"We do not use the term "independent" to mean someone who can do everything for himself, but to indicate someone who has taken control of their life and is choosing how that life is led" (Brisenden, 1986, p. 178). Being a member of a larger society is an integral part of modern life. In everyday life, this usually implies communication with other people for a myriad of purposes: to gossip, to go shopping, to ask for help, to arrange meetings etc. To participate in this form of life, one needs to be able to reach other people, as well as to be reachable. In the organisation of everyday-life, telecommunications play an important role, influencing social relations and the communication patterns of society at large (cf. chapter 4).
Human beings are both the creators of the technology, and the users of it. It is man who has brought about the technological and social changes following technological inventions. And although it is a limited number of people who have developed the technology and thereby brought about the changes, the technology has consequences for almost everyone in modern society.
When the use of telecommunication is impossible or difficult, the general reliance on telecommunications may become a hindrance to maintaining a social network that extends beyond relatives, close friends and professional helpers, and therefore also a hindrance to participation in a variety of activities.
Telecommunication technology has the potential to create equality and democracy by overcoming geographical barriers. However, because the use of technology requires new competence (cf. chapter 4), technology also has the potential of creating new barriers and thereby differences between those who are able and those who are not. People vary on most skills. For some disabled people, even the simple telephone may difficult to use.
Many people with some form of impairment or disability may have little or no access to telecommunication, or have difficulties using equipment and services. When the problems become severe, the world they live in will differ considerably from the everyday reality of non-disabled users. They may have a restricted choice of activities and be unable to participate in many leisure and cultural activities that involve face-to-face contact, that is, they have less control over their own lives.
The limitations on telecommunication use invoked by an impairment will vary according to the type and degree of the disability (cf. chapters 5, 6 and 20). One of the most pervasive problems with regard to people with disabilities is the category "the disabled" itself. It is common to hear people talk about "the disabled" as an abstract entity, with common problems and needs. Within the telecommunications field, the stereotype of a disabled person is a hearing impaired person because it is so evident that a hearing impaired person cannot use the telephone without help. So strong is this stereotype that speech impaired people are forgotten; in the USA, a text telephones is called a "telecommunication device for the deaf" (TDD), in the UK, the relay service used to be called the Telephone Exchange for the Deaf" (TED) (cf. chapter 22). Thus, the disabilities and everyday problems of disabled people vary considerably, including those related to use of telecommunications (cf. chapters 5 and 20).
In line with this, one should also carefully consider the intention behind the often used expression "people with special needs". People within this group do not have a special need of communication; but they may have a need for special means, that is, equipment and services, in order to fulfil ordinary communicative needs.
New technology has opened up telecommunications for some disabled people, such as text communication for speech and hearing impaired people who cannot use the ordinary audio telephone (cf. chapters 26-29). For deaf people who use sign language, videotelephones may give them equal opportunities for two-way interaction using their own language mode (cf. chapters 36, 37 and 42). People with intellectual impairment may be able to use videotelephones or picture telephones to supplement speech with non-verbal information, or to use graphic sign systems in telecommunication (cf. chapter 31 and 33).
For some disabled people, new telecommunication technology may increase their range of activities by compensating for some of the consequences of their impairment by facilitating activities that are not usually linked to telecommunication. For example, access to a "newspaper" database and a terminal with synthetic speech or Braille display may compensate for some of the lack of access to information experienced by many visually impaired people (cf. chapter 43). People with speech and motor impairment often communicate slowly. For them, electronic mail and computer conferences may offer a way to participate in social interaction without being handicapped by their limited communicative speed (cf. chapter 30), compensating, to some degree, for their lack of opportunities to participate in face-to-face communication.
From a different perspective, telecommunication technology may also create problems and difficulties. When Bell invented the telephone in 1876, a new gap was created between the possibilities of those who can hear and speak and those who are hearing and speech impaired. Before the invention of the audio telephone, both groups had to use manned, text communication services. Today, longer telephone numbers are introduced, making the telephone less user-friendly because more people will have problems remembering the numbers. The increased use of text, graphics and other forms of visual communication, so beneficial for deaf people, may exclude blind people from using many new services (cf. chapter 43). "Improved" telephones with reduced electromagnetic leakage lead to reduced sound quality for hearing aid users (cf. chapter 21). The general development from manned to self-service facilities may exclude many people from use of services.
It is easy to point to new inventions and the positive effects of new technologies, but the reality for many disabled people is out-of-date technology, old fashioned equipment and a lack of standardisation that would be totally unacceptable in society at large (cf. chapter 26 and 27). The stamp of lesser worth seems hard to avoid. Laws and regulations may be necessary to ensure equal access and opportunity for people with disabilities (cf. chapter 9).
Some of the consequences of limited or no access to telecommunications are obvious, but many consequences are more far reaching and less obvious than one may expect. The consequences for mobility are a case in point.
To be able to get around is almost a prerequisite for full participation in society. Hence, the relationship between telecommunications and transport is of particular relevance for many people with disabilities. It has often been assumed that telecommunications will replace transport, but this may be true only in the sense that it would be impossible to maintain the same amount of communicative interaction without telephones. Contrary to many people's beliefs, telecommunications seem to facilitate face-to-face contact. They are used to maintain the social network, and to monitor and coordinate all kinds of social activities. For example, when telecommunication becomes more widespread, people seem to travel more. Similarly, when travelling increases, people tend to use telecommunication more (cf. chapter 4).
Additionally, many conditions that are handicapping in telecommunication situations also make it difficult to get around (blindness, motor impairment etc.). For people with such impairments, their limited access to telecommunications is particularly severe. It does not only hinder the functions and activities usually performed with a telephone or a telecommunication terminal, but also the possibility of using telecommunications to compensate for lack of mobility. The result of these impairments may be a double handicap, with considerable impact on life quality in general.
Another aspect of life that will be influenced by access to telecommunications is education. The general technological development has given education an increasingly important role in society. Today, in order to qualify for the work force, more education is needed than before. For example, due to shifts in job requirements, people often need continuing education to be able to stay in the same job. Education has become a life-long process.
For people with disabilities, education is even more decisive than for other people. They have to adapt their vocational training to the possibilities and limitations set by their impairment, as well as by society. The educational level required by a more technological society may increase the distance between those who are able and those who are unable. The heightened requirements may also make more people unable to perform a function or a task. On the other hand, recent technology has provided new learning environments that make education accessible or easier to access, for example through distance education and remote collaboration (cf. chapters 31 and 36).
A third major area that will be dependent on access to telecommunications is employment. Work provides an economic basis for support, and meaningful employment contributes significantly to an individual's quality of life. Lack of work may deprive people of the opportunity to fill their roles as equal citizens and contributors to the greater good. To be without work may mean to be outside the mainstream of social life. Technological development has a broad influence on work life in general. Simple jobs have a tendency to disappear, and, although technology can be used to make complex jobs easier to handle, there is little evidence of willingness in industry to do so.
Telecommunication technology has been especially important for industrial organisation and production. Telecommunications lead to increased flexibility, and today, production and marketing of goods and services are often performed in different places. It may be possible for the employee to do part of the work at home, or at smaller work sites outside the main offices or production facilities. However, even communication over short distances, such as within a house or small town, may have an impact on productivity. The Printing House of the Deaf in Bergen saved considerable time and resources by installing a local video network that allowed use of sign language in telecommunication within their four story building. In the near future, videotelephones will make communication with deaf people outside the printing house equally simple (cf. chapters 35, 36 and 42). For other groups of people with disabilities, data communication may be an important part of their work station (cf. chapters 10-11).
However, in spite of increased flexibility with regard to where and how work can be performed, disabled people still lose in competition. Although there is a need to develop new equipment, many of the existing forms of telecommunication can be relatively easy adapted to the needs of people with disabilities. The most important reason why so many people with disabilities are unemployed is probably that employers are not aware of the possibilities that exist, and therefore do not know how disabled people can contribute to productive work. In addition, many disabled people may not know how and where production networks can be established, nor, most importantly, how to become part of such a network. For both employers and employees, knowledge may also be limited because many possibilities for distributed work are new and generally not well known.
From a different perspective, new media may be used to improve services for people with disabilities. For example, intervention is dependent on access to competence and adequate human resources. At present, a scarcity of specialists, sign interpreters etc. make the work less than optimal; there is a need for both specialisation and collaboration, and for the sharing of experience and ideas through workshops and supervision. Telecommunications may play an important role in this process, both within individual countries, and in the integration of knowledge obtained in different countries in Europe. To increase local competence, distance education can be used to supplement local teaching of professionals, and as a tool for guidance and supervision of the local professionals (cf. Distance education, using telecommunication and multimedia terminals with sound, text, graphics, and live pictures, may increase the distribution of knowledge and ensure optimal use of available resources (cf. chapters 32 and 38-40).
From a technological perspective, the topic of telecommunications and disability is concerned with design and production of equipment and services for disabled people as well as including the needs of many disabled people in the design of equipment and services for general use (cf. the section on equipment and services). When adapted to the needs of disabled people, new technology can have a strong impact on their functioning in society. One important task is to ensure that the technology is used optimally, that is, in such a way that it matches the needs of individual users, and that it at the same time conserves a sufficient degree of generality to be of use to a relatively large number of users. There is a need to analyze the developing technologies from the point of view of disabled people, and the possible impact technology may have on their lives, as well as needs experienced by the users (cf. chapter 12 and 13).
The real impact of telecommunication technology on education, work and social participation among people with disabilities is not well known. In many cases, little is done promote use after a system or a service has become available. The evidence that exists has mainly been gathered from projects that are limited in time and scope. Real life, without economic and moral support from a researcher, may be a very different matter. Because many of the potentials are easy to see, it becomes the more important to monitor the actual effect of new developments (cf chapter 15).
Research and analyses should also be concerned with the acceptability of the technology, and the development of necessary education and training programs for users to learn to control and use the equipment in the most efficient manner (cf. chapter 13).
For telecommunications to provide people with increased independence and control over their own lives, there is a need for both technological creativity and inventiveness, and knowledge about human functioning in general, including the considerable variation that may be found both among those who are considered non-disabled as well as those who have disabilities. And although it is important for technicians and others to collaborate with potential users, "asking the user" should not be the only method for gathering empirical evidence. Disregarding disabilities, the user may not have the knowledge that is necessary to be able to answer the posed questions in a meaningful manner. A variety of methods should be used, incorporating the needs of disabled people within the general everyday activities of telecommunication companies (cf. chapter 15).
Today, the goal of telecommunications for everybody still seems far away. Many required services are not available in a majority of European countries, high costs may prohibit widespread use of equipment and services and only limited resources are allocated to research and development aimed at the needs of people with disabilities. There are, however, also signs of a growing awareness in the population of the importance of providing disabled people with access to telecommunications, which heightens expectations of better utilisation of technological possibilities for disabled people in the future (cf. chapters 47-49). The work presented in this book may contribute both to increase these expectations and to their realisation.
Brisenden, S. (1986). Independent living and the medical model of disability. Disability, Handicap & Society, 1, 173-178.