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Mobile Accessibility and Employment of People with Disabilities

by: Jamal Mazrui, Deputy Director, Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

October 31, 2013

The FCC's Accessibility and Innovation Initiative is pleased to commemorate October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. 

In recent years and on a global scale, the spread of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices has been dramatic.  A driving force behind this has been the revolution in mobile apps.  Hundreds of thousands of apps have been developed for various mobile platforms, including Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Nokia, and Windows Phone. From a disability perspective, apps may be subdivided into the categories of accessible apps and assistive apps.

For the disability community, there are two vital kinds of apps: accessible and assistive. An accessible app is designed according to accessibility guidelines for user interfaces so that people with a range of physical or mental capabilities can operate the software successfully, such as people with visual, hearing, dexterity, or cognitive disabilities. An accessible app generally has a mainstream rather than disability-specific purpose.  It benefits a broad user base in the accomplishment of human tasks that are commonly pursued.

An assistive app, on the other hand, helps people with particular impairments surmount what might otherwise be experienced as limiting consequences of a disability, (e.g., identifying paper currency to a blind person, facilitating direct sign language communication for a deaf person, inputting text from dictation by someone with a dexterity impairment, or giving reminders to someone with a cognitive disability).  Naturally, an assistive app also has to be an accessible app to those who particularly benefit from it.

Mobile apps — both accessible and assistive — are showing great potential for improving the lives of people with disabilities.  This is partly because of two other technological trends that enable mobile functionality:  cloud computing and broadband connectivity. The convergence of these technologies means that an app can solve complex problems almost instantaneously by quickly delegating the analysis to a specialized computer at a distant location and then returning the result to the user, who is often unaware of what is being done locally or in the cloud.  The portability of the mobile device means that a person with a disability can carry a powerful, supportive problem-solving device wherever he or she goes -- at home, at play, or at work.

Raising the level of mobile accessibility tends to raise the level of disability employment.  Apps are continually being developed to improve productivity in almost every profession.  Many are completely free while most others cost only a nominal amount. Each mobile platform usually makes it easy to search for and install apps from an online store.  Commercial apps typically offer a trial version so that evaluating accessibility is possible in advance.

  • As we close out National Disability Month, here are some related resources:
  • The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy promotes National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
  • The FCC's Accessibility Clearinghouse contains extensive data on accessibility features of mobile phones and on free, assistive apps.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates accessibility of information and communication technologies that are produced or purchased by the federal government, including mobile technologies.
  • The federal government offers a gallery of free mobile apps produced by various agencies.
  • Federal agencies also contribute to a catalog of mobile code snippets and developer tools so that useful apps may be produced more easily.
  • The World Wide Web Consortium has published best practices for the design of websites intended to be browsed on mobile devices.
  • CTIA has collected links to accessibility guidelines for app developers targeting various mobile platforms.
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