Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mobile World Congress: accessibility enters the stage

Two categories in the Mobile Awards, one mobile accessibility session on the main conference programme and a TV panel discussion on Mobile World TV - accessibility did get some room and attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

“Mobile Accessibility: The Business Angle for Improving the Quality of Life”

Chris Lewis kicked of the session on mobile accessibility with some impressive statistics: 1 in 7 people on earth are disabled. This is a huge number and while it gets lost in fragmentation, mobile technology now has become the unifying factor that can bring the market of 1 billion people with accessibility needs to the forefront. He was followed by three global technology providers - IBM, Google, Microsoft - explaining the importance and status they accord to accessibility and how they ensure internally that the engineers working on their products understand the needs of persons with disabilities.

Google gave a concrete example by demonstrating how TalkBack makes Android phones accessible for blind and visually impaired people, while Microsoft engaged the public by asking: “When you can neither hear nor talk, who are you?”. Answers ranked from “I’m under water.” to “I’m at a noisy airport.” and demonstrated in a beautiful way how disabling environments can be. IBM started from the core assumption that “accessibility is a business opportunity which is about understanding situational ability”. What people rarely realise is that IBM creates a lot of technology for in-house consumption and has for example years before it became mainstream created an in-house captioning service for deaf employees. IBM hired their first blind employee in 1914 by the way.

The presentations by the technology companies were nicely rounded up by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) presenting with GARI a source of information on available mobile accessibility solutions, and a presentation by Henry Evans who via a remote controlled robot and with a wonderful sense of humour demonstrated how smart technology is helping him to overcome the physical limits of his body.

Accessibility going mainstream

Strolling through 8 halls of showroom at the Congress displaying the newest smartphones and tablets, one thing becomes clear: accessibility has become an integral part of mainstream devices. Sure, the newcomers among device manufacturers may not have put much emphasis yet on making their devices accessible, but a look through the accessibility features on the devices of the more experienced brands shows that for some accessibility is now part of the personalisation menu - allowing the user to adapt the device to their individual liking.

Some of the features that picked our interest this year were:

  • interaction mode (allowing to activate/de-activate parts of the screen and make it possible to handle even large-screen devices one-handedly)
  • subtitels & captioning (allowing to display captioned video content)
  • shade mode (allowing to save battery life when the device is in voice control or screenreader mode)
  • glove mode (self-explanatory :-)
  • export/import of accessibility settings (allowing to share the acc. setting between devices)

However, as Chris Lewis stressed in his introduction to the accessibility session: "As we get digitally enabled, we need to educate people on how to use these technologies - especially older citizens…”. It would indeed be a pity if the people that can benefit most from these features do not know about them or how to use them.

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