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Digitally inaccessible: A closer look at smartphone accessibility in Canada
Smartphones and access to affordable data plans are a necessity in today’s world — even more so if you’re low-vision, deaf or hard-of-hearing, or both
pasted DWCC’s portion from the long article:
Addressing the issue of cost
Of course, the issue often isn’t just a matter of having access to access modern smartphone technology. Instead, the barrier for entry is often as simple as not being able to afford a smartphone plan in the first place. After all, Canadian smartphone plans are some of the most expensive in the world, and that cost increases for individuals who are low-vision, blind, deaf or hard-of-hearing. “A lot of people who are deafblind are quite low-income,” explains McHugh. “It’s a challenge to work at a level to earn a decent income when you cannot see or hear. A lot of people who are deafblind are unemployed or underemployed, or unable to work, and they really need this access.”
However, as members of the Deaf Wireless Canada Consultative Committee (DWCC) point out, subsidized plan costs are only one step towards making smartphones truly accessible for all Canadians.
(Left to Right: Jeffrey Beatty, Technical Consultant, Ottawa, ON, Lisa Anderson-Kellett, Chair/Consultant, Burnaby, BC, and Nicole Marsh, Social Media/Consultant, St.John’s, Newfoundland)
It’s a phrase that’s recently generated a lot of stigma, but a potential solution to the DWCC’s concerns is zero-rating.
The reasoning is that individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing most likely don’t need voice services bundled into their plan. Instead, what they do need is access to larger LTE data buckets for services like video calling and audio wayfinding.
“We actually have a need for effective video communication,” said Jeffrey Beatty, a technology expert for DWCC, in a phone interview with MobileSyrup. “That service provides a clarify to video for communication, and that means it’s less blurry and less pixelated — that clarity makes it a lot easier to hold a conversation.”
After all, if you can see who you’re talking to, you can speak to them in sign language.
Likewise, as Shane Laurnitus — the lead for accessible technology at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) — points out, individuals who are blind or low-vision require data plans so they can utilize the voice services that many sighted individuals take for granted. BlindSquare, for example, is an accessible GPS app designed to be used by individuals who are low-vision, blind, hard-of-hearing or deaf. The app itself costs $54.99 CAD and is only available for iOS devices. However, data-intensive services like BlindSquare consume quite a bit of mobile data, meaning that individuals with these specific accessibility needs are often limited.
Zero-rated services, therefore, would allow individuals with these accessibility needs to pay a fixed rate for very specific apps, without needing to worry about consuming mobile data.
Zero-rating certainly has been a hot topic in Canada
“Zero-rating certainly has been a hot topic in Canada,” says Lisa Anderson, the chairperson of the DWCC, in an email interview with MobileSyrup. “Generally, it is [the] DWCC’s view that it should be allowed only if it were for accessibility purposes, not for pleasure.”
Anderson also acknowledged the stigma associated with the term. She argued that zero-rating should be denied to carriers looking to bundle entertainment services together into packages that resemble cable subscriptions. “However, when it comes to accessibility, it should be allowed,” said Anderson. “If there is a way for video communications, for specific apps to be zero-rated, then yes, we are in favour, because this is based on needs versus wants.”
As Anderson put it, Canadians who are deaf, deafblind, or hard-of-hearing “[through] no fault of their own, rely on video apps for everyday communications.”
Of course, the CRTC previously ruled against zero-rating in a decision regarding Quebec-based regional carrier Videotron, arguing in favour of “a fair marketplace in which internet services providers compete on their own network elements (price, quality of service, speeds, data allowance and better service offerings), not by treating certain content differently.” However, the DWCC is currently in consultation with Canada’s telecom watchdog to try to determine if there might be some way to compromise on Canada’s zero-rating laws.
Granted, the DWCC doesn’t solely advocate for zero-rated services. Quite the contrary, the organization is also a staunch supporter of unlimited data buckets, believing that such an option would be especially beneficial to individuals who rely on data-intensive apps for communication.
However, none of Canada’s carriers offer unlimited data plans. Even carriers that claim to offer unlimited plans include provisions explaining that services will be throttled after subscribers consume a predetermined amount of data.“I’m not trying to compare in terms of America versus Canada, but in America, they do have data plans that honour deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” said Beatty.
Beatty referenced $55 USD plans that offer unlimited data specifically for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. “So why can’t we have the same thing here?” asked Beatty.
“We want one nationally accessible plan that deaf people can use specifically at a discounted price…that can meet our needs.” For their part, Canada’s carriers have taken some steps to attempt to make wireless services more accessible.
National carriers Telus and Bell both offer rate discounts for individuals with specific accessibility needs. MobileSyrup also reached out to Rogers, but the carrier did not respond to our request for an interview (as of December 28th, 2017, this article has been updated to reflect Rogers’ response, which can be found at the bottom of this story).
At Telus, individuals who are deaf, deafblind or hard-of-hearing can receive a $20 discount on their rate plans. The carrier also makes its client care line accessible through a teletypewriter and a video relay services.“Telus has a range of wireless devices that support a connection to a cellular-compatible [teletypewriter] through an audio jack connection that will connect to a mobile phone,” said a Telus spokesperson, in an email to MobileSyrup.
In comparison, Bell, not only has an entire call centre based in Ottawa dedicated to serving customers with accessibility needs, the carrier also offers discounts on rate plans while offering two Android devices that specifically cater to individuals who are low-vision. Bell also offers two additional gigabytes of data to any who self-identifies and provides evidence that they are individuals with accessibility needs. “It makes up for the fact, lets the example of someone who is speech impaired, they won’t be able to use a voice service, we provide this 2GB add-on as a substitute,” said Michael Widner, director of product management at Bell Mobility, in a phone interview with MobileSyrup. “It is an additional amount of data for customers who need to use video-calling and GPS wayfinding — things like that.”
Additionally, Bell offers its customers a screen reader app that works with Android devices. “We call it the mobile accessibility app,” said Widner. Bell customers can download the app from the Google Play Store, and the carrier subsidizes the cost so that Android users can download the app for free.
“We obviously just limit it to customers who are with Bell,” said Widner. “We’re not offering it to our competitors, but that is at no cost to our customers.”
Nonetheless, McHugh explains that Canada’s wireless accessibility offerings still lag behind other developed countries — in spite of everything, she still pays about $85 CAD each month for her plan. “I changed my plan recently, and I ended up getting it for $15 less,” says McHugh.
Technology is supposed to bring people together.
Update 28/12/2017: Rogers has responded and provided a list of services they offer individuals with accessibility needs. The national carrier offers message relay services, teletypewriter services, and also operates the Rogers Accessibility Service Centre (RASC). The RASC can be contacted by phone or by live chat, and allows customers to address their accessibility needs.