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Assessing Technology Policy to Assist People with Disabilities

Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D.
GCATT/Georgia Institute of Technology
E-mail: paul.baker@gcatt.gatech.edu

Helena Mitchell, Ph.D.
GCATT/Georgia Institute of Technology
E-mail: helena.mitchell@gcatt.gatech.edu

Draft Version: please do not quote without permission

Presented at 2003 Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference
Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge (CSUN)
Northridge, CA


While wireless communication and other information linked technologies have rapidly achieved widespread levels of adoption, a significant array of stakeholder groups have been effectively excluded, not by as much by active intent as by inadvertent oversight and lack of awareness. Many of these technologies routinely used by the general population are frequently inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Barriers to the use of these technologies by people with varying disabilities may be subtle and unintentional, but never the less very real. This paper presents preliminary results of policy research designed to develop a framework for assessing the status quo, developing inclusive policy initiatives, and evaluating the efficacy of the research approach.


Mobile wireless technologies are rapidly emerging as an important new medium to send and receive data, text, voice and video. New wireless technologies will permit cell phones, and portable or wearable computers to function as universal remote consoles for accessing information and services and controlling appliances and devices. In short, wireless devices are likely to become an integral part of daily life, and without access to these technologies, people with disabilities may find themselves increasingly excluded from many activities. Given the key role of the public sector in directly shaping, and indirectly influencing the deployment of and access to communication and information technologies, research focused on assessment and development of policy frameworks needs to be undertaken with respect to the regulatory and legal environment.

The goal of this four phase research project (1) is to develop a framework and a process for evaluating, developing and initiating policies, rules and regulations that support increased access to wireless communication and other information technologies by people with disabilities. Objectives include 1) reviewing federal and state regulations and policies; 2) monitoring and analysis of policy and practices; and 3) developing policy options and recommendations that could increase access to these technologies for people with disabilities. The research includes interviews with key stakeholders, analysis of relevant project materials and related policy/regulatory documents, and participation in relevant state and national meetings. The results of the policy research thrust may be essential to establish a body of credible evidence for influencing policy decisions at the state and Federal levels.


The first phase, reported on in this paper, involved the collection and analysis of existing, proposed, and developing wireless communication and information technologies, policies and practices as they impact on persons with disabilities. Some of the contextual variables influencing these policies include: location/geography (urban, suburban, inner city, rural & other variations); age; diagnosis; type of disability-related services needed and type of disability-related services available. Key and expert informants on technological application of universal design, disability policy, services, and advocacy were selected primarily for their expertise and experience in the implementation and diffusion of technology. Input from allied RERC personnel, especially as it relates to the technical, legal, safety and efficacy issues that influence policy, process and regulatory change, is included in the emergent policy framework.


The Disability Community

A recent report released by the National Organization of Disabilities (NOD) affirms that the state of the union is not the same for Americans with disabilities. As a community, persons with disabilities remain "pervasively disadvantaged." (NOD, 2002) The NOD examines several aspects of disabled life in the United States. While 63 percent of people with disabilities say that life has improved in the past decade, many individuals are still in need of support and assistance. Could information, communication, and wireless technologies be the key to helping persons with disabilities overcome the unique and diverse challenges they face? Only 25 percent of persons with disabilities own a computer compared to 66 percent for non-disabled adults. In addition, only 20 percent of people with disabilities have access to the Internet, compared to over 40 percent of U.S. adults who are classified as non-disabled (Executive Office of the President, 2001). To some degree the socio-economic variables described above may help explain why persons with disabilities disproportionately lack access to information and technology tools.

Legislative/Regulatory Policies

Creating an environment that is inclusive of persons with disabilities has been a slow and meticulous process. Over the years, the Federal government has enacted numerous policies affecting people with disabilities. (2) These laws can be grouped into four categories: Civil Rights Statutes, Entitlement Programs, Discretionary Programs, and Miscellaneous Provisions.

Current Access Related Initiatives

As focal areas for improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, education, employment and community integration represent significant areas of recent policy activity. Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As part of the reauthorization process, groups and committees are studying the current law and the manner in which it is being implemented. The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (PCESE) has been holding hearings across the country since January 2002. PCESE is collecting information to study issues related to federal, state and local special education programs. The commission's ultimate goal is to recommend policies to improve the educational performance of students with disabilities so that no child will be left behind.

With respect to technologies, several key legislative initiatives impacting wireless and other communication technologies include: Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 504 establishes the rights of individuals to an accommodation whereas Section 508 requires Federal entities to procure accessible Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT). More recently, Section 255 requires telecommunication manufacturers and service provider to provide accessible products and services. Section 508 is driven by federal procurement standards required by law, and carries the right of private action. Section 255 is driven by individual consumers and enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Section 508, stipulates that any individual with a disability may file an administrative complaint or law suit, alleging that a federal department or agency failed to comply with Section 508 by procuring noncompliant E&IT. By statute, Section 508 only applies to issues relating to electronic and information technology procured or implemented after June 21, 2001.


Disability Policy Issues

Six issues were identified that are currently of concern to both the field of disability policy as well as wireless telecommunication and information technology deployment. These include:

These issues were identified through research of non-profit agencies, government resources, and policy journals. Additional critical issues pertinent to the disability community exist, but did not meet the cross-disability criteria.

Telecommunications/Wireless Policy Issues

An additional six current issues were identified that are mutually associated through the interrelation between new wireless and telecommunications technologies and the capability for disabled persons to lead a more connected and accessible lifestyle. These include:

These issues, as were those in the preceding section, were derived through research involving industry, non-profit and government sources for information pertaining to current initiatives and emerging trends in areas that fall within the scope of the Wireless RERC. Each constitutes a significant issue that currently exists at the intersection of wireless and telecommunications technologies and access/usability on behalf of those users who are disabled.

Overall Barriers to Access/Use

The twelve policy issues examined in the preceding two sections represent significant focal areas from both a disability and wireless telecommunications perspective that impact access to technology. In analyzing the intersection of disability policy and wireless technologies three underlying barriers to access/use appear to be inherently relevant to this nascent environment of disability and technology collaboration. Economic barriers, awareness and proficiency factors, and incompatible technologies form the common barriers at the intersection of disabilities and access/use of wireless technologies.


An initial baseline policy assessment was undertaken of the barriers to and opportunities for deployment of various communication and information technologies, specifically with respect to people with disabilities. The assessment was based on industry sources, literature reviews and monitoring of regulatory and legislative activities. Twelve policy issues (Access to Information, Community Living, Employment Opportunities, Expertise & Awareness, Health Care Coverage, Disability Policy Arena, Spectrum Allocation, Location Technology, Digital Divide, Device Incompatibility, Consumer Utility, and Inter-Carrier Text Messaging / Universal Design) were identified as representing significant focal areas from both a disability and wireless telecommunications perspective that impact access to technology. In analyzing the intersection of disability policy and wireless technologies three underlying barriers to access/use appear to be inherently relevant to this nascent environment of disability and technology collaboration. Economic barriers, awareness and proficiency factors, and incompatible technologies form the common barriers at the intersection of disabilities and access/use of wireless technologies

Research to determine other potential benefits for both the disabled and non-disabled communities alike must be sustained to foster the idea that universal design and assistive technologies are more than specific products with a narrow market and financial burden for manufacturers. Previously, research concerning assistive and universal design based technologies focused on the costs associated with implementing and providing the services - provisions often mandated through legislative or regulatory policies.

Telecommunications technologies have provided our society with the means to lead a more independent, knowledgeable and convenient lifestyle. Information is often readily available regardless of location or time. For the portion of our population who suffer from some degree of disability, assistive telecommunications technologies are often more a necessity than a convenience. Such devices potentially offer better standards of living for persons with physical or cognitive disabilities. Assistive technologies are now benefiting from the resources and attention associated with technology that is useful by a much larger portion of the population than previously imagined. Unless research and support for the expanded role of assistive and universal design based telecommunications technologies continues to progress, the vital resources necessary to expand the usability and access of these approaches will start diminishing.


(1) The research reported here is being conducted as part of an initiative of The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (hereafter referred to as the Wireless RERC) sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education under grant number H133E010804. The organizational structure for the Wireless RERC is built upon research, development, and training focused activities guided and evaluated by constituent advisory groups made up of consumers, rehabilitation professionals, and wireless industry representatives.

(2) A listing of major disability-related legislation from 1956-2000 complied by Robert Silverstein, Director of the Center for the Study and Advancement of Disability Policy, is contained in Appendix A of the GCATT Policy Assessment (2002).


Association of Tech Act Projects. (2000) Policy Recommendations to Improve Access to Assistive Technology. Accessed April 2002. [http://www.ataporg.org/policy_recommendations.htm]

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. Principles of Universal Design. Accessed April 2002. [http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/univ_design/ud.htm]

Georgia Centers for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT)(2000). DigitalGeorgia: A White Paper on Information and Communications Technology in Georgia. Office of Policy and Programs, GCATT. Prepared for the Office of the Governor, Atlanta, Georgia.

_____(2002). Policy and Regulatory Assessment: Factors influencing Adoption of Wireless Technologies: Key Issues, Barriers and Opportunities for People with Disabilities. Office of Policy and Programs, GCATT, Atlanta, Georgia. [http://www.wirelessrerc.gatech.edu/news/policyassessment.html]

Lane, Charles. (2002) "O'Connor Criticizes Disabilities Law as Too Vague." The Washington Post. March 15; Page A02.

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National Organization on Disability. (2002) The State of the Union 2002 for Americans with Disabilities. Accessed April 2002. [http://www.nod.org/cont/dsp_cont_item_view.cfm?viewType=itemView&contentId=751&fromLocHmePg=T&fromLocationId=2&timeStamp=25-Jan-0202:17:24]

Perera, Rick. (2001) Update: Researchers Developing 3G Phone for Deaf People. IDG.net. Accessed April 2002. [http://www.idg.net/idgns/2001/05/09/UPDATE3GResearchersDeveloping.shtml]

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Sheets, Debra J., Phoebe S. Liebig, and Margaret L. Campbell. (2002) "State Rehabilitation Agencies, Aging with Disability, and Technology: Policy Issues and Implications." Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4: 243-252.

Silverstein, Robert. (2000) "Emerging Disability Policy Framework: A Guidepost for Analyzing Public Policy." 85 Iowa Law Review. 1691.

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U.S. Department of Commerce. (2002) A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. Economics and Statistics Administration, National Telecommunications and Information Administration. [http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/anationonline2.pdf].

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