The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Telecommunications Access held a State of the Science conference on Monday September 9, 2013 at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC at the I. King Jordan student center (“RERC-TA-SOS”). Well attended with over thirty-five participants onsite and another twenty-five online, participants included many leaders from disability organizations that have comprised COAT and have worked to ensure passage and implementation of the 21st CVAA, along with other consumers, industry representatives, researchers, and others. The event included two technology demonstrations and four panels. Participants talked about what is working to provide accessibility for people with disabilities and what is not. They also looked to the future and what are the challenges for both industry and consumers. Dr. Alan Hurwitz, Gallaudet’s President, opened the event with a speech that reminded us all that it was to be 'an exchange of ideas' and that "everyone needs to work together early on in product and service development as it’s too late at the end for industry to ask consumer opinions at the end of the process."
The event was facilitated by the two Principal Investigators, Gregg Vanderheiden of the Trace Center and Christian Vogler of Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program. They summarized some of the current work of the RERC: they are focusing on the everyday needs of people who are deaf and hard of hearing as well as conducting extensive consumer research on telecollaboration by people with a wide range of sensory disabilities. In regard to teleconferencing, particularly in the workplace, a finding is how even one millisecond off is a major aggravation on a teleconference call where there is audio, video and text. Another finding is how much better broadband telecommunication is for people with hearing aids and cochlear implants, as compared to narrowband.
They also talked about their ongoing survey work on phone usage and on captioning. This includes the RERC’s work with the FCC’s Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC) emphasizing their work on Real Time Text (RTT). Also summarized was work on emergency 911 access including how video stream connection can be improved for VRS providers. A very interesting demonstration was provided of crowd sourcing to correct live captioning where participants at a live event can contribute to making corrected spelling and punctuation as the real time captioning text is displayed. The RERC also works to enhance Sec 508 and Sec 255 rulemakings in addition to work on the European technology accessibility M376 committee. PowerPoint presentations were not used at the event as too often speakers fail to explain imagery and content adequately for people with visual disabilities. The RERC-TA-SOS conference Agenda showing list of panelists and their affiliations is attached below and includes many leaders carrying on the work of COAT. An album of photos from the event is on the COAT Facebook group website here.
At the RERC-TA-SOS conference two consumer panels looked at what is working for people with various disabilities and what is not working. Panelists were also asked to state or dream what would be ideal. IPhone and IPad technologies were widely mentioned as successful technologies, as were audio or video description, captioning and hearing aid compatibility requirements. Most panelists also pointed out the shortcomings of these technologies and how their scope and scale is just not broad or wide enough. Examples: the need for captioning or a text version of video description; insufficient consumer-directed options during video relay service (VRS) to adjust contrast or background; lack of interoperability across devices or systems; a need for far better voice recognition and for voice menu systems to be accessible; and, as always, the need for better dissemination of information about current accessibility features and optons. There is also a need for better training and customer service support across devices and services and in particular about the access tools available, such as SpeechToSpeech relay service or accessible browsers. Also acknowledged is the need for more research on how people with intellectual disabilities, of any age, use telecommunications and how these needs can be met.
Dreams for more accessibility in the future included: having captioning on VRS calls as well as the video; the ability to slow down inputs on calls; interpreters provided holographically (both visual and tactile versions!); the desire to reach recipient of call – including PSAP operators -- first before going through a relay system; and to be able to access everything wirelessly from any device; three-way screen capability on video-based calls (i.e., see Communications Assistant and call recipient as well); in addition to more location or environment information provided during 911 service or via better other alerting devices.
Some notable quotes from participants:
Elizabeth Spiers of DeafBlind Services, Commonwealth of Virginia: “No one should struggle with E-devices. They should plug and play right away. It should come in all shapes and sizes.”
Ann Cameron Williams of The ARC: “When I asked how they design for intellectual disability, a telecommunications provider told me they take their Master’s level and Ph.D. engineers and have them pretend to have a cognitive disability.” (This was met with guffaws of laughter and shocked expressions by conference participants).
Paul Schroeder of American Foundation for the Blind (AFB): “While we all like what we can do with smartphones, dumb phones still need to be accessible too. All the features, all the menus.”
Patrick Timony of Adaptive Serivces, District of Columbia MLK Public Library: “The most valuable innovations are hiding in the hacking process in the way that people try to gain access.”
Paul Schroeder (AFB): “We people with disabilities look at the world differently … so innovative designers should look at what can be useful to the mainstream. “
Bob Segalman of Speech Communications Access: “Make Speech To Speech relay a national system.”
Harold Salters of T-Mobile: “It’s an apps-based future.”
Gregg Vanderheiden of Trace Center: “Research on how to make things simple again will be important.”
Matt Terrell of AT&T: “Anything is possible with software.“
Christian Vogler of Gallaudet Technology Access Program: “WiFi is not a successful experience for users needing video communication.”
The third panel included wireless services and devices providers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Samsung, Blackberry) who first provided summaries of their company’s accessibility features and services. Challenges noted by these representatives included:
- diversity of the telecommunications ecosystem where control is no longer centralized, but distributed
- accessibility solutions require multiple pieces to work together
- pace of technology is fast and developers of assistive technology struggle
- ability to attempt to validate the solutions is a challenge as apps, devices and ecosystem are complex because even though technologies fast growing, they take time to develop
- network and platform requirements have apps, hardware, software layers, all of which can be third parties, so deployment and infrastructure and technical standards are a challenge
- multiple countries involved for companies, where capital budgeting is involved long before the device side takes effect
When asked what R&D needs to happen for more and better accessible telecommunications the company representatives said:
- interoperability issues need to be looked at more (e.g., to open up handsets to use video channel so as to communicate in ASL)
- larger surveys needed such as on what features are used, not used, and how used
- understanding use by people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities
- standardization and globalization for high bandwidth services have to be looked due to the many differing requirements in U.S., Asia-Pac, Euro and Canadian marketplaces.
The report above does not include everything raised at the conference but is based solely on the notes of Jenifer Simpson, a COAT co-founder. Additional information about the event will be posted to this website story as it becomes available.
Taxpayer funds support the RERC on Telecommunications Access and this conference, and which are administered by a specific federal agency, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) within the U.S. Department of Education, via grant No. H133E040013.