Technological Accessibility: A Future of Exclusion?

Since the prehistoric days of man, we’ve continually developed means of communication that are essentially extensions of ourselves. Our ancient ancestors began such developments illustrating paintings in caves alerting fellow travelers with various pieces of information on walls, but in today’s world we’ve replaced those walls with the radio, television, and mobile phone; allowing us to widely access information. However, u

pon a closer examination of communication technologies and more particularly, mobile devices, the problems of access are inherently an issue that affects people just as much as it has helped. This essay will prove this by first building a brief history of mobile devices and communication technologies, which then can allow us to contextualize the problems of accessibility for the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and illiterate persons; with additional help from scholarly research.

Access

                  To begin to understand the history of mobile devices we must understand first that it is one of succession, Jason Farman, points out in Historicizing Mobile Media, “The mobile phone as we know it was founded on technologies that sought to bring together the invention of the landline telephone in the 19th century and the invention of the radio around the turn of the 20th century.” Lang (P. 15) This example of an ICT (Information Communication Technology) helps us understand that in the infancy some technologies it often leads to growth and fusion. Technologies such as early visual transmissions of information in cave paintings would be later succeeded by advents like papyrus, paper, and television. Acoustic technologies also advanced similarly, the aural transmission of information developed out of early uses of drums, the wired telegraph, and radio. The combination of aural and visual communication technologies have continually made it possible for multitudes of people to transition from stationary communication (cave paintings) to wireless communication (mobile phones). These are important transitions in history because information has grown from being emitted from a central point to a multipoint distributed network, seemingly making information to be “easily” accessible and instantaneous for people. However, the notion of ease and accessibility are equally important, because though advents like radio, television, and mobile phones have sped up the transmission of information it does not mean it has been accessible to everyone.

                  What accounts for the problems of accessibility though? We know that in the same way a normal bodied person without a reading deficiency can access a mobile device, an individual with a bodily abnormality or literacy deficiency cannot.  Media and communications disability scholar, Gerard Goggin helps us with this question in his book, Cell Phone Culture, arguing that people with disabilities are often overlooked as media users, pointing out the incompatibilities of the technologies themselves. Which incompatibilities are noted by the National Council on Disability in his book, “there are limitations that make cell phones either inaccessible or difficult to use (and, therefore, possibly undesirable). People who have visual impairments may have the most difficulty reading the display and accessing visual information. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may have difficulty carrying on a verbal conversation and detecting auditory alerts.”Goggin (P.90) The National Council on Disability really shed light to the problem of use with cellular devices, which are ever more being designed with the least accessible features. Goggin goes further saying, “With miniaturization, computerization, and manufacturing, cell phones became smaller and lighter. This made them easier to use for some consumers, but more difficult for others because of the dexterity and nimbleness demanded by tiny buttons and interfaces” Goggin (P.91) Goggin’s argument of being overlooked in the first place are what he also suggests is a form of exclusion, regulation, and control; even worse is the association of persons with disabilities as being seen as other.

                  Like people with disabilities, normal bodied individuals who are illiterate are too seen as other, in terms of accessibility with mobile devices. What complicates this more is the fact that there a multiple meanings of what literacy actually is, which makes it difficult to address in terms of a global scale service. Researcher, Jan Chipchase, elaborates on this topic of literacy and mobile phone use in his book, Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies, arguing that for mobile phone companies to understand the markets of potential users they need first to understand the matter of accessibility in countries with literary barriers. Coining the term textually literate, Chipchase says,” I use the term textually nonliterate  to reflect that they are many ways  to define literacy(  for example the ability to complete a task or understand a problem), as well as to emphasize that literacy is often a result of  lack of opportunity rather than of ability.” Katz (P.79) This is not only important in terms of providing an essential service, but for helping begin to bring into focus of what actually defines literacy while creating a new and useful communication system for people who need it. Chipchase brings it into perspective saying, “There are many reasons for being non-literate, including the need to forego schooling to enter the workforce to financially support the family or even lack of education infrastructure. “Katz (P.80) This lack of accessibility is a common condition of many developing nations around the world who have just begun to build a communications infrastructure. Between the diversity of problems with mobile devices for the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and illiterate people we see the legitimacy in concerns of how accessibility is a problem in need of address.

                  Both Chipchase and Goggin really surrounded the topic of accessibility in certain logic through their evidence and arguments. They help us to define who the victims of accessibility are, and they even invite us to question what accessibility was like with other mobile devices. It wouldn’t be farfetched to agree that problems between technology and accessibility existed for people with disabilities long before the advent of the mobile phones. Jason Farman’s research lends support to this thought in how the mobile phone itself is a combination of preexisting technologies already. What Goggin and Chipchase argue is essential in matters of the future of technology and mobile devices, as they should benefit everyone, and not exclude or overlook people.  Also with many developing nations still building their communications infrastructure, new users will need to be catered to a certain way for more than a profit. With many other solutions possible, the problem of accessibility will need to be addressed by the target audience itself, such a result could possibly forcefully address the problems of accessibility.

Cited Sources:

David Pogue (2011). Apple’s AssistiveTouch Helps the Disabled Use a  Smartphone. Retrieved from http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/apples-assistivetouch-helps-the-disabled-use-a-smartphone/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Youtube. (2012). BrailleTouch Helps Visually Impaired Users. Retrieved February 23rd, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIEO1bUFHsI

SciFy.2013.ThinkFreedom,Retrieved February 23rd, 2014, from: URL: http://www.scify.gr/site/en/projects/in-progress/131-in-progress/44-thinkfreedom

Kavoori, A. P. (2012). The mobile media reader. New York: P. Lang.

Goggin, G. (2006). Cell phone culture: mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge.

Katz, J. E. (2008). Handbook of mobile communication studies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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