Ensuring Equity and Accessibility on Mobile Phones

Series 1: History of Accessibility 


Hi, I'm Gary Behm and I'm the Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs here at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT. I'm also the director of the Center on Access Technology. Now, I'd like to share a series of videos on making mobile technologies more equitable for deaf and hard of hearing people.

What was it like growing up deaf?

So, what was it like growing up in a world as a Deaf person and as the only Deaf person in my family? So, I'm the youngest of four children in my family. I have three hearing brothers and sisters, and my parents are hearing. So, I'm the only Deaf individual in my family and all my siblings are born three years apart. So, I wasn't close in age to each of my siblings and my parents didn't know sign language at the time I was born. So growing up as a child I didn't know I was different at all the activities that you would play and do together. I was just like any other kid until I realized that there were communication gaps. So my parents sent me to a Deaf school when I was four years old. And I remember coming to the deaf school, seeing all the other students signing, and I didn't know how to sign. So I would go back and forth between signing at school and speaking at home and signing was a lot more natural for me and I picked it up very quickly. When I got home I wasn't able to sign because none of my family knew how to sign.So I was switching back and forth between two different worlds, signing and trying to use my voice.

What are some of the adaptations in technology that you’ve experienced?

So the changes of technology throughout the years have been pretty remarkable. So for example, I remember writing letters to friends and family. We all had the same level of access to writing letters back and forth. But when we look at telephone communication, there have always been challenges for many years. Going back to the rotary phone, deaf people didn't have access like other hearing individuals did. And with the invention of the TTY, I had to purchase this device, but it enabled me to now have access to placing and receiving calls. And with that, technology evolved to allow for video relay services and video calling through a computer or other phone device. And another improvement was with a device called the Sidekick. This device allowed for a more mobile and personal method for communicating with other hearing people through texting. It was the first time that Deaf people could use a phone they could also carry with them. And it was really popular and as technology continued to evolve towards smartphones, the Sidekick went away. New ways of communicating created even more opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing people through video calling apps, sending videos, live streaming. In addition to using video relay services (VRS) on the phone.  But Deaf and hard of hearing people have had to supplement their use of this smartphone with applications to try and make it more equivalent to how hearing people use the phone.

How different were things after ADA was implemented? 

So, a lot of changes happened after the ADA was implemented. And I think the intent was to make sure the community had access to information in general for education and employment opportunities. And, that brought about more recognition to allow more access to the world. In phones through video relay services and captioning services with accommodations in school or on the job. There's a lot of impact that the ADA created and even promoting further advancements with the technology that we use. And that’s a good thing.

How do you feel about the evolution of mobile phones?

So, I think about the evolution of mobile phones and the incredible advancements that we have seen in such a short amount of time compared to the old landline phones we used to use. To the bulky mobile phone, to now the compact smartphone. It's pretty incredible. And for Deaf people, from the use of pagers evolving to Sidekicks, to now smartphones like iPhones and Android devices. Technology has really evolved to benefit all of us. 

Do you think that our current smartphones are accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing people?

Is the smartphone 100% accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing people? Yes and no. Yes, in a way of being able to use your smartphone to download applications to connect to relay services. I can also send and receive a text message. That's great. But no, it's not 100% accessible in a way that when I purchase a phone, I can, right away, send and receive a text message, but I cannot place or receive a call without the need for downloading additional apps. I have to set up an account and register with the relay service provider and receive an additional phone number in order to place or receive a call. So, I have to perform a lot more steps and I don't have the same level of access as the native smartphone experience. For a hearing person they can place and receive calls right away, and there's a lot more work involved for a Deaf or hard of hearing person to perform in order to get the access they need and that's why the smartphone is not 100% accessible. In our generation, we pursue that equitable experience, and not just accept the way technologies are and how they exist today. This realization allows us to now move to finding improvements for equivalent access.