Accessibility arriving at the Top Table (guest blog)

Chris Lewis, a world-renowned telecoms expert and regular presenter on disability issues has kindly offered to share some thoughts with readers prior to his presentation at the Royal Society of Medicine event on the Medical Benefits of Wearables on 23rd November. This is the first of two he has written specially for TTA.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona accessibility I took to one of the main stages for the first time. IBM, Microsoft, Google and the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) joined me to present perspectives on how accessibility is going mainstream.

I introduced the session with some of the key findings from the second Telefonica accessibility report “Digitising the Billion Disabled: Accessibility Gets Personal“. In summary, the billion disabled people represent a major spending group, combining earnings of some $2.3 Trillion and state support of $1.3 Trillion. Disabled people on average earn only 60% of their able-bodied peers and, of course, many disabled people don’t get the opportunity to work at all. 4% of children and 10% of the working population are disabled, but perhaps most striking, over three quarters of the elderly. Combine this dynamic with Douglas Adams’s theory of adopting technology getting harder as we get older and you can see the ticking time bomb of disability and age.

The good news is that the technology required to assist the Billion is getting more mainstream, affordable and accessible. Mobile sits at the centre of this change. As devices arrive with built-in accessibility, the emphasis shifts to the applications and web content being correctly labelled to trigger the necessary assistive input and output. In addition, wearables such as smart glasses, microphones,  sensor patches, bionic limbs also complement the smarter devices to compensate for impairments of most kinds.

The flow of the session was as follows:

  • Frances W West, Chief Accessibility Officer at IBM told us how Big Blue has been dealing with accessibility for over a hundred years! She talked about ‘Millions of Markets of One’, a mobility accessibility app checker and a move to hyper personalisation in a broader context of smart cities. Accessibility is more than just accommodating disabled people; it is about inclusive innovation.
  • Rob Sinclair, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft took us through the way in which they are “Rethinking Interaction and Design” educating their engineers around disability. The pentagrams he used to illustrate a reduction of peoples’ senses is a powerful method of raising awareness of a lack of vision, hearing, touch etc. Rob interacted with the audience to identify examples of temporary disability or situationally disability adding some more instances such as under water, gloved hands in the frozen North as well as the often cited driving example.
  • Eve Andersson, Manager Accessibility Engineering at Google introduced the accessibility features of Android including TalkBack, BrailleBack, magnification, switch access, captioning and Android Wear – an open platform for everyone to embrace.
  • Michael Milligan, Secretary General, Mobile Manufacturers Forum described the way in which the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative ( GARI) has compiled over eleven hundred mobile devices along with their accessibility features into a single database. Mobile operators and retailers can draw upon this database to highlight accessibility features to people when visiting their web sites or retail outlets anywhere in the world.
  • Henry Evans, Adaptive Technology pioneer then finished the session by presenting his view as a quadriplegic only having access through slight head and thumb movement via goggles and a switch device to produce his presentation, demonstrating how he can use remote control robots to virtually visit museums around the world and fetch things from his fridge

I can honestly say that, being registered blind and interacting with Henry and his wife Jane via a letter board and the Beam robot on stage, was the strangest but most rewarding experience of over 25 years running industry conferences.

As well as getting accessibility on the main MWC agenda, it was also important to hear consistent messaging from the main vendors on stage. We all agreed that the worlds of accessibility and mainstream technology are converging.  Most importantly however, we need education and training at every step of the value chain and channel to market. Disabled people themselves need to be better informed as to possibilities for complementing or replacing particular sensory experiences. And, the people training and educating the billion need better information and training. Like so many other eco systems, it is a matter of taking the holistic view and identifying individual actions that will help the overall flow. And, this is a matter for everyone to consider; it is about those who are disabled and those not yet disabled. The ticking time bomb of age, combined with the temporary disability during our daily lives, all means that this is becoming a more mainstream topic.

Onwards and upwards everyone!

Categories: Latest News and Soapbox.


  1. Michael Glynn

    Thanks for this informative and inspiring article Chris. It’s fascinating how access issues have become mainstream in the mobile/digital industry – progress that hasn’t been achieved in so many other aspects of our lives. We can be hopeful too, of future progress in this arena, given the engagement of the major players, which in turn may raise every consumer’s expectations of mainstream improvements in access in other areas of life.

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