People with various forms of disabilities are faced with numerous social-economic challenges. The World Health Organization says one billion people live with a disability – around 15 percent of the world’s population, and only 1 in 10 people have access to the assistive technology they need to live independent lives.

By combining multiple assistive technologies in a single device, experts say mobile phones can be cost-effective tools for persons with disabilities to enable greater inclusion and participation.

 Government, corporates and organisations have, therefore constantly sought ways to make this segment of the society to live dignified lives, and earn decent incomes as the rest of the society. Thanks to these efforts, strides have been made to enable live meaningful lives.

However, it is in the realm of technology that the society and the disabled themselves are banking on to come up with innovations that can enrich their lives. A number of assistive technologies have therefore been developed.

One of the innovation promising to hand people with disabilities a major boost is the mobile phone. A new report by GSMA says currently there exist 130 assistive mobile-enabled technologies and services that can increase the capacity of people to live healthier, productive, independent and dignified lives, allowing them to access healthcare, education and labour markets as well as civic life.

 In Kenya, the report says, people with disabilities (PWDs) use mobile internet with similar frequency as those without disabilities, while, among smartphone users, PWDs have a higher daily usage of mobile internet at 63 percent than non-disabled persons at 56 percent.

“This highlights the benefits of smartphone features that enable more services than basic phones e.g. IVR for those with hearing impairments or speech-to-text commands for people with visual impairments,” says the survey titled GSMA 2020 Mobile Industy Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals shows.

The 2020 GSMA report argues that there are three main tools that have the potential to greatly influence the mobile for PWD space such as natural language processing, which involves computer analysis of natural human language data. 

 “Applications include speech-to-text, speech-to-sign languages and vice versa, speech recognition and simultaneous translations,” it shows.

 The second one is big data that analyses large amounts of information to identify patterns, trends and predictive models, helping to “make sense of the information collected.”

 “The applications are endless, from navigation systems to support platforms. ICF Mobile, for instance, leverages the data collected to create a health database with the potential to provide custom, real-time information to PWD (based on their situation and surroundings), government and organizations,” the survey shows.

 Another technology is artificial intelligence (AI) that feeds the development of AI cameras, machine learning algorithms, self-driving cars and other innovations.

According to another research also carried out by GSMA in 2019, there is no clear gap in mobile phone usage between persons with disabilities and non-disabled persons. Persons with certain types of disability “are power-users of some mobile-enabled services”.

 In Kenya, according to the report, persons with disabilities have a mobile internet usage almost on par with non-disabled persons.

“Those persons with disabilities who own a smartphone have a higher usage than non-disabled smartphone owners,” says the 2019 report dubbed Understanding the Mobile Disability Gap.

“The deaf and blind people show particularly high usage of mobile internet, which is often their main gateway to communicate with others.”

Also, 87 percent of persons with disabilities had a registered mobile money account in Kenya in 2018, just slightly below non-disabled persons at 94 percent.

Persons with disabilities value mobile money due its convenience and security (reduced risk of theft), the report says, noting that to some, it is an alternative to banks, which often have inaccessible facilities and services.

The findings reveal that although persons with disabilities use mobile-enabled services almost on par with non-disabled persons, clear differences in usage of services emerge when PWDs are categorised on the basis of impairment.

“For some services, persons with a specific type of impairment have the highest usage of all, making them power-users of these services. In terms of voice services, persons with disabilities are less likely to make or receive calls daily compared to non-disabled persons,” the report says.

Still, more than half of persons with disabilities in Kenya (53 percent) make calls every day.

In Kenya, regardless of type of handset, the hard of hearing and deaf are power-users of instant messaging apps, often used for personal conversations, or making video calls to communicate using sign language.

“I use WhatsApp every day. I use it with the deaf because we communicate face-to-face. We use sign language, so it is easier to communicate using WhatsApp’s video calling option,” a deaf man in Rural Kenya told GSMA during the research in 2019.

This high mobile internet usage among the hard of hearing, deaf, visually impaired and blind who own a smartphone with accessibility features, the report says, can be explained by their higher dependency on mobile phones to connect to the world and be autonomous, as reported by interviewees.

The survey also discovered that another popular use of mobile money is P2P transfers:

 “Persons with disabilities are often economically dependent on their relatives and find it convenient to receive money through P2P transfers,” notes GSMA.

“Some persons with disabilities receive their salaries via mobile money, while those who own small businesses or are self-employed receive payments from customers via mobile money.”

Mobile money provides persons with disabilities with a more secure platform than cash, as they are frequently victims of theft, says the report.

The findings show that mobile money is an alternative to banks as their facilities and services are not always inclusive and accessible, particularly for the visually impaired, blind, hard of hearing, deaf, physically impaired and persons with short stature.

 Persons with short stature find the use of mobile money more convenient than ATMs, which are positioned too high for easy use. For those with hearing impairments, communicating with banking agents can be challenging.

GSMA finds that mobile money offers an alternative that allows them to keep their bank account and cash-out using their mobile money registered account. But mobile money is also an alternative for PWDS who would otherwise not be able to open a bank account.

“I would not be able to withdraw money from an ATM because of my height but with mobile banking I can withdraw money straight from my bank account using my M-Pesa account as an intermediary,” an interviewee says.

“Going to the bank to withdraw money was hard, because we needed to have a discussion with the teller. But now it’s easier for me, because I use mobile money.”

These findings reveal the importance for mobile operators to understand the context of disability and support systems available for PWDs as factors that influence mobile phone ownership among this segment of the population.

While mobile phones have given people with disabilities a real boost in alleviating their struggles, barriers remain in terms of accessing this crucial technology.

The 2019 GSMA survey identified several hurdles. These include cost, “which is amplified as persons with disabilities are more likely to be poorer and face extra costs to use a mobile phone”.

Another setback cited is lack of education resulting in digital illiteracy, and the perception that their disability inhibits autonomous and confidential use of mobile-enabled services.

The disabled, the survey notes, tend to be poorer than non-disabled persons and incur additional expenses to be able to use a mobile phone.

 “For instance, sometimes persons with disabilities have to pay someone to help them use a mobile phone or to access mobile services (i.e. to top-up airtime); they can be victims of fraud by agents or those helping them use a mobile phone; they are often victims of theft; they are more likely to accidentally break their phones; and even incur higher airtime or data costs due to the longer time needed to communicate or for higher usage of video calls”

 Children with disabilities, GSMA notes, are less likely to attend school and have fewer opportunities for employment or to earn an income in adulthood.

 The report adds that poverty itself can also be the cause of disability as those most marginalised may suffer conditions that result in disability which could have been avoided with adequate access to care.

The research also found a correlation between disability, education, and employment. PWDs are not only less likely than non-disabled persons to have attended school but they are also less likely to be employed.

Digital illiteracy is another barrier as many persons with disabilities report a lack of knowledge of how to use some mobile-enabled services. It is likely that the lower levels of education faced by persons with disabilities results in lower digital literacy.

“Most disabled people haven’t gone to school so the phones should have a language that they can understand. The phone features also, they should be understandable to us,” it says

When using mobile phones, persons with disabilities also face barriers directly linked to the functional limitations of their disability which, combined with the lack of adequate accessibility features, limit their autonomy and frequency of mobile usage. Calls, for instance, can only be used autonomously by 54 per cent of persons with disabilities in Kenya.

To overcome these barriers, the 2020 GSMA report says, certain enablers could help maximise the mobile industry’s impact on SDG 10. These include raising awareness of disability issues by providing training, volunteering and programmes to mentor persons with disabilities; aligning efforts across the ecosystem and engaging, co-designing and innovating together with customers with disabilities, tech startups and the public sector; and engaging humanitarian organisations to collaborate with mobile money providers to increase meaningful digital and financial inclusion for FDPs.