December 29, 2021

While Mobile Technology Offers Life-Changing Benefits, Research Shows Many Persons With Disabilities Remain Unconnected and Digitally Excluded

According to a fact sheet produced by the World Health Organization (WHO), one billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, live with some form of disability. And the number of people living with disability are dramatically increasing due to demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. In consideration of this information provided by the WHO, it was with great interest to read a report produced by the GSM Association (GSMA), a UK-based organization that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, that says "Mobile devices and services offer life-changing benefits to persons with disabilities, such as enabling access to basic services and independent living. Despite this potential many persons with disabilities remain unconnected and digitally excluded. It is estimated that around 90 percent do not have adequate access to the assistive technologies (AT) they require. Mobile-based ATs, especially smartphones, could be a valuable and cost-effective tool for persons with disabilities."

The report presents key insights into the mobile disability gap. Presenting research from the following seven low- and middle-income countries (LMIC): Algeria, Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan, GSMA's research "revealed that persons with disabilities are less likely to own a mobile, especially a smartphone, and are even less likely to use, or be aware of, mobile internet."

In explaining the research's methodology, the GSMA says "The Washington Group Short Set of Questions was used to identify persons with disabilities. Respondents who reported that they had 'a lot of difficulty' or 'cannot do at all' in at least one of the functional domains were considered a person with disabilities revealed that persons with disabilities."

Key findings of the report include:
  1. "Persons with disabilities have lower levels of mobile ownership than non-disabled persons in all countries surveyed. Bangladesh has the widest gap, where persons with disabilities are 55 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than non-disabled persons, and the smallest gap is in Kenya and Pakistan at 11 percent.
  2. "Despite the life-enhancing potential of smartphones as an assistive technology and a gateway to digital inclusion, persons with disabilities are significantly less likely to own a smartphone than non-disabled persons. The disability gap in smartphone ownership is wider than the gap in overall mobile ownership in most of the survey countries.
  3. "There is a significant disability gap in mobile internet use. In each of the survey countries, persons with disabilities are significantly less likely to use mobile internet than non-disabled persons.
  4. "Across all survey countries, fewer persons with disabilities are aware of the mobile internet than non-disabled persons. This is a significant barrier that prevents persons with disabilities from using and benefitting from mobile internet.
  5. "In India and Pakistan, mobile users with disabilities who are aware of mobile internet but do not use it reported that a lack of literacy and skills is the main barrier to usage. Other major barriers include lack of perceived relevance, safety and security and affordability."

The GSMA correctly asserts that "Key stakeholders in the mobile industry have a critical role to play in closing the mobile disability gap and ensuring digital inclusion for all. This includes policymakers, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, organizations for persons with disabilities (OPDs), mobile operators and other ecosystem players, including start-ups and device manufacturers."

What is more, the report offers the following recommendations for stakeholders interested in eliminating the mobile disability gap:
  • "Understand the mobile disability gap and how to reach and serve persons with disabilities better. Accurate and reliable disability-disaggregated data is a crucial tool for stakeholders to understand and address barriers to the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities. However, in most markets, disability-disaggregated data related to the access and use of mobile-enabled products and services is lacking, and has hampered digital inclusion efforts. It is critical that policymakers, the public and private sectors and digital players invest in, and collaborate on, accurate, ethical and effective data collection. This will help to monitor progress and inform the design of inclusive and relevant products, services and innovations for persons with disabilities.
  • "Raise awareness of mobile internet and its benefits for persons with disabilities. Awareness of mobile internet is lower among persons with disabilities than non-disabled persons, limiting their potential usage of mobile internet. To raise awareness of the benefits of mobile internet and smartphones as an assistive technology, stakeholders can develop campaigns targeting persons with disabilities and explore partnerships with OPDs to reach persons with disabilities and showcase how mobile services are relevant to their lives.
  • "Develop inclusive products and services that meet the diverse needs of persons with disabilities. Once persons with disabilities are aware of mobile internet and its benefits, it is important that they have access to relevant products and services that meet their needs. It is important that stakeholders ensure that existing products are accessible, and that new content, products and services are created with persons with disabilities in mind (e.g. user-centered design and inclusive or universal design practices) to improve accessibility and usability.
  • "Build the digital skills of persons with disabilities. Many persons with disabilities are digitally excluded because they do not know how to use mobile and mobile internet in a way that meets their needs. Stakeholders can support the delivery of mobile digital skills programs that train persons with disabilities (and their caregivers/relatives) how to use mobile internet to meet their needs. They can also explore partnerships with OPDs or other relevant organizations to teach persons with disabilities how to access and use accessibility features and mobile-enabled products and services. Stakeholders can use resources such as the GSMA's Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT) to train people how to access and use mobile internet services, including accessibility features. The toolkit is a visual, easy-to-follow guide that helps trainers demonstrate the functionality and value of the internet on internet-enabled mobile phones.
  • "Ensure products and services are affordable for persons with disabilities. Smartphones, which typically provide the most accessibility features and drive substantially higher mobile internet use, are often unaffordable for persons with disabilities. Mobile operators can design solutions to make internet-enabled handsets more affordable to persons with disabilities, such as innovative financing models and 'data-light' accessible versions of mobile apps and services."

A more detailed set of recommendations for the mobile industry can be found in the GSMA's Principles for Driving the Digital Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities.

Do you agree with the recommendations for eliminating the mobile disability gap? What inclusive products and services are you developing to meet the diverse needs of persons with disabilities?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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