Wireless devices increasingly helping people with disabilities

Mirroring a trend among the general public, an increasing number of people with disabilities regularly use wireless technologies, including cell phones - and find them easier to use.

But a number of people with disabilities cite a need for improved functionality of wireless devices, such as a feature to enable service dogs to call for help in an emergency, according to the initial results of a survey funded by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Wireless device ownership increased 13 percent – from 72 to 85 percent – among people with disabilities from the first generation of the survey of user needs – conducted from 2001 to 2006 – and the current survey, which began in April 2007. Also, more than three-fourths of respondents last year reported that their wireless devices are easy or very easy to use, compared to only half of those who responded to the earlier survey. Still, 73 percent said they likely would change wireless service providers, if necessary, to get additional features that enhance accessibility.

“The data these consumers share through our research helps our wireless industry partners meet customers' needs and also helps identify applications useful to people without disabilities,” said survey project director Jim Mueller of the Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC), a collaboration between Atlanta-based Shepherd Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are not encouraging the wireless companies to make special products. We want products that will work for everyone.”

The RERC, which received its second, multi-year grant from NIDRR in 2006, promotes equitable access to wireless technologies and encourages adoption of universal design –design that benefits users of all ages and abilities – in future generations of wireless devices and applications.

The 1,208 people who completed the RERC survey in 2007 are representative of a large portion of the estimated 40 million Americans with disabilities, researchers noted. They compared the demographics of survey respondents to the U.S. Census and noted that 77 percent of respondents are 25-61 years of age; 5 percent are younger; 18 percent are older.

Researchers are comparing and contrasting the initial results from the current survey to the RERC's previous user-needs survey of 1,200 people. Also, they are tracking trends among 165 people who have participated in both studies. In addition, researchers are comparing their results to findings reported by other wireless industry groups in 2007.

Here are some highlights from the analysis:

  • Comparing the earlier survey results to the current responses, researchers found that respondents who use their wireless devices every day increased from 40 to 65 percent. Those who consider their wireless devices “very important” increased from 60 to 77 percent.
  • Explaining why wireless devices are important to them, survey participants cited convenience and a sense of security – much like the general population. But they also noted that wireless devices often serve as assistive technologies. For example, one respondent noted, "The camera helps me remember things." Another participant reported that with the texting feature, “I can communicate with hearing people, like hearing people use cell phones.”
  • Among respondents to the survey last year, 77 percent said they are satisfied, very satisfied or extremely satisfied with their current wireless provider.
  • About 68 percent of 2007 survey respondents said they are satisfied, very satisfied or extremely satisfied with their present wireless devices.
  • The most important wireless functions cited by survey participants are: voice communication, 78 percent; Enhanced 911, 45 percent; text messaging, 43 percent; e-mail, 41 percent; and Internet access, 35 percent.
  • The most important handset features to these users are: long battery life, 63 percent; durability and toughness, 61 percent; low cost, 57 percent; and simple operation, 56 percent.
  • Survey respondents suggested some additional features they would like to have in a wireless device: “feature to enable service dog to call for help in emergency”; “ability to switch to voice carry-over during call (in case voice becomes unintelligible or environmental noise is too great)”; and “[ability to] scan and speak medication labels.”
  • Survey respondents also commented on ways to make wireless devices easier to use. Their comments related to: incompatibility with assistive technologies, especially hearing aids or cochlear implants, design of the handset, including their difficulties holding it, seeing the display, and manipulating the controls.

People with disabilities may participate through 2011 in the RERC survey, which is available online at http://www.wirelessrerc.org. The survey is also available by phone and in print. For more information, call 800-582-6360, send email to [email protected] or send correspondence via regular mail to:

Wireless RERC Research Coordinator
Crawford Research Institute
Shepherd Center
2020 Peachtree Road NW
Atlanta, GA 30309.

About Shepherd Center
Shepherd Center is a private, not-for-profit hospital devoted to the medical care and rehabilitation of people with spinal cord injury and disease, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis and other neuromuscular problems. Each year Shepherd Center admits more than 750 patients and conducts thousands of outpatient clinic visits. For more information, visit Shepherd Center online at http://www.shepherd.org.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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