Help or obstacle for people with disabilities?

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Note: The following article is about the terms disability and functional diversity, a collective term for people with special needs, disabilities, impairments or disabilities. All featured people and companies have chosen how they would like to be described – we have respected their choice in all situations.

Laura Moya doesn’t particularly like technology. In fact, within minutes of speaking to her, she will tell you how inaccessible it is for people with disabilities.

But Laura doesn’t let that stop her. She is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain. Although the digital world has the potential to significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities, she believes there is still a long way to go before it is fully accessible and inclusive:

“Technology wasn’t built for functional people,” she says. “They were created and then applied to humans [with an accessibility need]. As a result, these technologies have taken longer to reach us.”

Even language assistants like Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant cannot convince them. On paper, these sound like the perfect solution to her blindness, or “visual diversity,” as she likes to call it.

However, Laura recognizes the importance of the smartphone and describes it as “an extension of the body”. She jokes about her relationship with Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple devices:

“It is very good [that I’m able] to say to Siri, ‘Hey Siri, I think I got lost and didn’t cross the street I was supposed to cross.’” Siri can then confirm or deny this, keeping Laura on the right path.

Laura interacts with her phone through touch and sound. Picture:
Rocio Duran Hermosilla

Are Alexa or the iPhone suitable for the blind?

Laura uses Siri extensively on her phone, but she has yet to properly test smart speakers. Companies like Amazon and Google have established themselves in this market, but Laura wants the technology to be accessible to everyone. “The most important thing is to be able to choose [whether you use it or not],” she adds.

Gabriel Sánchez sees it the same way. He is a technician at Plena Inclusión, a Spanish organization that takes care of people with intellectual disabilities. As a guide on its website shows, the company is focused on using technology in a way that puts people and their individual needs first.

Alexa appears to be a prime candidate, with Amazon specifically promoting its virtual assistant’s accessibility credentials. It’s something that a friend of Laura Mora’s, who is also blind, uses every day:

“She told me she uses Alexa to make a booking or read the news. Both would take much longer with a cell phone or computer.”

But why aren’t barrier-free products with functional variety available for everyone? For Laura, the answer is quite simple – the economic gap:

“There is class prejudice. Not everyone can buy an iPhone, which is the most accessible phone for the blind, and not everyone can automate their home.”

A quick look at Apple’s website will tell you why Laura thinks it’s one of the best options for the visually impaired. A wide range of accessibility features includes VoiceOver, which acts as a screen reader to describe what’s on your screen at all times. This can be spoken aloud or conveyed in Braille.

However, the lack of economic resources is a recurring theme throughout this article. Everyone we interviewed spoke about the difficulties in accessing employment, benefits or subsidies when you have a disability. In order to use accessible technology, you must be able to spend significant amounts of money on it.

A virtual assistant specially designed for accessibility

The economic divide is an important issue and something we should not forget. Technology has the potential to transform the lives of people with functional diversity, but much of the current progress depends on the dedicated work of volunteers.

Among them is Pablo Almajano, a Spanish computer engineer specializing in artificial intelligence (AI). In collaboration with Plena Inclusión he is working on a virtual assistant specially designed for people with intellectual disabilities. While development is still in its infancy, he describes what it will include:

“The assistant is personalized for each user and helps them in their daily tasks. But it will also be an empathetic assistant that adapts to the person’s mood, [and] motivate the user to follow healthy guidelines.”

But even before the interview began, Almajano warned of the difficulty of funding such a technology. As it currently stands, there is no virtual assistant (or anything like that) that puts accessibility first.

Adapt current technology or do something completely new?

The main reason why a virtual assistant is so important? Independence. As Gabriel Sánchez explains, people feel much more independent when supported by an app compared to another person.

Also, using existing software isn’t always the best place to start: “Sometimes you can’t customize a technology, but you can customize the instructions of the technology itself.”

When the 2020 pandemic hit, the Plena Inclusión team fully immersed themselves in this task. Her first step was to create simple guides for apps like Zoom, which were essential to keeping lines of communication going.

Then the main project was the development of an app called “Espacios Accessibles” (Accessible Spaces). This can be used to determine whether buildings or events are suitable for people with disabilities, including town halls, banks and hospitals.

Technological Accessibility

In addition to providing accessibility information, the app has a heavy focus on user input. Image: Plena Inclusion

The app initially only worked in the Aragon region of Spain, but is already being expanded to other areas of the country. But no word yet on an international release or when it will be available to anyone who isn’t a healthcare provider.

Control your health from your phone

Another organization that focuses on accessible technology is the Fundación DFA. The Zaragoza-based company is promoting a pilot project that uses key data indicators to manage the health of its users.

Among them is César Belsué, a Spaniard who is no stranger to technology. His disability severely limits Belsué’s mobility, but he doesn’t let that stop him. With a smartphone, computer, smart watch, smart TV, and mechanical chair all within easy reach, he has the world at his fingertips.

Technological Accessibility

Theoretically, using the app will result in people visiting a doctor less often. Image: Rocío Duran Hermosilla

Using this app feels like a logical next step. It can be used to monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, weight and more, which Belsué says helps him live more peacefully without having to rely on health professionals.

“It would be interesting if the Spanish healthcare system implemented this technology. We would feel much more in control and fewer people would be hospitalized as a result. The cost of the equipment is high, but the improvement in collective health would make the investment worthwhile.”

A remote assistance system is activated on Belsué’s watch and smartphone. Along with multiple GPS devices installed in his home, the technology offers what he describes as “peace of mind.”

Technological Accessibility

If César has a problem on one of his walks, pressing a button on his watch or phone will put him in touch with someone. Image: Rocío Duran Hermosilla

What are the most popular apps for people with disabilities?

But access to technology isn’t just about work and health. When asked which apps they use most frequently, most respondents answered very clearly: social networks. They allow you to chat with friends, laugh at memes, keep up with the latest viral videos, or just meet new people – it’s important that everyone has access.

One of the most popular is WhatsApp, which is used by an estimated two billion people every month. Social workers Laura Aranda and Isabel Toro say the app “works by strengthening support networks,” which is crucial for people with disabilities.

Traditional social media is less accessible to blind people, but Laura Moya highlights a key feature within the Instagram app. When creating a post, there is an option to write alt text as well as the regular caption that describes the image for people with visual impairments.

Just before publishing a new post, click Advanced Settings at the bottom of the screen. You should then see the Write Alt Text option. Laura encourages us to use this option as much as possible.

Technological Accessibility

Adding alt text is one of the last steps before publishing a post. Image: Instagram

However, despite various initiatives and the growing influence of virtual assistants, Laura is very clear on the current state of accessibility: “Technology is very good, but there are things that are technology [still] it does not work.”

This article was originally published in Spanish on our sister site PCWorld. Translation by Anyron Copeman.

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