Assistive tech pushes up number of disabled mobile phone users

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Assistive tech pushes up number of disabled mobile phone users


A blind student at Moi University School of Law using a mobile phone. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Increased access to disability-friendly technologies has seen the number of Kenyans living with some forms of blindness using mobile phones grow faster than those with speech, hearing and cognitive difficulties.

More than half of persons living with visual impairment used mobile phones more compared to those with communication and cognitive difficulties, shows data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled ‘Analytical Report on Information and Communication Authority’.

The highest ownership of mobile devices was by those with visual difficulties (different forms of blindness) at 57.1 percent followed by those with challenges in walking at 54.6 percent.

The report also shows the use of mobile phones by Kenyans with communication difficulties is normally limited to text-based usage explaining the lower uptake at 13.4 percent.

“The uptake of mobile phones by persons living with disabilities is vital in ensuring the inclusion of everyone and in the spirit of leaving no one behind,” said the KNBS in the report.

The data highlights the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) by persons living with disabilities (PWDs) aged five and above.

About 49.4 percent of PWDs owned a mobile phone with females taking the lead at 51.6 percent, followed by males at 46.4 percent.

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Similarly, 55.7 percent used a mobile phone, with females at 57.9 percent and males at 52.7 percent.

There are various types of visual impairments including loss of central vision, loss of peripheral (side) vision, blurred vision, haziness, extreme light sensitivity and night blindness.

Over the years, disability technology has gone mainstream as manufacturers launch better products addressing different needs. Better data has also paved the way for increased accessibility.

“As technology spreads in every part of the country, digital transformation should be eliminated so that everyone can use and access the ICTs,” read the KNBS report.

Assistive technologies are no longer a costly afterthought but an integral element in the design of products as manufacturers seek diversity and inclusion.

Charles Kimari, senior manager at Samsung Electronics East Africa, says with new updates in technology, companies now design products for all users.

“Samsung has overcome discriminatory tendencies in the technology industry. Physical or cognitive impairments are not a hindrance for any user when interacting with our products,” he says.

Samsung phones have some features to help people living with disabilities use their products with ease.

“The key areas that have helped visually impaired persons are the screen reader and visibility enhancement feature found in Samsung devices. For visually impaired persons, the sound is key and with the devices having Google Assistant and Samsung Bixby, users can interact with the devices via voice command and the device can deliver,” said Mr Kimari.

Artificial intelligence has also played a key role. It has helped tech companies leverage various functions hence improving products and making them diverse and inclusive.

“There are multiple features that are tuned to assist users with different visual impairment conditions and also make screen interaction to be friendly and less straining,” he said.

High contrast themes and fonts also help in adjusting brightness and readability.

“This helps reduce eye fatigue when using the phone in a dark environment or for a long time,” added Mr Kimari.

Inbuilt accessibility features also help people with special needs to access the menu and various phone functionalities. They get to explore and interact with the world through touch and sound.

Other features include colour inversion, colour filters and magnifier widgets.

“Magnifier widget includes features such as digital zoom, colour options, and capture using the camera. You can add a magnifier widget on the widget screen,” said the Samsung Electronics manager.

A majority of disabled people lacked access to tech products, limiting them from working or socialising with family and friends.

For many disabled people, the Internet has helped them bypass what used to keep them apart which is: inaccessible transport, a lack of appropriate care, pain and fatigue. In the new era of working from home, some are now able to work from the comfort of their homes with different technology devices.

The number of job seekers who are affected by disability is likely to rise as technology becomes essential in improving recruitment and retention rates.

Understanding the mobile disability gap presents an evaluation of the barriers to mobile phone ownership experienced by persons with disabilities, as well as the usage patterns of four main mobile-enabled services (voice, SMS, mobile Internet and mobile money) and the role of mobile phones to enable access to basic services, such as education, healthcare, transportation, employment and financial services.

While there is a growing recognition that mobile technology has the potential to deliver services to persons in need, there has been limited knowledge of what companies are doing to promote inclusivity, especially for consumers.

Those with hearing difficulties can use phones with advanced features that are tuned to make screen interaction-friendly and less straining.

Users have the option to mute all sounds and enable other features such as live transcribe and sound notifications.

“The feature detects the language that is being spoken from over 70 languages and dialects. Supporting the captions adjust as your conversation flows. Sound notification alerts you based on surrounding sound,” said Mr Kimari.

“This feature will allow you to be aware of the important situations at home, such as a fire alarm or doorbell ringing, so that you can respond quickly.”

Others include live captions, amplified ambient sounds, and left and right sound balance.

United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are aimed at reducing inequalities and ensuring no one is left behind in policies, education, and social and economic matters.

A joint world report on disability, produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank, suggests that more than a billion people in the world today experience disability.

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In Kenya, Nairobi reported 3.9 percent of its population as having disabilities — the highest in the country. Nyanza region was ranked second with 3.6 percent of its population having different disabilities while Coast was third with 2.3 percent. The Rift Valley region reported the least disability prevalence in the country at 1.6 percent.

More than one in every four households has a person that identifies with one of the six disabilities. They are a major part of the consumer population yet they are underrepresented in the innovation and marketing strategies designed to reach and retain consumers.

Businesses are waking up to the spending power of the disabled and their families.

A report by Nielsen dubbed the ‘Uncommon Sense of Consumers’ states that consumers with disabilities are higher spenders in many categories despite tending to have lower incomes.

Telecommunication companies are now rethinking how best to tap and reach these prevalent and diverse consumers with disabilities.

Oppo, a mobile telecoms firm, said they have a series of customised accessibility features in their gadgets.

“ColorOS, for instance, helps people with visual impairment to better understand the display content through features such as TalkBack, Select to Speak, Gestures and Motions and Colour Accessibility Mode,” said the phone manufacturer.

The TalkBack function is used to aid blind and low-vision users by speaking actions out loud as items are touched, selected, or activated.

TalkBack is enabled, users can utilise the voice guide function to read what’s displayed on the screen and jump to the next step without having to look at the screen,” Oppo said in a statement.

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