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Assistive Technologies on Mobile Networks

             Patrick Johnson

        University of North Texas

                Fall 2010
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                             2


       In the United States, people with varying levels of physical disabilities number in the

millions. This paper examines the various categories of disabilities and technological advances

in assistive technologies on mobile devices using networks. While mobile assistive technologies

take many forms, much of the focus of this article is specific to common cell phones and

advances in smart phone designs. Examples of existing and emerging assistive technologies are



       With the expansion of the mobile network infrastructure in the United States over the past

twenty years, more than 280 million Americans are now part of a connected mobile community.

(Mobile Future, 2010). Efforts to provide equal access to the Internet have been fostered by

governmental regulations and special interest groups now and in the past two decades. For the

mainstream population, the Internet was viewed primarily as an information and communications

resource. For people with disabilities, the Internet was viewed as a gateway to independence.

(Hollier, 2009) Several barriers exist for disabled Internet users such as availability of built-in

accessibility tools, cost of assistive technologies, inaccessible government, corporate, and

education websites, inaccessible videos, and lack of broadband access. Strides are being made to

address the inequity in both mobility and access.

       With an estimated population of 54 million Americans having disabilities, efforts by the

government and private consortiums have ensured that the needs of those with disabilities are

being met in multiple ways. Perhaps nowhere is the intersection of mobile and broadband

making more of a difference in people’s lives more than among people with disabilities. (Mobile
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                     3

Future, 2010) The focus of this discussion will examine what types of hardware and software

developments exist in the realm of mobile technologies and the expanding use of wireless

network capabilities with a focus on assistive technology innovations.

Disability Demographics in the United States

        DISABILITY                                  U.S. STATISTICS

                                    37 million adults have trouble hearing - from partial
    Deaf/Hearing Impaired
                                                 hearing loss to being deaf.

                                  21.2 million have experienced significant vision loss in
    Blind/Vision Impaired          varying degrees - from blindness to difficulty seeing,
                                                  even with visual aids.

                                   Nearly 26 million adults report some form of physical
                                   disability, and more than 33 million or 15% of adults,
                                           have difficulty functioning physically.

                                    Approximately 6 to 8 million people have a form of
      Speech Impairment
                                                 language impairment.

                                     More than 20 million Americans have cognitive
                                    disabilities, which include mental impairments and
     Cognitive Disability          developmental disabilities, acquired by brain injury,
                                   Alzheimer's disease, and severe and persistent mental
                                                                      (Mobile Future 2010)

Networks & Assistive Technologies

      Networks have expanded the reach of assistive technologies. The most basic mobile

phones make use of cellular networks. Growth of mobile device usage has grown dramatically

over the past decade. Cell phones, smart phones, and other mobile communications devices
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                           4

have many built-in assistive technology features which will be discussed further. Because the

rate of mobile technologies is growing so rapidly more and more individuals with and without

disabilities are being exposed to assistive technologies.

                                                                     (Mobile Usage, 2010)

      Broadband networks are now entering their fourth generation. Each successive generation

has provided greater bandwidth and more features. 802.11x networks or “Wi-Fi” have also seen

mass adoption and new variants of the protocol continue to provide greater bandwidth and

capabilities as well. Some assistive technologies make use of BlueTooth. BlueTooth does not

have as large of a wireless range as some of the other wireless technologies, but offers features

that have enhanced accessibility with such devices as wireless earbuds, keyboards, and mice.

Telephone lines are also a form of network which connects service equipment for hearing

impaired. Device designs vary and the most basic cell phone may only be able to utilize one of

the mentioned networks, while smart phones, which have advanced computing and
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                          5

communication capabilities may be able to utilize multiple types of networks simultaneously. As

networks improve, device designs and accommodations will also need to improve.

Influences on Accessibility and Mobility Innovations

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

       In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in the United States.

Part of the ADA requires telecommunications companies to offer Telephone Relay Services

(TRS) enabling callers with hearing and speech disabilities who use text telephones and callers

who use voice telephones to communicate with each other through a third-party communications

assistant. The ADA also seeks to ensure equal workplace, education, healthcare, and emergency

services opportunities. (ADA 2010)

Telecommunications Act of 1996

       Reinforcing some of the ADA mandates, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires

manufacturers and providers of telecommunications equipment to design equipment and services

that are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. Updates to the 1996 act are

currently underway to modernize requirements related to hearing aid compatibilities and closed

captioning tied to video programming and emergency communications.

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009

       The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009 is pending

legislation that seeks to extend key technologies, such as captioning, to content on television, the

Web, and mobile devices. This bill is supported by the Federal Communications Commission

(FCC). The bill seeks to ensure user interfaces are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Some of the key points to the 2009 legislation are:
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                         6

               Improving interfaces on smart phones to make access easier for the visually


               Television shows and movies would have better audio descriptions.

               Cable television program guides would have easier-to-use selection menus.

               Online television shows would be required to have closed captioning.

               Remote controls would have to include an easy-to-use button for closed

                captioning on broadcast and paid television.

               Internet-based phone calls will have to be compatible with hearing aids.

               Low-income deaf and blind consumers would be able to tap a $10 million a year

                program for help in purchasing Internet and telecom services. (Kang, 2010)

       This bill is a prime example of public-private sector collaboration. A companion bill is

also being considered in the Senate called The Equal Access to 21st Century Communications


National Broadband Plan 2010

        In 2010, the FCC introduced the National Broadband Plan with the goal of bringing the

benefits of broadband technologies to all Americans. The plan originated as part of the

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Currently 65 percent of American

households are wired for high-speed Internet, while only 29 percent of people with disabilities

have access to broadband services. (Robitaille, 2010) Part of the plan specifically addresses

people with disabilities. The FCC has included proposals for the formation of a Broadband

Accessibility working group within the Executive branch, establishing an Accessibility and

Innovations Forum at the FCC, and the modernization of accessibility laws, rules, and related

subsidy programs by the FCC, the Department of Justice, and Congress. (Wikipedia, 2010)
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                             7

W3 Consortium

       The W3 is a well known consortium focusing on standards facilitation with regards to

web development and design. The W3 has created the Web Accessibility Initiative. The main

goal of this initiative is to make web sites accessible both for people with disabilities and for

mobile devices. The W3 believes that web sites can more efficiently meet both goals when

developers understand the significant overlap between making a web site accessible and for

people with disabilities. The initiative has produced two significant tools to facilitate the goal.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is for making web sites accessible to people

with disabilities. The Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) is a guide for making web sites

usable from a mobile device. (W3C, 2010) With the combination of the two approaches working

in concert, the hope is to create web resources and realize the “One Web” where Internet content

can be displayed on any type of device whether mobile or stationary and the content retains the

look and feel intended regardless of form factor.

American Association of People with Disabilities

       The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the country's largest

cross-disability membership organization, organizes the disability community to be a powerful

voice for change – politically, economically, and socially. AAPD was founded in 1995 to help

unite the diverse community of people with disabilities, including their family, friends and

supporters, and to be a national voice for change in implementing the goals of the Americans

with Disabilities Act (ADA). (AAPD, 1995)

Mobile Future

       Mobile Future is a broad-based coalition of businesses, nonprofit organizations and

individuals interested in and dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                          8

wireless technology are enabled and encouraged. Their mission is to educate the public and key

decision makers on innovations in the wireless industry that have transformed the way

Americans work and play and to advocate for continued investment in wireless technologies.

(Mobile Future, 2010)

Popular Mobile Operating Systems Offer Accessibility Features

Apple iOS

       The Apple Corporation developed a mobile operating system called the Apple iOS that

runs the iPhone, iPad, and other Apple devices. The operating system addresses accessibility for

physical/motor skills, hearing, and vision in the form of applications and system settings.

VoiceOver is the first gesture-based screen reader. With VoiceOver you simply touch the screen

to hear a description of the item under your finger, then gesture using a double-tap, drag, or flick

to control the phone. The speaking rate is adjustable. VoiceOver also reads everything on the

screen and gives verbal status such as battery levels, network status, and time of day. The iPhone

can be paired with a refreshable Braille display via Bluetooth to read VoiceOver output. In lieu

of gestures, a user may also use voice commands to automate certain activities on the iPhone

such as playing music or making a phone call using a spoken contact name. Users are able to

zoom in on content when viewing images in email, web pages, and other applications. The

magnification can be manipulated by making simple finger gestures. The display can be set to

high contrast through a control panel option. The main buttons are tactile at the bottom of the

device screen. Giant fonts are provided for email messages. Hands-free speakerphone support is

also available. Another useful option is audible, visible, and vibrating alerts which can be

activated for phone calls, text messages, incoming and sent mail, and calendar events. Ringtones

are downloadable and assignable. By assigning a particular ringtone to a particular contact, it
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                           9

serves as an audible caller ID. Support exists for open captions, closed captions, and subtitles.

(Apple Inc., 2010)

Google Android 2.0

        Version 2 of this mobile operating system includes multiple accessibility features. This

operating system is open-sourced which means is it owned by the public and anyone can

contribute to the enhancement of the system through a formal revision process. This allows for a

broad-range of customization and flexibility for both software and hardware development.

Several of the key accessibility features are built into the operating system. A standardized Text-

to-Speech API allows for most applications to support the function. Improved keyboard layouts

allow for easier editing and improved typing speed. Text-to-Speech supports multiple languages.

Project Eyes-Free provides several enhancements for using touch-screen input. Multiple

applications are packaged with the platform that provides spoken, auditory, and haptic feedback.

Quick Contact allows for quick access to contacts and communications modes. Haptic feedback

mechanisms are highly customizable. (Disabled World, 2010)

        By combining phone hardware and operating system software, the aforementioned

advances in technology has further expanded the usability of mobile devices in a dramatic way.

Now that broadband services and public-use global positioning systems (GPS) are much more

commonplace, the coupling of these networks with applications used on mobile devices has

produced an amazing array of assistive technology applications available in the palm of your

ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                               10

Emerging Research and Development Projects

        Technological innovations take years to reach the general public in the form of a finished

product. Several of the research efforts discussed below show the promise of enhancing the lives

of those with particular disabilities in the not too distant future.


        The concept behind the applications is to allow a disabled person to select a contact from

a list and place a phone call by using only their mind. This application has the potential to

become an incredibly useful tool for the motor-disabled person. The application is designed for

the Nokia N900 Maemo platform and works with any accompanying headset. The Bluetooth

headset reads the user’s brainwaves to measure attention levels. If the attention level is higher

than seventy percent, the software scrolls to the next contact in the list. If the attention level is

higher than eighty percent, the software makes a phone call to the selected contact. The

prototype application is currently in a basic state, but advancement of the project can be tracked

using the Nokia website. (Perez, 2010)

BlueEar Project

        The BlueEar project aims to develop a new generation of assistive listening systems

based on short-range digital wireless communication standards. The project also has the

objective to overcome all the disadvantages of other assistive listening systems such as

maintenance issues, noise, limited frequency ranges, no bi-directional radio links, wire connected

to hearing aids, and incompatibility between company-owned communications standards. This

will be achieved by developing an open specification for assistive listening devices based on

digital wireless communications technology. Effectively a personal area network (PAN) would

allow people using hearing aids to connect to other digital audio sources in their environment.
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                           11

Bluetooth was selected as the digital communications technology of choice for the project

because of multiple factors. These factors include range, existing device compatibilities using

Bluetooth, ease of networking, very low power consumption, and the ability to connect to seven

devices simultaneously while maintaining a full duplex connection. Bluetooth appears well-

suited for PAN implementations.

       In 2001, the BlueEar consortium built prototype devices and performed end-user

evaluations in three countries. The user evaluations resulted in praises for the two-way

communications and the multi-speaker communications network. Basically the prototype system

includes hearing aids which talk wirelessly to a personal unit. The personal unit acts as a relay

between the hearing aid and external audio sources which connect via Bluetooth to the personal

unit. The original prototype utilized a wired connection from the personal unit to the hearing aids

to allow for testing. Current prototypes have embedded receivers built into the hearing aids to

allow for completely wireless communications. Also current prototypes are embedding the

personal unit in devices such as mobile phones, watches, and remote controls. These research

efforts bring the industry closer to having hearing aids of the future which will include digital

receivers allowing for wireless connectivity with multitudes of devices in the environment.

(Vlaskamp, van Riesen, & Glederblom, 2007)


       Because American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language, mobile video phones have

the potential to give deaf people access to real-time mobile communications in their preferred

language. MobileASL is a video compression project that seeks to enable wireless cell phone

communications through sign language. In this research study two different video compression

techniques were tested using various parameter modifications. Ultimately, based on user
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                         12

feedback based on multiple scenarios, a particular combination of compression and parameter

settings found MobileASL to be a feasible means of real-time communications for the deaf.

(Cavendar, Vanam, Dane, Ladner, & Riskin, 2007)


       Efforts to create a shape-shifting cell phone are currently in progress. Haptic feedback is

vital to this project. When audio or visual interaction is not possible, haptic feedback is an

alternate method of relaying information to the end-user. Researchers at the University of

Washington in Seattle have created a prototype cell phone they call SqueezeBlock. The

prototype uses small motors built inside of the case to mimic the action of springs. The

researchers refer to the small motors as virtual springs. (Gupta, Campbell, Hightower, & Patel,

2010) Pressure plates on the device detect how much force is being applied to the casing, while

the motors control the amount of resistance exerted in response. The resistance can be

customized to adjust the degree of squeezability based on the phone status. This allows for the

user to gather information from the device by simple holding and squeezing it.

       Here are some scenarios of the potential for the shape-shifting phone. After the battery is

fully charged, the phone might be taut while conversely, if the battery is running extremely low

the phone may become squishy. Another idea would be the stiffness of the phone conveying that

a number of priority emails are waiting. Imagine squeezing the phone to gather phone status

such as ring levels or messages waiting without having to look at the phone. Imagine scrolling

through a roll of pictures on the phone and as you get closer to the end of the roll the thickness of

one end of the phone changes to indicate the end is near. The phone could be coupled with a

mapping application which shifts the center of balance of the phone to guide a user in a

particular direction based on tactile information. (Morgan, 2010) The possibilities are incredible
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                          13

for this type of design. It will be interesting to see this research become available to the general

public and possibly enhance the lives of those with disabilities.


        Millions of people in the United States suffer from some form of physical disability.

Government intervention and special interest groups have made great strides in forcing equity of

mobility and access to the disabled in the United States. Trends in network proliferation and

mobile technology advancement are providing an array of assistive technologies that are both

accessible and affordable for the disabled. Several mobile assistive technologies currently exist

and multiple research projects are currently in development to further enhance the lives of those

with disabilities.
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                      14

                                           Works Cited

       AAPD. (1995, January 20). About Us. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from American

Association of People with Disabilities:


       ADA. (2010, October). American with Disabilities Act of 1990. Retrieved October 17,

2010, from Department of Justice - ADA homepage: http://www.ada.gov/pubs/ada.htm

       Apple Inc. (2010, October 15). Hearing Accessibility. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from

Apple.com: http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/hearing.htm

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Apple.com: http://ww.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/physical.html

       Apple Inc. (2010, October 15). Vision accessibility. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from

Apple.com: http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html

       Cavendar, A., Vanam, R., Dane, B. K., Ladner, R. E., & Riskin, E. A. (2007).

MobileASL: Intelligibility of sign language video over moible phones. Disability and

Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology , 1-13.

       Disabled World. (2010, January 17). Accessibility Features in Android 2.0 Platform.

Retrieved October 13, 2010, from Diabled-world.com: http://www.disabled-


       Gupta, S., Campbell, T., Hightower, J., & Patel, S. N. (2010). SqueezeBlock: Using

Virtual Springs in Mobile Devices for Eyes-Free Intraction. UIST 2010. New York City: UIST.

       Hollier, S. (2009). The Disability Divide: Why doesn't accessbility jut happen? OzeWAI.

Sydney, Australia: OzeWAI.
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                    15

       Kang, C. (2010, July 26). On Landmark law's 20th anniversary, House passes bill to

make INternet more accessbile for disabled. Retrieved October 13, 2010, from Washing Post:


       Mobile Future. (2010). Mobile Ability. Washington, D.C.: Mobile Future.

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Developer's Notes: http://www.webdevelopersnotes.com

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Retrieved October 18, 2010, from www.newscientist.com:


       Perez, S. (2010, August 6). Amazing Innovation: Mobile Apps for the Disabled. Retrieved

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       Robitaille, S. (2010, March 16). FCC's Broadband Plan Endorses Accessibility.

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       Vlaskamp, F. J., van Riesen, I., & Glederblom, G. (2007, July 17). Wireless Connectivity

and Assistive Technology: the BlueEar Example. Retrieved October 13, 2010, from

Person.Telecom-Paristech.Fr: http://person.telecom-


       W3C. (2010, February 17). Web Content Accessbility and Mobile Web. Retrieved

October 20, 2010, from W3.org: http://www.w3.org/WAI/mobile/
ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON MOBILE NETWORKS                                                 16

       Wikipedia. (2010, August 17). National Broadband Plan (United States). Retrieved

October 13, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Broadband_Plan

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