Examining mobile technology and its impact on people with disabilities

May 31, 2011
photo of an iPad showing Utah State Univesrity's website

Mobile devices can dramatically change the way people learn. That point was hammered over and over again at the Making the Move to Mobile (M3) conference at the University of Utah earlier this week. (Disclosure: it was sponsored by Apple, and they provided a free lunch.)

The implications of mobile technology may be felt even more among people with disabilities, as it helps close the accessibility/affordability gap.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that people with disabilities are less likely to use the Internet than their peers. Among adults who did not report a disability, 81 percent said they used the Internet, compared to 54 percent of those who did report a disability.

What’s more, some people are unable to meaningfully use a computer without additional, expensive technology. For example, a blind person often relies on screen reading software. Cost and accessibility problems are two barriers that may discourage people with disabilities from even trying to use the Internet.

But new mobile devices (the iPad, iPod and iPhone) are 100 percent accessible to the blind out of the box. They include a built-in screen reader, and they’re less expensive than many desktop computers.  In December 2010, the accessibility experts at WebAIM conducted a survey of screen reader users, where they discovered that the percentage of respondents who used a screen reader on a mobile device mushroomed 550 percent in less than two years. Interestingly, those respondents reported using a variety of mobile technology brands.

Screen reader survey respondents who use the technology on a mobile device mushroomed 550 percent in less than two years. They participated in the third installment of a WebAIM survey.

The Apple mobile devices have attracted the attention of application developers, who have created assistive technology specific to them. There are apps capable of magnifying objects, telling the difference between a one-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill, scanning upc labels, translating words to sign language or talking for someone unable to speak.

These capabilities have earned the interest of the CPD's assistive technology program and the attention of the CPD web committee, which is taking a closer look at mobile technology.

The M3 conference answered some questions and brought others to the forefront.  Using a mobile device, students can—and do—take notes visible to their study buddies in real time while the professor lectures. They can make their own multimedia “flash cards” that include clips of video. They can also mark up an e-textbook with their own notes.
But the  world of apps is further complicated by accessibility.

Here, too, it appears Apple devices are ahead. “The beauty of iOS accessibility is that it generally happens naturally,” said Jared Smith, WebAIM’s associate director. “Most apps are natively accessible, though some are not. Because of the native and natural support for accessibility, developers and end users can enjoy highly accessible web apps with minimal effort.”

Sachin Pavithran is program coordinator for the CPD’s Utah Assistive Technology Program, and he is also legally blind. He has found the iPad, iPod and iPhone to be 100 percent accessible, but he can’t say the same for all third-party apps. Some are, some aren’t.

At the conference, more than one presenter cautioned against assuming that today’s e-generation will understand the technology without any training. Students need to know more than “there’s an app for that,” even if it’s just a 15-minute introduction to an application, tucked away in a podcast. Some apps take a little time to learn, and sometimes there is more than one app available for the same function, making it challenging to get everyone in the classroom on the same page.

When the University of California Irvine School of Medicine gave its first-year med students iPads, the response was happy at first, said Dr. Warren Wiechmann, Faculty Director of Instructional Technologies. The devices came preloaded with all the textbooks they would need. Still, even the tech-savvy students missed some of the functionality of paper textbooks, which can be marked up, highlighted and scribbled with notes—and the student needs no extra training to do it. While applications exist that allow people to annotate texts, there are still issues that need to be worked out.  A further complication: every publisher wanted to have its own app.

The technology is still developing, and so are its implications for the educational world. Its implications for people with disabilities may also be great—though it may be hard to communicate those possibilities to the many people with disabilities who are not online yet.

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