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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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July 25, 2007 4:48 PM

Overcoming Disabilities Through Broadband

Had the great fortune yesterday of attending a brown bag luncheon focused on the topic of how broadband is benefiting older adults and people with disabilities as part of the Alliance for Public Technology’s ongoing Broadband Changed My Life Series.

Wanted to share a rundown with you all about the many things I learned, starting with the remarks made by Jenifer Simpson, senior director, telecommunications and technology policy for the American Association of People with Disabilities.

She began by pointing out that just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean all they do online is health related, rattling off a string of mainstream applications that have proven popular among the disabled, including online gaming, eBay, YouTube, and Facebook.

She then suggested that the simple reality of broadband being faster than dialup is having a profound affect on how the Internet is embraced by people with disabilities as it allows them to surf the web and check their emails more quickly and therefore not become frustrated with waiting for pages to load.

The anonymity of the Internet is often maligned as a potential cover for ne’er-do-wells, but according to Jenifer it also enables a leveling of the playing field for others as it means people don’t have to reveal they have a disability to when communicating with others online.

At the same time, she highlighted the fact that despite the many benefits of broadband, most people with disabilities are still not connected, citing a small growth between 2002 and 2006 from 26% to 30%, as compared to those without disabilities growing from 57% to 62%.

A key limiting factor she sees in this equation is the fact that adaptive hardware and software, which help make computers more useable for people with disabilities, are still expensive, not readily available, and it can be difficult to find qualified help to assist in setting them up.

(Later on in the discussion, a blind gentleman spoke to this point, stating that purchasing a screen reader for his computer can cost as much as the computer itself, with the same paradigm holding true for equivalent technology on mobile phones.)

Also worth mentioning here is a new organization called COAT (Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology), which unites more than 90 groups all focused on ensuring the widespread availability of IP-based technologies that ensure people with disabilities are not left behind. I’ll be sure to follow up on their efforts at a later date.

Jenifer then moved on to a series of areas where broadband is having a profound impact on the lives of people with disabilities.

She recounted an anecdote of a hospital that wired itself for broadband and made the effort to ensure patients had access, and as a result they found patients starting to communicate with other patients to a greater degree and becoming more proactive in learning about their own journey through the healthcare process.

She then cited the serious issue of jobs among the disabled, a group that is saddled with an unemployment rate of 53%. While she couldn’t necessarily point to a great number of people for which this is true today, she acknowledged the tremendous potential for the disabled to establish work-from-home businesses because of broadband. Additionally, she mentioned a Goodwill program that trained people with disabilities to use the Internet to research and apply for jobs, an increasingly important skillset given the growing number of companies moving their job applications procedures online.

She referred to a project called Having a Voice, where mental health patients were able to connect with counselors over the Internet, though I’m still working on trying to find more specific information about this. (A link to the program she may have been referring to can be found here.)

In general terms she mentioned the increasing use of video of people communicating in sign language and of audio streaming as ways in which the Internet is becoming more usable for deaf and blind people, respectively.

Getting into more specifics, she cited the use of video relay services, through which the deaf can conduct more real-time conversations by routing the call through a sign language interpreter. In many instances, this technology is replacing the use of TTY boxes, which leverage transcribers to turn voice into text, but which also tend to create long pauses in conversations.

Technology like this is something that’s very reliant on having a fast broadband pipe, both to minimize the time it takes to route messages through the interpreter, and because for the deaf person to understand the interpreter, the video has to keep up with their hand motions.

Video remote interpreting is a kissing cousin to video relay services, only its purpose is to allow access anywhere with broadband to an on-the-spot interpreter to help facilitate communications in instances where someone who’s deaf is trying to communicate with someone else in person.

While the deaf community has found this technology to be very useful, most still prefer having interpreters on-site, plus these services can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, their primary use to date has been in either rural or emergency situations.

All in all, it was a fascinating overview of how broadband is being used by the disabled community.

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