Innovative approaches from mobile hardware and applications developers as well as operators are helping connect the estimated 15 per cent of the global population that lives with some form of disability to the power of information and communication technology (ICT), a latest study says.
A joint report released last week by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and civil society partner the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict) on the occasion of the United Nations Conference on States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in New York, USA reveals a surge of interest in an as-yet untapped market, with new accessibility applications now being launched almost daily, offering unprecedented ways to empower persons with disabilities to communicate, access information and control their environment.
The report entitled 'Making Mobile Phones and Services Accessible for Persons with Disabilities' observed that senior citizens, people living with disabilities and the illiterate are often marginalised from the 'mobile miracle' however, because devices are not equipped with the right kind of accessibility features, or because the price of accessible mobile phones and services is out of reach.
That's now changing, with a host of exciting options coming onto the market. 'New screen readers can make mobile phones easily usable for the blind, those with low vision and the illiterate.
"Visual or vibrating alerts, relay services and hearing aid compatibility devices are making mobile phones accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing, while features such as voice recognition and auto text are proving a boon to those with physical disabilities," the report read.
Examples of pioneering solutions highlighted in the report include special text-only billing plans for the deaf and hard-of hearing so that subscribers pay only for messaging and data; a new SMS-to-Avatar translation system being developed by the University of Tunis which converts typed text into real-time, online interpretation in sign language with the help of a dictionary of words and signs; and new GPS-based devices and services that help blind and partially sighted people navigate streets using an interface that announces the nearest points of interest and the user's current location, with links to Braille readers over Bluetooth, the report noted.
'Digital accessibility' is a relatively untapped market segment that offers potentially lucrative commercial opportunities for mobile service providers, manufacturers and smart phone application developers while ensuring the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities.
The report said a handful of leading mobile operators from around the world were already successfully addressing the needs of seniors and persons with disabilities, demonstrating the business case for promoting mobile accessibility.
Unfortunately, the report noted, not all mobile operators and manufacturers were following suit, and affordability remained a major issue, especially for smart phone solutions and for subscribers in developing markets.
'ITU encourages all Member States to implement regulatory and policy measures to promote access and ensure the accessibility needs of all people are met.
'This is especially timely given the widespread adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which requires ICT accessibility of all its signatories, most of which are also ITU Member States," said Dr Hamadoun Toure, ITU Secretary-General.
He said there were already six billion mobile cellular telephone subscriptions globally.
By 2013, ITU estimates that there will be more mobile cellular telephone subscriptions than human beings on the planet. But while some people are hyper-connected, others are yet to be reached.
The report also includes a checklist for policy makers which includes steps such as developing a roadmap with operators, supported by organizations of persons with disabilities, to identify and address mobile phone accessibility gaps; facilitating or holding capacity building programmes with mobile operators on disability awareness and ways to reach out and serve persons with disabilities; and identifying areas for which Universal Service/Access Funds may intervene to equalize access for users with disabilities.