Technologies are changing our ability to communicate with each other, access information, and navigate the world. On the one hand, new social, economic and technological barriers are forming what is known as the ‘Digital Divide’, that is the gap between people with and without access to digital technologies. On the other hand, new technologies are also enabling barriers to be broken down.
Inclusion means that everyone can participate in society on an equal and autonomous basis. It is not up to individuals to adapt – society needs to be accessible to all abilities and requirements. This is how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled describes it. Inclusion is therefore a task for society as a whole – and not a particularly minor task. Around one tenth of the population of Germany is living with a severe disability. Over and above this figure, there are also many restrictions not included in this statistic.
It requires major social solutions, as well as many smaller solutions that enable everyone to take part in society, to create real inclusion. It is these latter solutions that I would like to address in this article. To do so, I looked for technologies that either lower the barriers that enable individuals to access digital services, or digital solutions that lower the barriers in other areas.
Whether you use a computer, smartphone or tablet: to access the world of the internet as well as programs you need input and output devices that have to be interpreted using software.
Computers for home use have been around for 40 years, so there have been a number of devices enabling people to interact with them for some time – and meeting a wide range of requirements. Finger, foot, and mouth-held keyboards, tiny and giant keyboards for different motor skills, joysticks with a wheelchair bracket, one-handed keyboards, Braille keyboards, separable combined devices – all these technologies have proved their worth.
The eye control device, which gained great popularity through its use by the physicist Stephen Hawking, represents a combined hardware and software solution. It also lowers the barrier to using computers and to the people around them for severely mobility-impaired individuals. There is also a whole raft of technologies designed for different movement requirements.
In terms of software, advances in speech recognition simplify matters enormously, not least due to the popularity of voice assistants. There has been great interest in voice recognition since Alexa and Google Assistant have become firm fixtures in our living rooms. For many people they are simply convenient, but for many they also help to break down barriers on a massive scale.
Computers can also output information in various ways: apps let individuals zoom in on the screen and enhance contrast. Screen readers let people navigate through programs and around the web, even if they have a visual impairment.
Books, documents, forms – many things are now available digitally. E-books do more than just save space and resources – they are also easily read by screen readers. But what about non-digitalised books or documents? Text recognition is also available for them. Special scanners or small hand-held devices, which look like a highlighter pen, can be used to output text directly from the page as speech.
Programs, such as Seeing AI, that can recognise objects, words or even people and describe them directly to the user go even further. The app tells you what you can see, where the object or person is in the camera field, and how far away it is. Seeing AI can also describe emotions in people, and recognise money just like product codes. The program therefore combines a number of functions, some of which have been available as individual devices or software for some time. Product scanners, distance meters, colour detectors and, as already described, text readers are of great help to many people in their everyday lives.
And modern technology has also transformed magnifying glasses into smart useful everyday aids. NuEyes Pro glasses have a camera at the front and enlarge what they record up to twelve times. They are also capable of reading text and scanning products.
There are also interpreting apps for people with impaired hearing that connect them directly to sign interpreters. This represents a simple solution for continuous support with local authority processes, medical consultations or other important discussions.
Most of the technologies presented so far have been developed for specific applications. They are intended to allow people with certain restrictions to use technology. However, a new generation of apps has been designed from the outset to cover as many use requirements as possible. They pursue an approach known as ‘inclusive design’.
Inclusive design is used in many areas, and is already in everyday use in the mobility sector. This is not least due to the fact that, in accordance with the German Passenger Transport Act, all public transport must be barrier-free by 2022.
Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German rail company, has now expanded its “DB Bahnhof live” app to include a very wide range of information. Apart from live departures and arrivals, it provides maps of the surrounding area, information on barrier-free access and services, and a display of current and average passenger volumes. The information is detailed and – as far as I could see during my short test – really up-to-date. It even shows whether lifts are in operation or not. Information for people with reduced mobility is not listed here as an aside, but rather is included in the overall service accessed by everyone.
The app developed by the Dortmund-based company Ivanto goes beyond merely providing information, like many other mobility apps: the app and hardware modules installed at bus, tram and train stops as well as vehicles enable individuals to communicate directly with their environment. A Bluetooth module on the vehicle enables the app to announce when a person’s bus is approaching and then triggers a stop request externally. If special radar modules are installed at the stops, it can also detect and warn if bicycles are approaching. In the vehicle itself, the app then either announces of, if preferred, shows the stops or sends a notification when the individual’s requested stop is approaching. In addition to these assistance services, the Ivanto app offers door-to-door guidance, an automatic ticketing system when entering and leaving the vehicle, departure monitors, and a navigation system for pedestrians (with voice instructions and guidance aids for people with impaired vision). It therefore aims to be an all-encompassing aid for mobility.
The networking of digital devices and digitally enhanced environments provides many opportunities for breaking down barriers. The Mindtags app uses Bluetooth and NFC chips to help people to locate precisely where they are in buildings and, among other things, can direct them to a specific room or store. This is beneficial for people with impaired vision and for people who simply do not know their way around a large building. The app also provides the possibility of attaching NFC chips to objects and loading information: this might include explanations or additional information in exhibitions, and make it easier to find the right medicine, a specific book or tool in the home.
Digitalisation does not automatically create inclusion. Barrier-free technologies need to be developed in the same way as other technologies. There is still a lack of solutions to provide people with restrictions with access in many areas of society. However, the many existing tools enabling everyone to lead an autonomous life and, above all, the trend towards inclusive thinking in the development of new technologies, suggests that digitalisation has more solutions than barriers to offer.
Text: Nils Bühler