HHS Mobility; Leaving No One Behind

by Abe Lee

A few years ago as my wife and I were traveling through Spain on our way to Morocco for a friend's wedding, we met a young architect. This individual's job was to help city planners develop strategies in support of disabled persons – from simple changes (e.g., adding a tone to the walk/ don't walk sign at a crosswalk) to much more significant implementation strategies (e.g., mandating standard door widths to cater to the majority of motorized wheelchairs available). Working to convert the cobblestoned and miniscule streets of Barcelona to be friendly for the visually and physically impaired was this individual's current task – and a gargantuan one at that. I bring this up because of an email update I received from disability.gov highlighting #UsefulTech - a virtual job fair to connect people with disabilities with job opportunities. This brought the topic of useful technology in relation to the disabled population to mind, once again.

Technology, including mobile technology, affords this particular population so many amazing opportunities. I do not claim to be an expert with regards to the challenges or advantages individuals with physical disabilities face. Nor do I intend to use a broad brush to say that all individuals with these challenges are the same. Nor am I forgetting the problems that individuals with other types of non-physical disabilities face. But, from my 10 years working as a social worker, and a further 15 years experience in the Health and Human Services technology space, I'd like to share some of my observations.

Last year, TechCrunch contributor Oded Ben Dov wrote an article titled "Who The Smartphone Revolution Left Behind." I do believe that more can, could and should be done, but it is not for lack of intent. I think that the smartphone revolution unintentionally "left behind" the disabled community not because it didn't take into consideration the needs of the underserved – it just didn't prioritize them. Now, as technology (i.e. smartphones) continues to become an integral part of daily life for everyone (a study in 2014 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that over 50% of people in Botswana, Kenya & Nigeria making less than $1/day owned a mobile phone), technology companies and health and human services agencies have to get better at making sure no one is left behind. Technology companies need to put more focus on the accessibility of their solutions, and HHS agencies need to put more focus on how they can leverage these solutions to make their services more accessible to all.



I was on the bus a while back and happened to notice a young woman putting the phone right up to her eye. She was reading a map, speaking a voice command into her phone and then looking at the map again. As mentioned in the article from TechCrunch, some truly #UsefulTech is out there. Some other examples of useful can be seen with:                                                                                                                

  • MotionSavvy Uni, a tablet-based device that translates sign language into speech.

  • RAY and their RAY App that converts a smartphone from a visually-based interface to a touch and sound based interface.

  • Sesame that has taken over the camera on the smartphone to make it a fully touch-free phone.

  • LookTel Money Reader that recognizes and tells visually impaired users currency values.

I know that a lot of tech companies strive to make sure that their tools will work with existing assistive tech and features on Android and iOS devices – but perhaps we all need to be a little more intentional about making sure that our solutions really would be beneficial regardless of physical ability.

The New York City Human Resources Department (HRA) document upload app is a great example of the private tech sector, and the public health and human services sector coming together to ensure that services are more accessible, with software that puts a true focus on accessibility and their accessibility testing. HRA, which manages one of the largest Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) in the United States, serving more than 1.7 million people, wanted a way for people to get access to the services that they need. HRA wanted a solution that ensured that clients who could not get to their offices, could still apply for assistance in a new and simple way. They also wanted a solution that leveraged existing assistive features such as the ability for the text on the screen to be read aloud for the visually impaired.

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