Monday, July 28, 2014

Bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities

An incredible number of apps is being created and published ever day, many of which claim to provide better accessibility for persons with disabilities. Be it by providing a colour or currency identifying function, sign language support, or communication for tools with persons with autism etc. However, in the absence of an international accepted quality control for accessibility related apps, it is very difficult to assess whether an app will hold its promises before downloading it, which sometimes can be quite costly. 

The platform BridgingApps is trying to fill this gap. BridgingApps is an online community of parents, therapists, doctors and teachers who share information on how they are using mobile phones and tablets with people with disabilities, publishing a newsletter with information on accessibility related apps that they have tested. Cristen Reat, co-founder of BridgingApps, told us a little bit about their motivation and background as well as how they carry out their assessment of apps. 

Can you shortly explain the mission of BridgingApps and where the motivation for its foundation came from? 

Cristen: BridgingApps’ mission is to bridge the gap between technology and people with disabilities. Recently developed mobile technology, if properly used, has the ability to empower people of all ages with disabilities to reach their fullest potential. These touch-based, low-cost, commercially available tools can augment or, in some limited cases, replace traditional therapies, expensive equipment, and/or curricula, leading to better physical, educational, and social outcomes for people of all ages.

BridgingApps began as a support group of parents of young children with special needs and therapists who were exploring how these devices paired with apps could help build skills and address developmental goals. We immediately saw the power of the technology for engaging, motivating, and allowing our children to independently control an educational tool in astonishing ways. We joined Easter Seals Houston to help extend the reach of our work.

How do you select and evaluate the apps that you are appraising every month? 

Cristen: Anyone can submit an app to be reviewed on our website. We value our community of parents, therapists, doctors, teachers, people with disabilities, assistive technology professionals, and developers and have received suggestions from all of these groups.

What sets our app reviews apart from other review sites is although anyone can rate and comment on apps housed on our site, only professionals can write an app review. Our reviewers are speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers and assistive technology (AT) professionals. We use standards-based measures to assess an app, and one of the requirements is that they must trial the app with at least one person who has a disability before they write a review. A BridgingApps app review has such valuable information that we consider them to be mini-trainings. We view our site to be a shortcut for finding apps for specific needs.

If you could address the whole app developer community at once, what would be your key message to them? 

Cristen: Our message would be to please keep in mind Universal Design principles and user customization when developing products. Good design with considerations (to the greatest extent possible) for everyone regardless of age, ability or status in life means that all users benefit!

What advice would you give to a person searching for mobile accessibility solutions? 

Cristen: Always consider what goals you have in mind when looking for a particular solution. We find that many people unintentionally make purchasing mistakes because they don’t fully consider which specific goals they are trying to achieve. Instead of buying a device and/or software first, then looking to see what it can do for you, make a list of goals that you have or tasks you need to do and then match those with the features of a device and apps. For example, many parents of children who are non-verbal have purchased an e-reader thinking they could load a sophisticated communication app on it, but have been disappointed to find out that particular app is not available for that platform. 

What is your vision for the future for BridgingApps? 

Cristen: We hope to grow our community of shared knowledge to become a recognized center of excellence in mobile device technology for people with special needs. Our long term goal is to become the premier website where people of all ages with disabilities and those who support them come to find mobile technology solutions that includes training, best practices and original research to enhance lives.


You can sign up for BridgingApps’ newsletter here: http://bridgingapps.org/wp-login.php?action=register 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Accessibility solutions: Lack of information to consumers remains barrier

The 3rd M-Enabling Summit, which took place 9-10 June 2014 in Washington, gathered over 500 stakeholders in mobile accessibility and was the forum for many interesting discussions. Participants that had also been at the 1st and 2nd Summits, noted that the centre of discussions has shifted from explaining what accessibility is and why we need it, to concrete exchanges on how to achieve it. Indeed, this 3rd Summit seemed marked by the acceptance amongst regulators, industry and consumers that accessibility is happening.

Nonetheless, a constant theme throughout was that people still do not receive the necessary information on existing accessible and assistive solutions. According to Mike Shebanek, Yahoo, “one of the most challenging aspects is that users are still not aware of the existing accessibility features”. And Kevin Carey, RNIB, pointed out that the most important development in the next few years will be to improve consumer support in selecting the right product for a person’s individual situation.

Closing the gab for the ageing population 

One major focus was on how to close the gap for senior citizens, how to get them to open up to the possibilities provided by new technologies. The focus in this endeavour should not be on the technology as such but on what the seniors want to do and helping them to do just that. The technology has to adopt to the person and their environment, not the other way around. One good motivation for older people to use mobile technologies for example is communication with their family and friends. However, it does not suffice to just provide the technology, it is very important to also provide eduction and guidance on how to use and personalise the available solutions, especially as we are often not looking at single device solutions anymore (i.e just a mobile phone or a tablet by itself) but about connected devices that fit into a bigger technological ecosystem within the home.

Another important observation was that if companies do not catch up with accessibility they could lose market share with the ageing population. To give an impression of the market potential of this ageing population: in the US alone, over 9,000 people turn 65 everyday (1). Also, “once older users feel comfortable with the technology they take off with it”, says Matthew Gerst, CTIA. Today, 40% of households in the US have cut the cord and are relying on wireless only. Interestingly, the adoption rate of tablets amongst the 65+ range has been much higher than that of smartphones, although in general the 50-and-older population is the fastest growing market segment in mobile technology, according to Microsoft.

However there remain challenges. Aaron Smith, Pew Research Center, summarised the barriers to adoption of mobile technologies for senior citizens as follows:

  • physical - difficult reading, chronic health issues etc.
  • tech literacy - 77% of seniors would need help learning to use new devices 
  • attitudinal - perceived relevance of having such a device is often a major barrier to use

Senior citizens are also in general more worried about safety and (data) security and they are afraid of breaking the device when using it wrongly. So again, emphasis must be on education and teaching them how to use these technologies.


(1) http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/654741.txt

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Apps For All Challenge 2014: Australia is looking for accessible apps

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Australian Human Rights Commission have launched Australia's first competition for accessible mobile apps. The Apps For All Challenge 2014 is looking for the 

  • most accessible mainstream app
  • most innovative app designed for people with disability or older Australians
  • most accessible children's app
  • most accessible gaming app

Wayne Hawkins, Disability Policy Advisor of ACCAN, has told us a bit about background and motivation of this initiative: 

ACCAN's aim in organising the app challenge is “to raise awareness of issues people with disabilities and aging Australians face with apps that are not accessible”. Do you already see progress in mobile accessibility or is this still a new topic for most developers? 

Wayne: Our experience is that many developers are unaware of how lack of accessibility can prevent many people from using mobile apps and technologies. There a  many apps being developed for the general market which can also provide greater participation for people with disability if they are designed with usability awareness. The hope with our challenge is that it will raise awareness among developers to think about how people with different abilities could use the app, to ask questions like "Could I use this if I couldn’t see the screen? How would this work if I couldn’t hear the instructions?". Accessibility guidelines already exist for web design, many of those guidelines are transferable to mobile apps and devices making it relatively easy for developers to incorporate accessibility.

Do you have an estimate on how many % of apps are accessible of all the apps out there? 

Wayne: No reliable data on how many apps are accessible. Anecdotally and from user feedback it seems the majority of mobile apps have accessibility issues which make them difficult to use for many people.

Apps can be submitted until 14 July 2014. How many submissions would you hope for? And what is the award for the lucky winner? 
Wayne: We have had a lot of keen interest in the Challenge and hope to receive a manageable number of nominations for our first year. Right now the winning apps will receive what we hope will become the sought out, prestigious ACCAN/Australian Human Rights Commission Award; acknowledging excellence and best-practice in accessibility and usability. We are hoping to get sponsorship over time in order to support aspiring developers. Of course cash prizes are always appealing but we are also very interested in sponsorship which can provide developer mentoring, product development and marketing possibilities.

Who is evaluating the apps and what are the most important criteria besides the fact that the apps need to be accessible? 
Wayne: We have had great support from accessibility groups and individuals. The judging panel is made up of 7 accessibility experts with a wide range of experience in telecommunications, web access and mobile technologies. The panel includes a number of highly skilled accessibility ‘evangelists’ who also have a disability. Obviously, our primary criteria for the apps is that they meet minimum levels of accessibility, in addition we are looking for apps which are innovative, fill a clear market need and provide value for many users.

What has been the most surprising accessibility feature in a mobile app that you have come across so far? 
Wayne: I can’t really point to one feature but I will say the originality of idea and the variety of applications is really positive and exciting.


Nominations for the Apps for All Challenge 2014 close on Monday 14 July 2014.

For contact details and more information on how to submit apps, have a look here: http://www.accan.org.au/our-work/app 




Monday, May 12, 2014

"Can you afford to let over 100,000 potential users of your mobile app go to a competitor?"

This catchy question posed by Appcessible caught our eye. Many app developers have heard these days about the need to make their apps accessible, but struggle on how to do it or how to check whether they did it successfully. For this reason, Jonathan Mosen founded Appcessible. Jonathan is a blind user himself and has set up the company to help raise awareness about the need for apps to be accessible as well as assist app developers in getting there. We have talked to Jonathan about his experiences so far. 

What was your motivation to create Appcessible.net?

Jonathan: I’ve been totally blind since birth, and just like most business professionals, I love being part of the mobile lifestyle. With Apple's innovative VoiceOver screen reader built into every iOS device, and Talkback for Android available on many Android devices, blind people can now make use of smartphones. Some of the things we do with smartphones are blindness-specific, but the vast majority of the things we use our smartphones for are just the same as everyone else. I set up Appcessible to help app developers tap into the growing market of blind people using smartphones by providing capable evaluators who can provide quality feedback on how accessible an app is, and make specific recommendations about how it can be made more accessible and thus more attractive to this growing market.
Making the mobile world a more accessible place is a win win situation. Blind people gain a wider range of apps from which to choose, and developers increase revenue through purchases from a market very keen to pay for apps that work well for them.

What do you consider the biggest challenges in mobile accessibility in general and in making apps accessible in particular?

Jonathan: Actually I think the biggest challenges are genuine lack of awareness, and then attitudinal barriers. A lot of people just don't realise that blind people are using smartphones in increasing numbers. I've spoken to many developers since Appcessible started, who've said, "I really had no idea blind people were using my app, it was a revelation". What's nice is that once they're made aware of it, many app developers get incredibly enthusiastic, and keep striving to make the experience better. This is in part influenced by the fact that the blind community is usually very big in developer interaction. If they like an app because it's accessible, they really spread the word and like to offer constructive feedback to developers.
In terms of attitudes, occasionally we get people who shrug and say, "oh blind people wouldn't want to use my app". Inaccurate assumptions are often made about the apps we as blind people will and won't want to use. Blind people work in a range of professions, they're parents, sports enthusiasts, news junkies, keen gamers etc. So there are few apps we wouldn't want to use were they made accessible.

What are the most common mistakes in mobile accessibility?

Jonathan: The biggest one is the failure to give buttons and other elements a clear textual label. On iOS and Android, the app development guidelines are very clear about how to do this simple task and it makes a huge difference.

Does it suffice to follow the general accessibility guidelines for iOS, Android and Windows or is there more to developing a truly accessible app?

Jonathan: That’s a very good start, yes. But I think only real-world blind end-users can give quality feedback on whether an app is too verbose, not verbose enough, or perhaps just saying things that are irrelevant. A sighted app developer, no matter how well-intentioned, doesn't use VoiceOver or Talkback on a daily basis like we blind end-users do. That's where Appcessible comes in. You can do all the technical things right, but that's no guarantee of a really pleasing user experience. The interface may be great, but the UX encompasses more than that.


If you would like to know more about Appcessible's activities have a look at their website at or listen to the Talking Apps Podcast

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:
http://developer.android.com/guide/topics/ui/accessibility/index.html.
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