Ensuring Equity and Accessibility on Mobile Phones

Series 2: Current Vision


Hi, I'm Gary Behm. 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. In our last video, we shared briefly about the evolution of accessibility in technology. In this video, I’d like to share some of what the Center on Access Technology has been working on to improve accessibility of wireless communication devices, specifically mobile phones for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. I want to share some updates to our project and opportunities for our Deaf and hard of hearing communities to join us in making this happen. 

How does this project work? 

So how does this project work? Well, we wanted to take a look into how to make mobile phones more accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. So, we took a deep dive into all the areas of how phones can be used and the technologies used to make it happen. One of the use cases is to look at how hearing people place and receive calls and the native like experience that came with that process. As you know, all phones have a dialer, which of course has come a long way from the old Rotary phone dialer. But, hearing individuals use this interface to place and receive calls. However, for Deaf and hard of hearing people we have to use downloaded mobile applications that work outside of the native dialer. Why couldn't we build those features in the dialer? So, for us we have to download applications as opposed to when a hearing person buys a phone, it's ready to use right from the start, we wanted to achieve that same level of experience for Deaf or hard of hearing person. So, some of those features, one in particular was voicemail and leaving a message or checking a message. We want to be able to do that. If I were to call a friend of mine and they weren't there, I want to be able to leave a message. So, how can we make that built into the phone? That exists for hearing people, but it doesn't exist for a Deaf person. They have to rely on a separate application in their video mail and the same goes for address books. Maintaining multiple address books through a different application on a different phone number. The burden is on Deaf and hard of hearing people to set up all these extra services to make it work. And yes, it can work. But, it's not equivalent. 

Where are we now? 

So we started collecting information and feedback from the community, as far as what they would like to see on the phone. And a lot of them were tired of maintaining multiple phone numbers and multiple address books for each application, and dealing with issues of porting a number from one service provider to another. We wanted to improve that process and so, we thought, “How can we best achieve that?” And of course, making the dialer more efficient is something we wanted to do, but there are a lot of pieces in the infrastructure just to make that happen. It involved phone carriers, it involved networks, it involved service providers, and all of those stakeholders had to come together to look at the entire picture to see how we can make these technologies work together. This was part of the inclusive design mindset that we wanted to take in building this. So, we started building a prototype to see if this could actually work. We didn't want to share it with the community until we knew that it was technically feasible and that it was possible to achieve what we wanted. So, we started with tests, looking at a native phone, and we worked with an Android operating system because Android was open source and allowed us to make changes at a system level. We basically rebuilt the Android operating system on the phone adding, enhancements with all the accessible features we were looking for, and were pretty amazed at the results. 

So, we started to share that with the community and bring the community onboard that this idea can be possible, which is a really exciting time for us that we can achieve a higher level of equality with mobile phones and get the access we need. So, with your support, we will ensure that together we can make this worthwhile. Not just in phones that exist now, but in upcoming technologies in new phones. As you know, new phones come out every year or two and we want to be able to have these features built into the phone. And when we think of having these features built into the phone, that's something we want to see. And of course, supplementing those built-in features with the existing applications can definitely work. But let's say you don't have an application on your phone, your phone will still be accessible from the start because for some individuals who are losing their hearing, they might be used to using a mobile phone. But, when they start losing their hearing, they might wonder, “How do I access accessible services?” They know how to access it built into the phone without the need for downloading additional apps. I think a lot of us are already used to supplementing that with different devices and applications, but the goal would be in the future that, by default, when you purchase a phone, it comes built in with these features. So, we've tested this in a lab environment and developed prototypes on this and now we want the community's engagement to work with industry stakeholders to see if this can be brought to life. And so as these ideas are shared, we can make this happen. 

How will this make phones different?

So, how will this make phones different? Well, the difference is that you access these features “natively.” I can still choose my service provider from a drop-down list. If I have a preferred provider, you can access them that way, but where you access it from can be different. If you want to access it from a mobile app, that's fine, but you also have an additional way of connecting to those accessible services. And those features might be more and better on a mobile app. But, natively, I can use that phone to place and receive a call using a service provider using my mobile phone number. The same goes with an interpreter and with captioning services. It allows us to choose a service provider from the phone's default menu. And that allows you to access the phone's mobile number to place and receive a call. 

How will this benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing communities? 

So, how will this benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing community? There's a lot of different benefits. For example, when placing a video relay service call, if my mobile app is closed or my phone's asleep, it will ring because the dialer can trigger that alert. If depending only on a mobile app, that app has to be logged in and open in order to receive that call. So, for hearing people, their phone will send an alert when a call  is coming in, and we want that same level of access for a Deaf and hard of hearing person. We don't want to be missing those calls. And because mobile phone technology is moving at such a fast pace, we can ride with the improvements of features and technologies that are being built into the phone. So, for example, 3 way calling is an easy way to tie into with the service provider. Using voice-to-text features. Next Generation 911 features are available. Accessing the GPS system level coordinates is available by default for the dialer, but not necessarily for the mobile app. So, when you call 911 you have better access to GPS coordinates that you can send to the dispatcher. So, there are a lot of benefits of making accessible services available from the native dialer itself, and so we can leverage those technologies. And, in the same way, when televisions came out with closed captioning as TV's continue to improve in their display and technology, the captioning features are still built into the device, and the same goes for mobile communication. And that's the whole idea behind what we're trying to do.

Why did we create this project?

So why did we decide to create this project? Well, at first we thought of is it possible to improve mobile phone communication for a Deaf or hard of hearing person? And we thought yes, it is. We took a look at all the technologies, and found solutions, and we wanted to get the community involved now to see this idea come to life. The idea would be that in a couple years you could purchase a phone, a place or receive a call to access services using your phone's mobile number. And having those features built into the phone, that's our goal, and we're hoping to get your support. 

Did you know that 11 million Deaf or hard of hearing people in the United States exist, and over 8,000,000 of them own a mobile phone. And out of that, 8,000,000 none of them can access relay services with their mobile phone number. It requires them to download additional apps or use specific devices. We've never achieved the built in functionality. We're hoping that this project will take this technology to the next step by supporting the needs of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. And we're very excited and we need your involvement and we want to thank all service providers out there for doing a great job supporting our needs by providing relay services for sign language interpreting and captioning services. We're all working together to make this happen. And this is where we need the community support, industry leaders, service providers, all on board to make this possible. It's a very exciting project and I encourage all of you to learn a little bit more about this project. We called this: Project IRIS. It's named after Greek messenger goddess. We found that fitting because the Greek messenger goddess was responsible for passing communication back and forth, similar to what this project is about. And so that's why we named it. I mean, it's not a product or a piece of software, but it's a big picture idea of making this idea possible without the need for supplementing additional apps. So it's an exciting opportunity for us to have a more equitable experience for Deaf and hard of hearing people. Thank you for your support. I’m excited and I look forward to working with you.