RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

A Survey of User Needs for Wireless Products

James L. Mueller, Project Director
RERC on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities


The purpose of this project is to identify and prioritize the ergonomic needs of users with disabilities for mobile wireless technologies. This family of products holds great promise for enhancing functional independence for persons with disabilities. To realize this promise, mobile wireless products must be designed with consideration for the unique ergonomic issues of users with disabilities, as well as those common to all users.


Survey, Users, Wireless Products, Focus Groups


Despite the obvious importance of human factors in the design of mobile wireless products and services for people with disabilities, there are substantial gaps in the empirical knowledge base about current use patterns of mobile wireless applications by people with disabilities. Without this data, wireless product designers and manufacturers are understandably reluctant to address persons with disabilities as a viable market segment.

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (“Wireless RERC”) was established in the fall of 2001 to address this issue, among others. Project R1 of the Wireless RERC has three primary components: 1) establishment of a Consumer Advisory Network and preliminary survey of user needs; 2) focus group evaluations of existing mobile wireless products and services; and 3) structured simulations to evaluate prototype designs of new wireless applications. This paper addresses the first of these components.


This project addresses the question of specific needs by users with disabilities for mobile wireless technologies by establishing a network of approximately 1,200 people with disabilities who can be called upon to participate in different research activities, including surveys, structured interviews, focus groups, and technology evaluations. Although limited primarily to the southeastern United States, it was intended from the outset that the Consumer Advisory Network (CAN) should be as representative of disabled users and prospective users of mobile wireless products and services nationwide as possible.


The Consumer Advisory Network (CAN) was established to identify and prioritize user needs for mobile wireless products. A survey of user needs was mailed to approximately 3000 persons with disabilities. The initial mailing included the existing 2,200-member peer support network of current and former patients of The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, GA, current and former students of the South Carolina School for the Blind, current and former students of the University of Tennessee, and members of local and national disability organizations. The survey was also made accessible and promoted through the RERC's website.

To facilitate comparisons between information gathered through the CAN and nationwide population samples, the structure of the CAN user needs survey mirrors demographic categories in the Current Population Reports of the U.S. Census, the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Questions regarding functional abilities reflect the categories of ICIDH-2. The survey was also designed with consideration for similar surveys being conducted by the DRRP coordinated by the Brain Injury Association and by the RERC on Successful Aging.

In addition to demographic questions mirroring those in national surveys, the CAN survey includes feedback on consumers' experiences with existing mobile wireless devices, such as cellular phones, personal digital assistants, GPS navigational devices, and controllers that utilize wireless IR, RF, etc. (e.g., remote controls, environmental control units, integrated wheelchair controls). The survey also asks about other technology applications that are relevant to the design of existing or future wireless products and services, including use of web browsers, displays and controls on digital devices (e.g., public kiosks, ATMs, appliances), and voice recognition interfaces. Respondents are asked to quantify the extent of their use of different technologies, indicate their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the use of existing products and services, identify factors that impede use if they are unable to do so, and rank the importance to them of wireless applications.


Demographics of the Consumer Advisory Network vs. the U.S. Population

Table 1. Age Comparisons


SIPP population

CAN population
















At the time of this writing, responses have been received from more than 500 individuals with disabilities. Comparison with national databases on persons with disabilities indicates strong correlations between the demographics of the CAN and the U.S. population of persons with disabilities. For example, the 1997 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) describes a gender distribution of 45% male and 55% female among 47.9 million Americans with disabilities. The CAN distribution is 40% and 60% respectively. Age and income distribution among the SIPP and the CAN is also similar:

Table 2. Income Comparison

Monthly income



Less than $600 per month



$600-1199 per month



$1200-1999 per month



$2000-2999 per month



More than $3000 per month



The Consumer Advisory Network reflects a significant level of use of wireless technologies. Sixty-six per cent of the CAN stated that they use a wireless device of some sort, such as a cell phone, pager, or text messaging device. Of those who do not own such a device, 70% expressed interest in owning one. More than 70% stated that they have access to a cell phone. Fifty-four per cent stated that this device is very important to them, and 27% stated that it is somewhat important. Seventy-three per cent stated that they use a cell phone at least once per week, 36% stating that they use it every day.


On December 7, 2002, the first of a series of focus groups of CAN members with cognitive, physical, and sensory disabilities was held at the Wireless RERC. The purpose was to discuss the results of the user needs survey to date, as they relate to cell phone use. This focus group was made up of respondents to the user needs survey who stated that they use a cell phone. This group helped to clarify why cell phone use is so important to people with disabilities. Each participant described personal experiences in which this device saved them from considerable lost time, business, or danger. Although cost was mentioned as a factor, as well as several ergonomic issues, the benefits of this device outweigh its drawbacks for people with disabilities. Improving simplicity in control and display design was cited repeatedly as a primary need in improving usability for people with disabilities.

Since December, 2002, eight more focus groups have been conducted concerning cell phones, GPS devices, smart phones, and text messagers. The personal characteristics of participants and their comments about wireless products in daily life have been developed into “personas” for use by product developers in considering the needs of customers with disabilities. These personas are presented on the RERC web site.


The user needs survey will continue to be available to gather data from the population of persons with disabilities. Additional focus groups will be conducted to evaluate wireless products each year, the selection of which will be based on priorities set from the survey results. Participants will represent people with a range of mobility, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. This information will be used to determine the optimal design elements that are usable by the largest number of people possible, as well as specific use features critical to specific users (e.g., those with hearing vs. motor impairments). Based on this information, prototype wireless devices will be developed and tested later in this project.


  1. 1997 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP)

James Mueller
J.L. Mueller, Inc.
4717 Walney Knoll Court
Chantilly, VA 20151

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