State of Mobile Wireless Technology for Persons with Disabilities: Preliminary Conference Outcomes

RESNA 28th Annual Conference - Atlanta, Georgia

Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., Ed Price, and Sandy Shackleford

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (Wireless RERC)
Atlanta, GA 30318


The “State of Mobile Wireless Technology for Persons with Disabilities Conference” held in May 2004, established a dialogue among stakeholders on the current state and future directions of accessible mobile and wireless technologies [1]. A range of panels covering the areas of technology, user needs and policy, as well as a series of nine facilitated roundtable discussions on broad areas of interest were held. Roundtables, lead by a facilitator, identified three key issues and associated barriers and challenges, trade-offs and potential outcomes. This paper presents a summary of the results


State of Technology Conference, Policy, RERC, Wireless Technologies, facilitated discussion


 The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities, “State of Mobile Wireless Technology for Persons with Disabilities Conference” held May 2004, was designed to establish a dialogue among domestic and international stakeholders on the current state and future directions of accessible mobile and wireless technologies [1]. Panels covering the areas of technology, user needs and policy were staged, as well as nine facilitated roundtable discussions on broad areas of interest. Roundtables identified key issues and associated barriers, trade-offs and potential outcomes. Topics included: 1) Disability rights and technological accommodations: disability and standards groups and the design community; 2) Emergency communications; 3) International policy and practice; 4) The engaged consumer: training and outreach; 5) Overcoming barriers: product information, cost, and usability; 6) Policymakers, practitioners and the public, 7) International industry and academic collaboration; 8) The accessibility curve for future wireless technologies; and 9) WiFi & WiMax connecting the disability community.


 Roundtable participants discussed topics relating to wireless telecommunications technologies and living with disabilities and included disability and telecommunications policy, technical aspects of telecommunications technology for people with disabilities, and factors that affect the research and design stages of product development. An array of disability, wireless and communication technology related policy issues was subsequently identified through analysis of the roundtable summaries. These included: Education/awareness, Market factors, Design factors/feasibility, Cost/Funding/Affordability, Accessibility, Reliability, and Interoperability/Standards.

Education and Awareness: Challenges

Education and awareness emerged as the key issue impeding the availability of accessible products. Outreach efforts are needed among consumers, designers, and industry alike. Consumers are not always aware of product availability or policies that protect them. Manufacturers are not always aware markets for accessible products. Designers are not always aware of user characteristics, or trained to design accessible products. Outcome recommendations: (1) Encourage politicians to add disability issues to their agendas, (2) Build business cases for the design of accessible products, (3) Educate designers on the needs of people with disabilities through training and access to information databases, and (4) Consumers should be proactive and work together to communicate their needs to the industry.

Design Factors: Challenges

Design factors appeared as a key issue in four of the roundtable sessions. Many of the identified problems involved a lack of designer training and understanding. Another major obstacle in the design process is lack of consumer involvement. Consumers are often unknowledgeable of technology and are not aware of the potential for target technology to meet their accessibility needs. Getting consumers with disabilities to give feedback and input is expensive and time-consuming, but essential to the development of accessible products. Outcome Recommendation: Increased emphasis on recruitment of more diverse testing groups including consumers with a disability, and technological training.

Market Factors: Challenges

The market for disability accessible wireless products is often overlooked or underestimated. Marketing professionals need to be educated on the needs of people with disabilities and the importance of universal design. Recommendations: (1) Raise awareness among marketing professionals include using success stories to demonstrate how accessible products benefit people with disabilities, (2) Encourage consumers with disabilities to be proactive in advocating and lobbying for accessible products, and (3) Invest in better market research.

Cost and Affordability: Challenges

Financial obstacles can also impede deployment of wireless technology. Consumer testing and feedback processes are expensive and are often not seen as a priority when budgets are tight. The market for accessible products needs to be emphasized to industry to encourage corporate expenditure into designing accessible products. Although consumers with disabilities may be entitled to reimbursements for equipment they purchase, the reimbursement process is often difficult and complicated, and the may not be aware that they have the option to be reimbursed. Cost is also a factor in initiating and maintaining services such as wireless local area (WiFi) or metro area networks (WiMAX). Wireless networks are a service that require monthly subscriptions to use. Outcome recommendation: These services could be made more affordable by providing a scale of services. Alternatively, operating WiMAX as a public utility would make service available disabilities, at a lower cost.

Accessibility: Challenges

Accessibility concerns become more critical as a completely new technologies are developed or new services deployed, but presents a problem without simple solutions. While Universal design is a useful in product design, it will not satisfy all markets. Provision of services also presents significant accessibility challenges. Access to emergency personnel is imperative in ensuring a high quality of public safety. Emergency services should utilize new wireless technologies to provide better service without negotiating the ability of people with disabilities to use the new systems.

Standards and Interoperability: Challenges

Standards play an important role in product development and deployment. In addition, regulations help ensure that products are designed with accessible features. From an industry perspective, however, standards can impede the timely deployment of products that could benefit people with disabilities. Standards also play a critical role in establishing interoperability between wireless devices and other assistive technologies. Hearing aid compatibility and interference with wireless devices continues to be a problem. Outcome recommendations: (1) Wireless technologies should be compatible with other assistive technologies and avoid interference. (2) Standards should ensure present and future device compatibility.


For both emergency and routine wireless communications, reliability is a trade-off with accessibility. Outcome Recommendation: Develop scaleable wireless networks; consumers desiring increased reliability may need to pay additionally for it. Alternatively, given that current wireless networks are less reliable than wired, consumer use should take into account network capabilities.


Several trends appeared during the roundtable discussions, with overlap in key issues. Awareness and education, both of the industry and of consumers, appeared in six of the nine sessions. Design factors appeared in four of the sessions. Market factors, costs/affordability, and accessibility concerns each appeared as key issues in three of the sessions. Interoperability/standards and reliability appeared in two of the sessions. Identification of these issues are important to the development of policy approaches as well as industry responses to the identified concerns.


The conference held at the Georgia Centers for Advanced Telecommunications Technology in Atlanta was jointly sponsored by The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Center for Dissemination of Disability Research (NCDDR). This research was funded by NIDRR grant number H133EO10804.

Author Contact Information:

Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., AICP
GCATT/Georgia Tech
250 14 th St. NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
Office Phone 404.894.0073.