image recognition, zoom, predictive text… the list goes on. Also, people with disabilities often have a novel way of working around obstacles and to harvest this intelligence and translate it into new products, people with disabilities must be included in product conception and design from the very beginning. Treating accessibility as on add-on is expensive and counterproductive. 

Before concluding the event, Geoff Adams-Spink challenged his last round of panelists with the question of how to best pitch accessibility to policy makers. Shaheen Parks, analyst at Forrester, answered that beyond the profit and tapping into the market power of the disabled community, accessible solutions are proven to help in productivity and optimisation. Dr. Cara Antoine from Shell would say that accessibility is simply the right thing to do - out of respect for the people. Robin Spinks from RNIB, would take several disabled friends along and invite the policy maker to use Robin’s computer to book him a flight - with screen magnification on and no way to switch it off. Then he would invite him together with his friends to a bar and to ponder about life. Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet would ask the policy maker to use his phone out in the bright sunlight and see how well he’d be able to handle that. 

Some good ideas we can all try out next time we come to explain to policy makers why accessibility counts.