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The assistive technology approach to mobile access

by Adrian Higginbotham

6th July 2010

In the second of his articles inspired by the RNIB Techshare Mobile conference, Adrian Higginbotham says that embedded accessibility isn't the only way forward. Here, he takes a look at two bespoke assistive technology approaches to mobile access.
Techshare logo
In my Ouch! article of 27 May mobile accessibility goes mainstream, I described a future in which disabled people would be able to walk in to a high street store and pick up a device which could adapt to their individual needs right out of the box. Something that is now being referred to as embedded accessibility and which is a very hot topic at the moment. It seems, however, that not everyone thinks this is the future.

At the RNIB Techshare Mobile conference in Birmingham on 15 June, I learned of at least two organisations who believe that additional bespoke assistive technology productss for mobile still have plenty to offer the consumer.
A phone with a qwerty keypad
Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, largely a business device due to its emphasis on email, have been around as a company for over 25 years. During that time, they have often pioneered features which improve ease of access. They were the first mobile manufacturer to use tactile keypad markings, audible battery alarms, and more recently, closed captioning and reverse colour contrast options.

RIM manufacture their own hardware, the operating system, and the means by which others can develop applications for the handsets. In fact they control a larger proportion of their product’s supply-chain than do their competitor Apple. But unlike Apple and it’s embedded iPhone access features, RIM are taking a more traditional approach to accessibility.

While they have worked hard to open up the Blackberry platform to support accessibility, Research In Motion are relying upon 3rd parties to develop and resell suitable add-on products. The first of these is the Oratio screen reader, developed in partnership with Humanware and Code Factory, but they are hopeful that more assistive technology options will come from a range of suppliers in the future.
An ordinary mobile phone keypad
The other significant development I learned about at the event was surprising, in that it came not from a device manufacturer, but from a network operator.

Vodafone are already the only provider offering £150 worth of mobile screen reader or magnifier to visually impaired customers free of charge. However, they’ve recognised that their current offer, although generous, isn’t really meeting the customer need. It’s only available in-store or via a rather confusing postal process and on a limited range of handsets. Too few of their own staff know about the offer to be able to support the customers that do take advantage of it and certainly too few customers are aware that the option of free assistive technology exists at all.

They could turn up to conferences such as Techshare, give themselves a pat on the back for giving away expensive software, and disappear again in the knowledge that the scheme won’t cost them much because the service is just too difficult for customers to understand and take advantage of. But they have improvements in mind.

Vodafone are to simplify the service by integrating provision of assistive technology in to their entire business systems, using something called Vodafone Speak. This product has just completed trials with 900 users in Spain and there are planns to pilot it on a smaller scale in the UK.

Vodafone Speak is a feature limited version of Code Factory’s MobileSpeak product. This screen-reading software is easily installed by the user themselves, or in-store if preferred, at a low monthly price charged direct to your phone bill - currently €3 a month in Spain, equivalent to about £5 in the UK. The package can be installed to any compatible handset by texting a single word (in the Spanish trial it was “speak) to a short number, has no up-front costs (in fact it’s free for the first month) and can be stopped at any time, or transferred between handsets at no additional charge.
In summary then, two companies both demonstrating commitment to personal assistive technology but in two very different ways. Is one better than the other?

The negatives: One Techshare delegate described Oratio (the screenreader for Blackberry) as the most expensive and least capable solution on the market at around 350 pounds, and Vodafone are replacing a free and feature rich access solution with a less capable one for which they're going to charge.

The positives: Blackberry is an essential tool in many professions and one that disabled employees will struggle if they can’t access ... and Vodafone are integrating Speak in to the networks and their E-billing system in such a way that it will be available to all customers regardless of any disability, or dependency upon the knowhow of local staff.

Finally, unlike embedded access solutions or the current Vodafone give-away, Blackberry and Vodafone are still giving business to the well-established assistive technology industry.

How do you use your mobile device? Do you find it accessible? What would you like to be able to do with it that you currently can't, due to accessibility reasons? And what do you think of Adrian's take on where we are with the products and services available? Tell us in the comments below.

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