Carlos López Blanco, Public Affairs & Regulation Director at Telefónica, explains how the mobile technology sector is pioneering a design philosophy that others would do well to emulate…
Modern design shapes the physical and cognitive environment around us – yet much of it still ignores the daily requirements of people with disabilities, addressing only the perceived needs of so-called ‘able-bodied’ users.
In recent years, however, we’ve seen increasing awareness of the benefits of ‘universal design’. Just look at the iPhone and how it tries to simplify life for its users, through features like the Siri voice assistant, its text to speech facilities and screen magnification options.
Devices like the iPhone demonstrate how adapting our designed environment for people with disabilities needn’t involve simply ‘adding things on’, but actually improves things for everyone. The benefits cut both ways – push buttons that open doors, for example, will not only help people in wheelchairs but can also be useful when someone’s arms are full or for a parent pushing a stroller. Instead of accommodating wheelchair users by creating a ‘special’ entrance, the overall design is improved so that we all benefit.
Ubiquitous mobile devices
This trend was highlighted earlier this year at the 2015 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – the world’s largest annual gathering of mobile and related industry C-Level executives – when analyst Chris Lewis of Lewis Insights presented some key findings from a whitepaper he published with Telefónica, entitled Digitising the Disabled Billion: Accessibility Gets Personal.
Simply put, the individual is now at the centre of a hugely connected series of personal, environmental, societal and business flows – and that movement is true for all, regardless. With the ubiquitous mobile device at the heart of this step change, the lines between ‘assistive’ and ‘mainstream’ technologies are starting to blur.
As indicated by its title, the study also looked at how members of the disabled community have been producing apps themselves. Telefónica’s own start-up incubator, Wayra Academy for instance, has received some 25,000 submissions over the last five years to its innovation programme. Here are just three companies currently operating in the assistive space that Telefónica is helping to accelerate:
• GiveVision (pictured) – develops software for use with specialist glasses, designed to aid the independence of visually impaired and blind users
• ChangeAlert – produces moisture sensors that can be fitted to continence pads and used to alert carers when they need need to take appropriate action
• uSound – an app that can potentially turns a standard smartphone into high performance digital hearing aids for less than £25
Although some technologies can produce obstacles to independence for people with disabilities, others – be they designed with specific impairments and conditions in mind, or for general use – can provide ways of eliminating and overcoming environmental barriers. Such technologies might work by augmenting an individual’s abilities (via glasses or hearing aids, for example), by improving the general environment, or through some combination of the two.
When you consider figures published by the Office of National Statistics that say well over 600,000 people will turn 65 each year until at least 2018, it may be worth running a large-scale, long-term, public education campaign to increase the acceptance of assistive technologies and highlight what products are available to ‘make life easier’. Above all, we need to convey that it’s just a matter of time before all of us need help from smart technologies – by which point they’ll have become a normal, everyday part of our lives.
For more information about Telefónica, visit www.telefonica.com