When I first went to a blind school in the early 1970s, the only technology available for visually impaired people was a braille machine and magnifying glasses. Fifty years later, we are on the brink of fully bridging the disability divide through the use of communications devices and general-purpose technology.
Back then, technology was expensive and specific for each disability. At university, I used a Kurzweil reading machine that was the size of a photocopier, cost $100,000 and only managed to produce low-quality Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to help me consume content relating to my course. I also sent documents off to the Student Tape Library to be recorded (getting them back weeks later).
What has changed in the interim? In a nutshell, the content has gone digital, and devices can render content in an audible format in real-time provided from mainstream suppliers rather than the past specialists. Furthermore, the growth of the apps economy and its global scale means that I can now access industry and news content through my smartphone and laptop as well as specialist apps that help me with things like navigation, object recognition and technical support. In addition, the wealth of collaboration apps has put me on equal footing with everyone else during the lockdown shift to home and webinar-centric working. One other important component is the shift to the cloud. As long as we have broadband, information is accessible from anywhere, and pretty much on any device.
This transformation has allowed me to develop my career as a telecoms industry analyst working alongside non-disabled people. This shift from expensive disability-specific technology to mainstream devices means that former barriers are being torn down for the world’s billion disabled people getting access to the digital economy.
The main categories of disability are hearing, visual, learning and physical impairments – each of which has many degrees and complexities. The evolution of the tech industry, international standards and apps mean that scale can now be applied across all disabilities. For example, sign language was physically limited to the speaker’s location but can now be supported through a smartphone with the interpretation delivered remotely. It is too simplistic to say that a microphone, camera, speaker or screen can replace any sense that is impaired but they can certainly be great proxies.
One of the most striking changes has been the arrival of the smart speaker. Using speech as the means of interaction helps the visually impaired and physically impaired easily access a wealth of content. Furthermore, linking these smart speakers to household items such as lights, heating, security and television all contribute to a more intelligent home for all people – irrespective of whether they have a disability or not. Are they, in fact, the ultimate companion device?
Furthermore, be in no doubt, Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) are coming. The ability to interpret brain waves and take action accordingly comes with some obvious concerns. However, for those suffering from locked-in syndrome, this may be the best solution to communicating with the outside world.
How accessible tech helps increase diversity and inclusion
Coming at it from a slightly different perspective, the range of communications options also plays well into inclusion. The goal of unified communications was to bring all forms of interaction together. What is evident from the disabled community is that the blend of text, speech, collaboration tools and social media all have their relative roles. The hearing impaired have relied heavily on text messages in the past and are now benefiting from lip-reading via high-quality video.
Many visually impaired use screen readers to turn text into the spoken word and, if my blind cricket team is anything to go by, record messages in social media rather than typing them. There is, however, a responsibility on developers to label and design their offerings more cleanly. For instance, in a conferencing app, finding the unmute button, identifying and using the Chat or Q&A function shouldn’t be a major ordeal, but believe me, it is. App designers must include accessibility from scratch. And, of course, a well-designed app is better for everyone. If you think about it, modern in-car interactive technology is based on the same text-to-voice and voice-to-text technology that I use every day.
This diversity of communications options also applies to the area of customer service and experience. When I was researching different disabilities, I had extensive email and social media exchanges with someone with cerebral palsy. I suggested we tried a voice call, but we failed to communicate. We reverted to messaging and continue the dialogue to this day. Companies interacting with the ‘Billion’ need to identify the most appropriate channel for individual customer’s needs – and human voice can still be the best option.
As we build out a more digital society, the availability of smart devices, connected via the latest generation of communications services, can help bring that ‘Billion’ into the digital economy. According to my calculations, people with disabilities have a spending power of roughly $4 trillion. This not counting the value of the improvement in lifestyle it also brings to often isolated people.
I usually present the world of communications services as a series of concentric circles with the individual at the centre surrounded by layers representing the household, business and society. Leveraging all mass-market communications services not only brings the ‘Billion’ into the digital marketplace but also allows public services such as healthcare and government to communicate with the individual – and vice versa.
For example, the COVID-19 lockdown has demonstrated how relatively straightforward and effective remote healthcare can be for many situations. Opening the communication channels to the ‘Billion’ will undoubtedly improve healthcare and social care in the long term.
Is everything in place?
Mostly but not quite. Devices have become more accessible with assistive technology ready-built into smartphones, computers and televisions, helping different disability groups gain immediate access to digital services to improve their lifestyles. Website and apps are increasingly better labelled to allow easier navigation but there’s still work to be done.
The move to 5G and increased fiber roll-out offers an opportunity to bring all individuals and households into the connected world. However, this requires a stronger political will to keep penetration levels at the highest for rural as well as urban communities.
Perhaps most importantly, the education of individuals is still needed to increase awareness and raise confidence levels in using the technology and accessing services. Lastly, employers require a cultural shift in making internal systems accessible for all and opening up employment opportunities for the disabled.
In some ways, this shift is the ultimate personalization service. We talk about putting the customer at the centre of our industry. This is the ultimate test of how we bring all of the technology and services down to that individual level. As we enter the 5G era of high speed, low latency communications affordable for all, let’s not lose sight of the goal of bringing the ‘Billion’ into the digital community.
This article was originally published in Futurithmic in August 2020.