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Smartphones and people with disabilities: the power and the promise

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: About digital inclusion, Assisted digital, Digital Economy

Robin Christopherson MBE is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, a UK charity that helps older people and disabled people of all ages use computers and the internet. Here he shares his experience of how advances in technology have improved his daily life.

It’s hard to imagine an area where technology can’t improve the life choices and quality of people with disabilities. We now have all the power of computers with us wherever we go – and with a range of sensors such as camera, GPS etc. that, when perhaps one or more of your own senses don’t work, can be incredibly empowering.

As a blind person I used to need a talking GPS device (£750), a talking notetaker (£1500), a talking MP3 player (£250), a talking barcode scanner (£100) and many, many more specialist devices. All of that had to be carried around in a backpack, each with their own charger. Now I have all that functionality and an awful lot more in one device; a device that is almost infinitely expandable with each new app or service that comes along. The smartphone.

Smartphones – working extra hard for us

Whilst everyone seems to love their smartphone, there is no doubt in my mind that amongst the disabled community there is a special love for these devices. Of course many people with a vision impairment are older and not as familiar with technology as younger ‘digital-natives’ but it’s almost universally the case that apps (which offer a far simpler, more distilled interface into online information or services) are easier than websites, and smartphones or tablets don’t need antivirus or malware protection or complex and variable ways of installing software. There are also ways of setting up or even limiting what someone can do on their device so that they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Accessibility built-in

Whether you are using a PC, Mac, smartphone or tablet, there are a huge number of built-in accessibility features that can help meet your particular needs. For step-by-step guides to these features and settings, please visit our online resource at 'My Computer My Way' (and don’t be fooled by the name – it covers iOS and Android too).

Find out more about Abilitynet.

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  1. Comment by ben posted on

    "smartphones or tablets don’t need antivirus or malware protection"

    this is not true


    • Replies to ben>

      Comment by Abdi Hassan posted on

      Thanks for getting in touch Ben. We asked Robin to respond and he agrees that "it’s true that there are anti-virus and anti-malware apps out there for Android which is a more open platform. However for the purposes of simplicity I didn’t go there as iOS (preferred for its accessibility by many disabled and older users) doesn’t require it and Android phones/tablets only realistically may need it if people side-load apps from places other than the Google Play Store (where Google have recently done a good job at purging apps that behave badly and present potential security risks).
      Older users are much less likely to side-load apps and other users that do often know the risks. Thus it is a nuanced area and, for the purpose of brevity I gave the line that I did – i.e. the average user who uses a mobile device doesn’t need to consider viruses or malware. They should of course be aware of and alert for other threats such as emails with a link to log into a website and confirm their details etc.”

  2. Comment by Richard Pryor posted on

    I have been trying for several years to raise the issue of those who do not have access to computers or more than the basic skills uch as attaching a message to an email. I am totally blind and my screen reader software cost me in the region of £500. I have tried other systems such as the apple and other products and they are just too complicated. D.O.S. was much easier. In addition to this I am involved in the organisation of several local community groups and in my experience around 15% of people cannot use a computer or I phone beyond sending a message. I have never heard of any trining programes for computers in this area and I fail to understand why software producers do not write programs which are understandable to most people. Why are there never any discussions or documentaries on the large number of people who are being excluded by the increae use of I.T.

    • Replies to Richard Pryor>

      Comment by Simon Leeming posted on

      Thanks for getting in touch, Richard. Robin replies:
      "Many people struggle to get to grips with technology it’s true. Mobile devices are much easier for blind people to use than a desktop (which uses dozens upon dozens of different keystrokes to read and interact effectively with the OS and different applications) whereas with a smartphone, for example, you are mostly roaming around with your finger. There is still a significant learning curve of course, and many organisations such as the local association for the blind in each area that will help. I believe that technology is getting easier to use rather than the other way around, but of course everyone needs help to get going."