Smartphones and people with disabilities: the power and the promise

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.


  1. ben

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

    this is not true


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    • Abdi Hassan

      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.”

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