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Disability and Telecommunications

Ramon Puig de la Bellacasa

Certain fundamental accomplishments are related to the existence and survival of man as a social being, expected of the individual in virtually every culture. The expected abilities include aspects such as self orientation, physical independence, occupation, social relationships, economic self-sufficiency etc. Nevertheless, the circumstances under which an individual who has a disability is seen as handicapped, that is, disadvantaged in the performance of one or more of the survival roles, can be technology driven: the introduction of new technical tools help people not only to change the physical features of the environments they live in, but they gradually shift disability-related appraisals and produce a growing impact on the attitudes and expectations affecting people with disabilities.

An example of this influence is the progressive incorporation of people with severe physical impairments into the mainstream activities, such as shopping, leisure, working, travelling etc. wherever advanced mobility aids become available or the architectural accessibility is improved. In such cases, people in the community start to have more social contact with the person who needs the aid in order to perform ordinary roles.

Can a similar development be expected in the telecommunications field? The technological advancements in telecommunications may produce considerable changes in the perception of disability. In fact, qualifications and potentials to compete are more easily deployed by people with disabilities when barriers to use telecommunications and telematics equipment and services are overcome.

The changes of success, however, are not the same for all the issues and in fact the level of development of a new application does not correlate with its availability in the market. A major effort is needed to transfer the criteria for telecommunication accessibility from the research and development filed into the market place. There are convincing reasons that can stimulate such a process, some of which address immediate commercial interests and the growing user oriented approach within telecommunication industry, particularly for the next generation of terminals and information systems. Some solutions have already demonstrated their commercial viability in the telephony area, others are emerging as easily applicable complements or spin-offs.

We could even show how some developments initially conceived for customers with disabilities will finally set the basis for equipment and services useful for everybody. The level of exigence in the design area, in order to make a terminal user-friendly enough, or the kind of features demanded by some elderly or disabled users, may be requirements that telecommunication industries will be obliged to offer to all its customers in the future. The effort to make terminals and services accessible to everybody is something that research and development departments, together with the marketing department, of any telecommunication company should maintain and increase, at least to the benefit of their company.

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