Ensuring Equity and Accessibility on Mobile Phones

Series 3: Future Possibilities 


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.

How does universal design benefit all? Not just Deaf and hard of hearing communities?

I’d like to give you some background information on the idea of Universal design, also called Inclusive Design. This is such an important concept in what we do. The idea is that any product or service that's developed there are different users of that project or that product. Creators, people with disabilities and other unique needs are all brought to the table to make sure that this product or service is designed for everyone. And typically people often develop based on things that they themselves would use, not for everyone else. So for example, those individuals in a wheelchair need access to different transportation methods, so those that remember roads with sidewalks didn't have access ramps for individuals with wheelchairs to come on and off. But now it's available on all sidewalks. This happened because the community was very vocal at speaking up about the needs of improving accessibility in sidewalks. So when roads and parking lots are built now, they are designed to include people in wheelchairs and what they also discovered is that other people benefited from those designs. Those include individuals on bikes, skateboarding or rollerblading, or even walking a stroller. All of that came out of a movement recognizing that these needs didn't meet the needs of the community and people with disabilities. The same goes for closed captioning on televisions. In the past, TV was designed for hearing people to use their hearing abilities. And our community fought to make sure that all audio was transcribed, and at time purchasing a decoder was a band aid approach for the Deaf and hard of hearing community because it was “better than nothing” and we needed captioning services. Well, now we don't see these decoders because thanks to our advocates in our organizations that really made way for TV manufacturers to include these technologies. The chip is so small and built-in the TVs so now they have captioning services. So when we buy a TV, we don't need to worry about it having closed captions. It's just a matter of turning it on or off with your remote. Technologies have evolved overtime, and the same goes with doorbells. Back then, I couldn't hear who was answering or who was there visiting me so I had to hard wire specifically to meet the needs of a doorbell. However, over the years, thanks to technology, it doesn't need to be hardwired. And now, I can use smart home devices like the Hue lights to integrate with a smart doorbell, meanwhile hearing people can benefit with this by having ambient lighting sync with their music. For Deaf people, we use the Hue lights as an alert. So back to mobile phones, we believe that by having an inclusive design will allow the mobile phone as a product itself to benefit all the needs of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. This will be ready to go and provide connectivity with access services for them, and that's what we're trying to do.

What is the ideal phone for Deaf and hard of hearing people?

Now with mobile phones. For example, when I dream about the perfect phone, what would it look like? Maybe companies think that the phone is already perfected, but for a deaf or hard of hearing individual, it's not quite there yet. We want to level the playing field a little bit more. We know that our mobile phones allow us access through apps such as video relay service and captioning services, but it's not at that level of what we're expecting. The reason for that is because we need an additional app and a different number for them. We also would have to register, have separate video mails for each of those apps, and have a different phone directory as well, which isn't a part of the mobile phone itself. Meanwhile, for a hearing person, they don't need to worry about those issues that a deaf or hard of hearing person faces. With that being said, one of our ideas is that by default when you have a phone you can place or receive a call to any service provider without needing any additional app or number. Those connections exist without needing to download or add extraneous features. This struggle is something that I think companies didn't realize what is involved for a deaf or hard of hearing person. Even though a solution exists  it is not quite at the level that we're expecting. So offering inclusive design for mobile phones develops those partnerships we would need to make it happen. It is very exciting to see what could be developed in the future.

How can this project move forward?

So how can you be involved with this movement? With these goals, we know that technology is rapidly changing and we want to get on board with what's happening. We also want to make sure that our access is on par with a hearing person with mobile technology. And if you believe that more can be done, then we want you to be a part of our team. We want to gather the data and share that this is something that the community wants. I believe we have an opportunity to continue striving for improvement. And if we think about the evolution of captioning on TV, we're following a similar path with mobile phones and we'd love your support.

How can YOU support us?

You can support us by checking out our website. When you go there, you can go and access the page that says “Make IRIS Happen” on the upper right corner. You'll be directed to a part of the website that allows you to fill out and complete a submission form that says “yes, I wanna make this happen” and that alone will make a difference. If you want to leave a video message, there's a way to do it as well by calling our VP number listed. So regardless of your preference, we want to collect as much data as possible to show the FCC that this is the vision of the community, and  something worth striving for. And the volume expressed by our community will help ensure this project to fruition. It's our responsibility as a deaf and hard of hearing community to make this vision possible, it's not up to the government or up to industry partners. It's up to us, the community, to make that happen. Just like different organizations have fought for access in the past, for whatever they want, fighting for improved sidewalks and ramps, as well as access with closed-captioning on TV, we'd like to fight for the same level of access on the mobile phone. So, we need all of your support to come together as a community to be a champion for accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing community. As we conclude this series, don't forget to take a look at our website and leave us a comment by filling out the contact form or sharing your support. That's what we would need and nothing more. Thank you.