How smart phones are enriching disabled’s lives


It was not so long ago when access to technological gadgets and services among people with disabilities (PWDs) was limited.

Feature phones and smartphones lacked interactive voice responses (IVRs) for those with hearing impairments, or speech-to-text commands for people with visual impairments.

As a result, accessing services such as mobile money, voice, messaging and internet was hard for them.

Some other challenges included information communication and technology (ICT) inaccessibility, misalignment of efforts of actors in the ecosystem and lack of engagement of the private sector.

“PWDs are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic conditions and discrimination than non-disabled persons,” latest GSMA 2020 Mobile Industry Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals shows.

"This can be exacerbated in humanitarian contexts, where PWDs are often disproportionately impacted by crises.”

For the sake of social equality, tech companies have invented PWDs user-friendly services such as computer programs and tablet applications that provide text-to-speech, speech-to-text, word prediction capabilities, and graphic organisers.

These new techs have help improve the living standards among the disabled through the use of mobile money for trade as well as insurance policies.

As a result, more PWDs are now using smartphones more than their non-disabled counterparts. Whereas 63 percent of PWDs use smartphones, only 56 percent of non-disabled use them, this is according to A GSMA report released recently.

Persons with visual or hearing impairments who own a smartphone have high levels of mobile internet usage, says the report.

“Assistive mobile-enabled technologies and services can increase the capacity of people to live healthier, productive, independent and dignified lives, allowing them to access healthcare, education and labour markets as well as civic life,” the GSMA study found.

“This highlights the benefits of smartphone features that enable more services than basic phones e.g. IVR for those with hearing impairments or speech- to-text commands for people with visual impairments.”

The GSMA report says 70 percent of persons with disabilities own a basic or feature phone in Kenya.

And in Kenya and Bangladesh, the report says those with hearing impairments are most likely to own a smartphone while those with visual impairments are least likely to own a smartphone.

Barriers to ownership of smartphones among PWDs include the perception of being unable to use mobile phones due to their disability, a lack of digital skills, and lack of awareness by caregivers or relatives that mobile phones can be valuable tools for persons with disabilities.

The 2020 GSMA report argues that there are three main tools that have the potential to greatly influence the mobile for PWD space such as natural language processing, which involves computer analysis of natural human language data.

"Applications include speech-to-text, speech-to-sign languages and vice versa, speech recognition and simultaneous translations," it shows.

The second one is big data that analyses large amounts of information to identify patterns, trends and predictive models, helping to “make sense of the information collected.”

“The applications are endless, from navigation systems to support platforms. ICF Mobile, for instance, leverages the data collected to create a health database with the potential to provide custom, real-time information to PWD (based on their situation and surroundings), government and organizations," the survey shows.

Another realm is artificial intelligence (AI) that feeds the development of AI cameras, machine learning algorithms, self-driving cars and other innovations.

In Kenya, Safaricom has a specialised section in their call centre to provide services for customers with hearing impairments.

“To access this service, customers dial a specific customer care centre via video call and receive support from an agent using Kenyan Sign Language (KSL)”, the report says.

“The operator also ensures that the information they provide is accessible, including their website, and that information videos have closed caption or KSL interpretation.”

Safaricom has also increased the proportion of employees with disabilities from 1.7 percent to 2.1 percent as enshrined under the 2003 PWD Act that requires public and private organisations to have five per cent of employees with disabilities.

However, the GSMA survey shows that PWDs reported several challenges when attempting to access or use mobile services, including the cost of services (and the additional costs they incur to access them), the perception that their disability hinders the autonomous use of mobile services, and safety and security concerns.