2006 Conference General Sessions



Paul Baker

Wireless RERC/Georgia Institute of Technology

250 14th St. NW

Atlanta GA 30318
Day Phone: 404-385-4618

Email: paul.baker@cacp.gatech.edu SEP29 2005


Nathan Moon

Wireless RERC/Georgia Institute of Technology

250 14th St. NW

Atlanta GA 30318


The ongoing innovation and development of wireless technologies has made a wide array of devices and services increasingly available in the United States; however, significant policy, economic and technological barriers to access of those technologies still exist for many people with disabilities (Baker and Bellordre, 2003). More than 49.7 million people, constituting about 20 percent of the population, have some kind of long term or conditional disability, suggesting that barriers to the adoption of wireless technologies affect a significant constituency (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). To some extent, equal access to technology—related services and devices, and wireless accessibility issues can be addressed by the enforcement of existing legislation and regulations, augmented by new initiatives in disability and telecommunications policy and research to support increased access to wireless technologies that address the needs of the disability community.

Subsequent to identification of key issues surrounding wireless technology adoption by people with disabilities (Wireless RERC, 2003), the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for People with Disabilities (Wireless RERC) conducted a policy Delphi poll to probe key stakeholders’ opinions of what constitutes the most significant issues surrounding the adoption and use of technologies by people with disabilities, as a precursor to the development of new policy approaches. Delphi poll participants represented several different areas of involvement with wireless technologies for people with disabilities: disability advocates, disability/wireless technology policymakers, and product developers/manufacturers. The poll was arranged in four categories (forecasts, issues, goals, and options) over four key themes (access/awareness, economic, policy/regulatory, and technology). Poll respondents assessed the reliability of forecasts related to the future of wireless technologies, ranked the importance of key issues and barriers to increased wireless accessibility, and provided input for the subsequent development of potential policy initiatives to increase access to these technologies.

Participants in the Delphi poll supported several predictions. All respondents believe that the “variety of services and applications available via wireless technologies will increase.” Likewise, those surveyed unanimously expect that “as wireless technologies become more established, they will be increasingly integrated into everyday applications.” An expanded presentation of issues and options explored, in the Policy Delphi Poll follows.

The following issues were confirmed as being highly important to 1) increasing access to wireless technologies and services by people with disabilities, and 2) increasing the awareness of designers and manufacturers to the needs of this population:
* Inadequacy/insufficiency of consumer information — A lack of consumer awareness of wireless technologies was related to a lack of information disseminated to the general population, an inability or unwillingness on the part of manufacturers to highlight accessibility features, failure of retailers to provide information to customers, and a lack of advertising or information in general.
* Objective review of assistive technology (AT) products - Many comments emphasized the importance of independent reviews to help consumers with disabilities develop a greater knowledge in the selection and use of devices and services.
* Lack of manufacturer awareness — “Manufacturers who may believe that the market for wireless devices designed for people with disabilities is too small and specialized to target” was identified (95 percent) as a crucial issue to be addressed.l
* Devices affordability — Participants suggested that devices that could help people with disabilities overcome economic disadvantages are often unaffordable, and suggested that integration of accessibility features into mainstream products for the creation of economies of scale might be a feasible solution.2
* Inadequacy of legislation/regulatory requirements - Respondents (95 percent), supported as important that “wireless devices are currently subject to few accessibility requirements.” The participation of Congress and other key stakeholders in crafting alternative policy initiatives to increase access to wireless technologies” was recognized as important (87 percent). Frequently noted was the need for the federal government to address the full accessibility of telecommunications equipment, including an expansion of Section 255 of Telecommunications Act of 1996.
* Device incompatibility or poor interoperability” - Participants identified three incompatibility/interoperability issues in particular: 1) TTY to Internet protocol text conversion, 2) hearing aid compatibility, and the different operating systems, languages, and 3) standards which exist between mobile and fixed devices.

Participants polled on the desirability of key goals related to awareness/access to wireless technologies by people with disabilities strongly identified two goals in particular: 1) “development of programs to encourage manufacturers of wireless devices to include people with disabilities in the review and evaluation of assistive or universally designed products and technologies (97 percent); arid 2) an “increased emphasis on universal design principles in place of an emphasis on assistive technology” (96 percent) Other responses included:
* Increased “awareness of accessible technologies and features among retailers and other
• intermediaries between manufacturers/designers and consumers/users.”
* “Tax incentives for employers to hire persons with disabilities” — was indicated as a desirable goal, receiving support from a majority of the poll’s participants, though not without significant opposition from within the group.
* Other programs and goals received support but to a less decisive degree including:
“emphasis on more affordable assistive technologies”, “support for telecommuting”, “educational and training programs for people with disabilities”, “anti-discrimination training and information”, “research on employees with disabilities in the workplace, and the provision of universal health care coverage”.
* “Increased coordination between private and public research and development” received the strongest support. Other desirable research and development goals: “national funding for research and development of accessible wireless devices and communication tools,” and “increased interagency coordination in disability—related research and development;” research programs on interoperability and standards setting”, “exploring design approaches to determine best practices,” and “involving consumers through publicly-shown prototypes.”
* Development of “compatible platforms between wireless and other mobile devices used by people with disabilities was viewed as desirable. Respondents observed that the greatest impediments to the development of compatible platforms between wireless devices and those mobile technologies used by people with disabilities were due to a lack of standards, either mandatory or voluntary; or that economic or market reasons fostered an attitude that such compatibility was not required.
* Development of a national policy coordinating emergency communications devices and services for people with disabilities,” was also strongly supported.

The various stakeholders tended to agree on issues and goals, but often differed on their implementation. Drawing on early policy assessment work (including Wireless RERC, 2003) the poll results were used to develop preliminary policy options/incentives that offer the potential to increase accessibility to these technologies. Final policy option will be developed following completion of the final phase of the research. Potential options exist in all four areas issues areas previously identified, but the following areas generated the greatest level of support:
* Access/awareness related options - public sector interventions might include an expanded dissemination program of fact sheets and supporting material developed in association with key stakeholders. These include those companies designated as “Section 255 Manufacturers of Equipment” by the Disability Rights Office (DRO) of the FCC, as well as members of the disability community. Increased awareness/participation could be generated by holding of expanded/additional sets of public hearings by DRO to encourage increased stakeholder input into the regulatory process.
* Access/awareness related options — private sector initiatives could include training and education programs developed by manufacturers of wireless technologies for people with disabilities in conjunction with trade associations, such as the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), or American Electronics Association (AEA) as well as initiatives such as iCan! (www.ican.com) to provide consumer information and marketing services based on consumer polls, which are critical to understanding the market potential for new device development.
* Awareness/education options an option combining education and awareness includes educational outreach to manufacturers and designers of wireless products about the economic viability of universally-designed products or mainstream products which incorporate accessibility features, emphasizing untapped markets consisting of people with disabilities and aging, focusing on benefits to be gained by large numbers of users by incorporating such features.3
* Economic related options — expansion of existing equipment distribution programs at the state level to include wireless and other communications devices. In particular, manufacturer trade associations and disability advocacy stakeholders might work with the Telecommunications Equipment Distribution Program Association (TEDPA), to develop links
• between equipment manufacturers and state equipment distribution programs; Additionally, tax related incentives could be developed to support manufacturer related research into universally designed products; and educational outreach/usability efforts.
* Technology related options — expanded sets of voluntary, but mutually agreed upon product standards could serve to address interoperability concerns for users with disabilities.

Finally in regard to future empirical research agendas, it might be useful to conduct a study of the enforcement efficacy of Section 255 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and whether these pieces of legislation have resulted in greater access to and accessibility of wireless technologies for people with disabilities.

This is a publication of The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education under grant number Hl33EOlO804. The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education.

Baker, Paul M.A., and Bellordre, Christine. (2003). “Factors Influencing Adoption of
Wireless Technologies — Key Policy Issues, Barriers and Opportunities for People with
Disabilities” Information Technology and Disabilities. Vol. IX No. 2, December 2003.

Wireless RERC. (2003). 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]

1 Note: Participants agreed on the importance of focusing on manufacturers and product
designers who may be unaware of accessibility issues, such as difficulties faced by people
with sensory impairments in navigating multi—level interfaces.
2 Note: Others suggested that the merger of disability and aging markets, government
purchases for bulk discounts, or provision of tax incentives or vouchers might be the best means for making wireless technologies more affordable to people with disabilities.

3 Note: Here, industry groups such as TDI, Infinitec, and RESNA, might develop an internal promotional campaign aimed at mass—market manufacturers and other non—niche marketers of wireless technologies.

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