Shepherd Center Researchers Helping Improve Accessibility of Wireless Technologies for People with Disabilities
ATLANTA -- With today’s mobile technology, most of us carry a personal computer, telephone, camera, alarm clock, GPS, reference library and even a flashlight with us wherever we go. But consider having all that technology with you and not being able to access it.
Understanding and easily using today’s mobile consumer technology can be a challenge for anyone. But people with disabilities often have greater difficulty activating and using the myriad of features packed into today’s mobile phones, tablets and computers.
The need to ensure the accessibility of consumer technology is the reason Shepherd Center researchers recently established the Interactive Technology Usability and Accessibility Lab (Usability Lab).
“The power and versatility of smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices have greatly expanded the mobility, social engagement and independence of many people with disabilities,” said John Morris, Ph.D., director of Shepherd Center’s Usability Lab. “At the same time, the rapid expansion in the capabilities of mobile wireless technology creates additional need to ensure that the features and functions of these devices are accessible by people of all abilities.”
Designers and engineers have developed newer ways for accessing mobile wireless technologies, including voice activation, eye gaze and alternative ways of activating functions by touch. If someone has limited use of their arms, hands or fingers, for instance, they can use their voice instead to activate functions and enter information or commands into their device.
These innovations and the details of their design require testing with consumers with specific disabilities to make certain they are accessible and effective. “Accessibility doesn’t just happen,” Morris said. “It takes a determined effort. Consumers need to be involved.”
The wireless industry understands this now more than ever. Still, the industry often finds it difficult to engage people with various disabilities who can test consumer products for accessibility.
So, they turned to Shepherd Center researchers who maintain a network of consumers with various disabilities as part of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies (Wireless RERC), an ongoing research partnership between Shepherd Center and Georgia Tech. The Wireless RERC is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).
“Our expertise in consumer research on wireless technologies, combined with our central location in Atlanta, make us uniquely able to help the wireless industry connect with consumers with disabilities,” said Ben Lippincott, co-director of Shepherd’s Usability Lab.
The Usability Lab has conducted six studies for Verizon Wireless, Samsung, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-profit that developed a voter guide mobile application for people with visual impairment. Research usually involves focus group discussion for general discovery of user experiences, extended take-home usability studies and one-on-one “sit-by” testing of specific devices and software.
“By engaging consumers upfront, designers and engineers of these technologies may avoid costly fixes down the line,” Lippincott explained. More importantly, it means these technologies are more accessible at an earlier stage in their development, he added.
For more information on the researchers’ Consumer Advisory Network, see www.wirelessrerc.org/content/user-research.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.