“Unimagined degree of freedom and self-determination”


Mobile applications, so-called apps, make everyday life easier for many people. For people with disabilities, however, they mean more. Verena Bentele, the Federal Government Commissioner for the Disabled, explains why in an interview.


Catholic News Agency (KNA): How important are smartphones in the everyday lives of people with disabilities??

Verena Bentele (Federal Government Commissioner for the Disabled): Today, almost no one can imagine life without technology – this applies equally to people with and without disabilities. For people with disabilities in particular, technology means an unimagined degree of freedom and self-determination. Things are possible that were not feasible at all in the past.
CBA: Do you have examples?
Bentele: This includes the possibility of being able to scan texts from a sheet of paper via cell phone, which are then read aloud. In the supermarket, the barcode of a product can be scanned with an app – for registered products, the packaging is read aloud. These are great opportunities, as are apps for information accessibility. Reading newspapers, looking at bus and train schedules, or navigating accurately are now much easier.

There are also apps that show the accessibility of places – such as landmarks, parking lots or restaurants. In addition, some applications can help people with speech disabilities to communicate. They enter their request via text and the app reads the words aloud.

CBA: Are all smartphones accessible, for example for blind people??
Bentele: There are now many providers who manufacture accessible smartphones. Of course, it's always best when accessibility is considered by the manufacturer right from the start. Then there's no need to fix the interfaces if the technical devices were subsequently made accessible to people with, say, a visual or hearing impairment.
CBA: Are there guidelines in Germany that stipulate accessibility??
Bentele: In Germany, unfortunately, we have no obligation for the private sector. It's different in the U.S. There is a legal obligation and therefore a right for people with disabilities to accessibility. There is one U.S. smartphone vendor that has brought accessibility to the forefront as an ie from the beginning. This clearly shows what good can come out of it when it is planned and programmed by the provider itself and does not have to be added later.
CBA: How is that expressed?
Bentele: If you activate the pre-installed "Voice Over" function, the operation changes automatically. Every function that the cell phone has is read aloud. In addition, the smartphone does not turn on the first time it is touched – for example, the word "phone" is heard and must be confirmed with a double-click before the function is enabled. When a letter is tapped, it is read out and also confirmed with a double click. Voice and speaking speed can be individually adjusted.
CBA: Not only the smartphone, but also the mobile applications, apps, must be designed differently. Do developers pay attention to the accessibility of their product?
Bentele: Many apps could be even clearer. For example, you work with images or symbols that have certain functions. However, if the image is not accurately labeled, the smartphone can only read out "image" or nothing at all if there is no caption. It's not at all clear what the image does when you click on it. It is my wish that app developers pay even more attention to accessibility.

With the specially developed apps for people with disabilities, on the other hand, that's not a problem at all. There the problem lies more in the fact that the framework conditions are not regulated. Barcodes on bottles or packaging are not always in the same place. This makes it difficult to use the app, which reads out the content based on the barcode. Moreover, not every product is registered in the database from which the information is retrieved, either.

CBA: Are there also technical limits?

Bentele: An app will never be able to tell me: There are some people you know standing near you. Provided that people don't allow themselves to be technically monitored and pass on the data to my app. Also, an app can never quite reproduce in detail and accurately what you see in photos.

CBA: Does that also apply to the specially developed apps for people with disabilities?
Bentele: There is certainly still room for improvement, but apps are being developed all the time that can do great things. One relatively new thing is that you can have an app describe your environment to you. You simply take a photo and are told what's in it, such as "Two women, one smiling, one looking serious". Then there are apps that can recognize colors. But of course, there is still more to come. Any innovation will help people. Fortunately, there is a lot of movement in this market.
CBA: Will technology eventually be able to replace guide dogs or personal assistants??
Bentele: Apps are a good tool, but can never replace personal assistance. Even if apps can tell you the color of objects, they will never be able to tell you whether the individual pieces of clothing fit together. Nor can any app help someone find the right contact person or room at a meeting. Recent experiments, like the one with a nursing robot, clearly show that technology can only be an adjunct.

And it must not be forgotten that every person has very individual needs. A dog, and even more so a personal assistant, can of course operate this very differently than a pre-built app. For many, this living assistance provides security. They prefer living beings to accompany them, to show them that there's a bench coming up or a traffic light, to communicate with them personally – an app simply can't do that.

The interview was conducted by Romina Carolin Stork.

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