The Italian National Research Council will be hosting an International Symposium on Mobile Learning for Visually Impaired People this May. The programme covers a range of issues relating to mobile education, including pedagogical theory, interface design, innovations, and, of course, accessibility.
When it comes to accessibility, mobile devices have been something of a mixed blessing for people with disabilities. Projects such as The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative and Access World have been tracing the advantages and disadvantages of mobile phones for people with visual, hearing, mental and / or physical impairments.
What is clear from these reports is that the design and functionality of mobile devices (and therefore the opportunities and challenges associated with them) have changed dramatically in the last decade. For example, a few years ago there were concerns about phones becoming smaller (which caused difficulties for people with mobility and visual impairments). This is now obsolete, as the design of smart phones incorporates increasingly large screens. Similarly, a significant amount of research was conducted around the usability of keypads (which have now disappeared in most handsets).
Phones are undoubtedly getting smarter, but do smarter phones mean smarter accessibility? On one hand, people with disabilities have a new range of functions at the tip of their fingers: voice recognition, text-to-speech engines, and a large number of specialised apps. However, there is also a new set of obstacles. For example, navigating through complex environments with a touchpad can be cumbersome for people with visual and mobility-related disabilities. Users with hearing aids experience disturbances due to electromagnetic interference (EMI). Mobile devices are also increasingly interactive (which is part of their appeal and potential as educational tools!). Contents are meshed up and interface designs are moving away from the principle of one activity per window, building instead complex information landscapes (with multiple crossovers between different applications).
This adds layers of complexity to accessibility solutions designed to run in parallel to pre-existing interfaces. Perhaps accessibility solutions have been too much of an afterthought (i.e. bits of technology patched up with various degrees of success). The conclusion we are drawn to is that, when designing new mobile-based teaching tools, it would probably save us, and our end users, lots of headaches in the future if accessibility was conceived from the outset as a feature, rather than an add-on.