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Introduction

In the United States, more than 56 million people have been identified as having a disability, constituting nearly 20% of the total US population.  When the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies (Wireless RERC) launched in 2001, wireless technology was on the cusp of a revolution. WiFi was a novelty and the “cloud” was still largely a dream. Rudimentary internet access was available on a limited number of “(not-so)-smart” mobile phones. Social media were limited to chat rooms, dating websites and instant messaging. To fully understand how people with disabilities use and could benefit from wireless devices, a Consumer Advisory Network (CAN) and Survey of User Needs (SUN) was created.  The first results of the SUN in 2004 revealed that 66% of people with disabilities owned a mobile/wireless device.  By 2013 the percentage had risen to 91%.  In the Deaf community wireless devices quickly became a fundamental communications platform. People who rely on Augmentative and Alternative Communications (AAC) increasingly were using tablets as an assistive technology.  Voice controls, speech-to-text, hands-free features and switch access have been major facilitators for people with a variety of disabilities.

Funded since 2001 by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Wireless RERC is a recognized leader on issues and solutions related to the accessibility and usability of mobile wireless products and services by people with disabilities.  Our mission is to research, evaluate and develop innovative wireless technologies and products that meet the needs, enhance independence and improve the quality of life and community participation of individuals with disabilities.

The Wireless RERC team members have worked directly with consumers, industry, wireless carriers and device manufacturers and design students to increase their knowledge of the user experience of people with disabilities. We have helped regulators understand the needs of people with disabilities by participating in more than 50 rulemakings, especially rules that ensure access to emergency alerts and been cited more than 150 times, impacting the outcome of rules affecting people with disabilities. 

In short, the Wireless RERC research, engineering and policy work has had a significant impact on accessibility. Wireless RERC projects include:

  • User Center Research: Consumer Advisory Network
    The purpose of this project is to enhance consumer participation in wireless research and development by expanding and refining the research “portal” into the needs of people with disabilities for wireless technologies. This portal is the Wireless RERC’s Consumer Advisory Network (CAN), the nationwide network of approximately 1,500 individuals with all types of disabilities. Additionally, through our Survey of User Needs (SUN) we track changes in use, usability, and needs and wants of people with disabilities by periodically re-surveying a representative national sample of previous SUN respondent. Another goal is to examine how wireless technology and social media promotes inclusion of youth with disabilities.

  • Policy Approaches to Promote Access to Wireless Technologies
    This project provides substantive input into policymaking to help reduce barriers and accelerate adoption of accessible wireless products, services (including emergency alerts), and software applications.  This project conducted the preparatory research and policy analysis related to the needs of people with disabilities, accessibility, and migratory shifts from legacy, fixed technologies to higher-functionality next-generation wireless technologies that framed the theme and topics for the Summit. Additionally, our participation in the federal rulemaking process with evidence-based input, has helped to inform the development of wireless technology policy and regulations that are inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities.  Relevant technology policy findings have been provided to key stakeholders via the timely dissemination of information.  A key output of this project is the Technology and Disability Policy Highlights.

  • App Factory
    The overall purpose of this project is to advance universal design in the wireless community. The objectives of this project are development, deployment, and adoption of software applications (“apps”) to enhance the utility and usability of wireless products and services for wireless customers with and without disabilities. App Factory output includes apps designed specifically to address barriers to wireless access and use by people with cognitive, physical, sensory, and/or speech disabilities.  Wherever practical, these apps incorporate features useful to all customers, with or without disabilities. A complementary objective of this project is development of a practical model for consumer participation in the process of app development. In 2011, the Wireless RERC pioneered the App Factory to fund innovative ideas that enhance the utility, usability and accessibility of wireless products and services.  Eleven mobile apps have been released and have accumulated over 500,000 downloads.

  • Emergency Lifelines on Wireless Platforms
    This project’s development work provides alternative and accessible emergency lifelines over wireless platforms that assist people with disabilities in managing the transition from (a) legacy alerting systems (e.g. broadcasts over TV and radio) to (b) next-generation versions of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages and next generation distribution systems for emergency alerts, such as social media platforms. Researchers explore and tests new capabilities that can be added to future versions of next-generation alerting systems; and demonstrates, testifies, and participates in working groups. Findings from development activities on accessible solutions to deliver emergency alerts and information are shared with government agencies, policymakers, wireless technology designers/developers, emergency management officials, and organizations serving people with disabilities.

  • Promoting Awareness of Access and Usability Needs for Wireless Devices
    The purpose of this project is to advance awareness among industry and consumers on usability and accessibility issues, and available solutions, to improve use of wireless products and services by people with disabilities.   Training and technical assistance are provided to consumers in selecting and using wireless devices, services and applications; promoting knowledge translation and dissemination of App Factory deliverables; assisting industry in understanding and addressing the needs of their customers with disabilities; and serving as an industry liaison to coordinate procurement and allocation of resources received from industry across RERC projects (e.g., mobile devices, software development kits, technical expertise).  A key output of this project is the Wireless Independence Now! (WIN!) Workshops… an AT&T and Wireless RERC roadshow on mobile device accessibility for people with disabilities.

  • Building Research Capacity in Wireless Accessibility and Usability
    This project provides opportunities for advanced-level research training on accessibility and usability of mobile wireless technologies. It includes four activities: 1) graduate research traineeships, 2) universal design curriculum development in design-related courses at Georgia Tech, 3) annual student design competitions focused on access and usability of mobile wireless technologies, and 4) training in accessible applications development for programmers with disabilities.  A key output of this project is the “Getting Wireless” student design completion.  Since 2010, the Wireless RERC has been offering industrial design (ID) students an opportunity to participate in a brief project to explore application of the Principles of Universal Design to mobile wireless technologies.  Faculty of the ID programs of Georgia Tech and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) have embraced the challenge and incorporated this project in their spring curricula.

  • SoT Summit - Envisioning Inclusive Futures:  Migratory Trends in Technology
    The overall purpose of this project was to create a state of technology event which would disseminate research findings and develop strategies to ensure that people with disabilities have access to wireless technologies and services of tomorrow. The Summit addressed five broad areas related to trends in mobile wireless technologies and their real and potential impacts.  The macro topics include: 1) technology; 2) society/culture; 3) economics; 4) law/policy, and 5) health.

SHOWCASE & RECEPTION

Day one of the Summit featured 18 poster presentations and technology demonstrations that targeted solutions to address a wide range of visual, speech, hearing, mobile, emotional and cognitive disabilities.  Following is a brief description of participants:

Wireless RERC Demos

  • App Factory: recognizing the growing importance of "apps" to enhance the accessibility and usability of wireless products, the App Factory creates an "open (to any app developer) shop" to promote development of a variety of software applications that address the needs of people with disabilities. Two apps that were featured were:
    • ZyroSky A simple but engaging single-switch accessible runner game reinforcing cause and effect App.
    • BrailleTouch A smartphone app that allows people that are blind and visually impaired to type on a touchscreen.
    • AeroCase
    • Ambi-Pera
    • Any Trip
    • Carry On
    • COSM!
    • Digi Duffle
    • Evanesce
    • Float
    • Modulo Luggage
    • Pac Trac
    • Sherpa
  • Bluetooth enabled external alerting interface: connects to mobile phones via Bluetooth and alerts the user with a sequenced light display and a siren only when a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) is received on an associated phone. It allows up to 3 accessible attachments to be connected to the device, such as a pillow shaker, bed shaker or strobe light
     
  • Student Design Challenge: Universal Design for Travel: Georgia Tech sophomore industrial design students implement techniques related to universal design, empathy, and marketing to incorporate/utilize wireless technologies. The project task was to design a suitcase for air travel to meet the needs of the general market as well as users with limited mobility (defined for this project as manual wheelchair users). Below are a list of the demonstrations presented at this showcase:
  • Easy as Pi Youth Code Club (Youth Code) Demos Youth Code engaged local K-12 students in computer programming to stimulate an interest in pursuing computer science degrees and eventual careers. Grady High School students were given Raspberry Pi programmable computers to develop projects that would benefit people with disabilities. The club is an education and outreach activity piloted by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, USA Section, Southeast Regional Group (SERG) and the CACP. 
    • Cam PI-Spy An inexpensive alternative to security surveillance, which provides capabilities to benefit users that are elderly and/or have a disability. Through the use of motion sensors, Cam-PI Spy is able to capture the images that matter.
    • Roam Therapy An aroma therapy prototype that uses Raspberry Pi and Arduino interfaces to create a remotely accessible essential oil diffuser. Designed to be beneficial to people with emotional disabilities and other needs.

Related Development Projects

  • Early Bird A mobile application that displays a unique hashtag (#) to provide additional information to users with disabilities during times of emergency.  It can be linked to a variety of social media sources to provide important lifesaving information in greater detail than is currently possible. Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency.
     
  • EyeRemember is a Google Glass app that helps users with memory difficulties keep track of the people in their circle, such as friends and family. It works in conjunction with Bluetooth low-energy beacons (BLE)-small transmitters- that must be worn or carried by friends. The project is funded by a Glass Accessibility Award the team received from Google in 2014.
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The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant number 90RE5007-01-00. The opinions contained in this website are those of the Wireless RERC and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or NIDILRR.