RESNA 27th International Annual Confence
Among the most powerful tools of assistive technology are information and communication technologies, including wireless and mobile assistive devices. These technologies, which reduce the need to be physically present to conduct work or daily living activities, represents a tremendous opportunity for people with disabilities. Barriers to the use of these technologies may be understated and unintentional, but still very real. This paper outlines some considerations critical to developing inclusive policy initiatives, and suggests some possible policy approaches to increase the adoption and use of these technologies.
Policy, wireless technology, assistive technologies, adoption, innovation
Mobile wireless information and communication technologies have emerged as an important medium to communicate and to send and receive text and other data. Many routine work or daily activities rely on telecommunication tools. Use of new wireless technologies, cell phones, and mobile computers to access information and services could greatly increase independence of people with disabilities. These technologies have become an integral to daily life, and without access to these technologies, people with disabilities are finding themselves increasingly isolated . Barriers to the use of these technologies by people with disabilities may be subtle and unintentional, yet very real. This paper outlines some considerations critical to developing inclusive policy initiatives, and suggests some possible areas in which policy could increase the adoption and use of these technologies.
The impact of disabilities is felt by a significant part of the U.S. population . An estimated 49.7 million men, women and children have a disability which impacts their everyday activities . 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 . Wireless based technologies could be a 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 . While no comparable statistics catalog use of wireless technologies by people with disabilities, we can assume that the use is proportionate.
A previous study conducted by the Wireless RERC  identified three underlying barriers to increased access and use include awareness and proficiency factors, economic barriers, and incompatible technologies.
A primary concern associated with the deployment and use of wireless and other telecommunications technologies in general is a lack of awareness that a given technology exists, or that it could be of benefit . New wireless technologies regularly appear, and are rarely developed with consideration to specialized needs and requirements of persons with disabilities. Potential users of telecommunications technologies may be significantly uninformed as to their availability or utility. Stakeholders that could inform the public on assistive technologies, government, industry and not-for-profit organizations, frequently lack the appropriate resources, incentive, organization, or in some cases, simply the awareness that such efforts are necessary .
Wireless devices tend to be prohibitively expensive to a population already more likely to be unemployed or receive government assistance. The potential value of such technologies has not been fully realized, and these devices are often not covered under private or employer-based health benefits, or the two primary public health insurance programs for persons with disabilities. Because the utility of assistive telecommunications technologies has not been fully appreciated, such devices are often not included in state programs.
Incompatibilities across products of different design, manufacturer, or purpose can create barriers to the efficient and effective operation of wireless devices. Some telecommunications and medical devices operate in overlapping or adjacent frequency spectrum ranges, raising the risk for interference and malfunction . Designers and manufactures of incompatible devices are not effectively collaborating to ensure that such vital devices are reliable and efficient in all circumstances and situations.
Three principle areas of opportunity exist to increase access/use of technologies: policy/regulatory interventions, market mechanisms, and outreach/awareness prospects.
Policy and regulatory interventions on behalf of wireless telecommunications technologies can affect the success or failure of a product. Proposed policies and regulations address many issues and take many forms, but consistent support can be found for two main initiatives across the diverse assistive telecommunications organizations, groups and supporters. Ideally these directives and others like them will not only encourage the development of new devices but also reinforce the importance of technologies being flexible and useable by all people. If products and services are not useable, the extent of their accessibility becomes moot. The opportunities presented by universal applicability of Section 508 would support the development and procurement of accessible information technology in all public entities, including state, county and local governments and schools. The second initiative supports increased access to assistive and universally designed telecommunications technologies via funding through the New Freedom Initiative , which could provide support for the Rehabilitative Engineering Research Centers' budgets for promoting new assistive telecommunications technologies. As technology and product "developers", these Centers collaborate with various industry organizations to assist in bringing new technologies and products to market.
Assistive wireless telecommunications technologies have long been thought of as a very specific product designed for a very small fraction of the population - namely, those persons who are disabled. But, as recent data indicates, the definition of "disabled" is not as exclusive as was previously thought. Millions of U.S. residents who had previously attributed their difficulty or inability to perform certain tasks to minor physical deficiencies may have some degree of disability under definitions supported by the Census Bureau. Further, the aging of the American population will drive the increase in the total number of people in the United States with disabilities. Because a smaller percentage of people in previous years were considered to be disabled, there has been a deficiency in quality research that documents the market potential of assistive technologies. As a result, it has been difficult to convince designers and manufacturers on the economic viability of such products. Not only are there more potential disabled consumers than previously thought, but manufacturers must also realize that assistive technologies can also benefit the non-disabled public at large. Assistive telecommunications technologies facilitate a more efficient data transfer between users who would otherwise have difficulty utilizing conventional means of communication, offering a more convenient alternative to existing technologies.
Because the inefficient dissemination of information regarding available assistive and wireless telecommunications technologies, products and methodologies continues to be a barrier to the effective delivery, usage and understanding of such aides, the outreach and awareness opportunity is vital to successful utilization. There exist four primary mediums through which information can be effectively disseminated to unknowledgeable, potential beneficiaries of assistive telecommunications technologies, products and methodologies: industry or not-for-profit organizations, conferences, government entities and user forums.
Wireless information and communications technologies offer our society the means to lead a more independent, knowledgeable and convenient lifestyle, unfettered by physical locale, making information readily available regardless of location or time. The resources and capabilities of research and other organizations can be leveraged to facilitate research, business and academic collaboration. Marketing the capabilities and benefits of assistive wireless technologies has always presented problems for both producers and users alike. With a larger potential market base, assistive telecommunications technologies would enjoy the benefits associated with a competitive marketplace - thereby offering improved technologies at affordable prices. Increased investment in product research and development, may help address problems of technology incompatibility. Larger markets for these technologies provide incentives to development of new products. Finally, a policy agenda placing an emphasis on expanded research and support initiatives to develop new applications of telecommunications technologies can stimulate new opportunities for people with disabilities, and reduce barriers existing in day to day living.
This research was conducted by Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (Wireless RERC), funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education, grant number H133E010804. The author wishes to acknowledge the work of Christine Bellordre, Andy McNeil and Lisa Griffin who were researchers on a previous draft of this project.