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:

*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. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What is the mobile accessibility feature you are missing today?

Mobile accessibility is an evolving concept that continuously changes with technological advancements of new models of mobile phones and tablets coming to the market. For this reason, the MMF is carrying out its second stakeholder review of the accessibility features listed on GARI. The review process has been started this week, and we invite you to give us your feedback on the relevance of currently listed features and which new features you would suggest we include. 

When looking at the features listed in GARI, it has to be kept in mind that GARI serves also as reporting tool for manufacturers in countries where accessibility regulations are in place. Some features such as the capability of receiving/sending SMS might seem unnecessary to mention but for the sake of satisfying regulations, it is still listed as an explicit accessibility feature on GARI. 

Also important to consider is the global character of GARI. When suggesting new features, ask yourself whether they are relevant only in your country or across borders as well.

The current list of 110 features is easily accessible via Under advanced search, you find all the features listed for mobile phones and tablets:

Some of the features that we are already considering are:
  • HD Audio: Device offers high-quality audio sound
  • Head and/or Eyes Recognition: Can the user give commands via head and/or eye movements? 
  • Copy and Paste: Does the device support a copy and paste functionality?
  • Assistive Touch: Is there assistive touch capability on the device, such as tap on screen controls requiring only one finger, for tasks that would typically require more complicated handling? 
  • Response to Prosthetic Device, Pointing Device or Stylus: Do buttons and screen respond to a prosthetic device, pointing device or stylus? A prosthetic device is an artificial device that serves as a replacement for a body part.
  • Braille Display: Does the device support a braille display?
  • Screen View Enlargement: Does the screen enlarger work with all the views, including the web?

Deadline for comments is 29 November 2013. 

Please do consider that the more concrete you are in your suggestions the more likely it is that we can integrate your input. A perfect way to provide your suggestions would be to specify: 
  • The Proposed Feature
  • A Proposed Description of the Feature
  • The Type of Response Required (Yes/No or other response)
  • Any Technical Note or Reference
Examples and use cases are very welcome!

More details on background and objective of the GARI feature review as well on how to submit your comments can be found here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

GARI participating in the workshop "Integrating Apps so that they apply to you and me", 12 November, Birmingham

Smartphone apps are primed to open new dimensions of accessibility and of helping people to customise mainstream devices to their needs - at relatively little cost and time effort. But concrete information on user numbers and user patterns are amiss. According to a recent survey only 28% of European and only 17% of North American mobile phone users would be actively using apps. A market research report published two weeks ago on the other hand, talks about 95 million adults in the US alone that are using their mobile phone to gather health information or use health tools on the phone. However, neither in the survey nor the market research report can there be found any indication about how many of the users are older or effected by any kind of disability.

For this reason, the workshop "Integrating Apps so that they apply to you and me" that is taking place at the 2013 International Telecare and Telehealth Conference (11-13 November, Birmingham, UK) invites participants to reflect on how to make the access to apps easier for senior citizens and disabled users, how to remove barriers and how to ensure basic accessibility of these apps. 

We will be part of the panelists and discuss with the participants of the workshop how GARI can be used to provide broad information on and access to accessibility apps.

If you would like to participate in the workshop or have ideas that you would like to share, let us know!

Here is the link to the workshop registration.