Using smartphones to navigate urban spaces: People with disabilities and the role of mobile technologies in three WA locations
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People with disabilities report a number of consistently disabling access issues while moving through urban environments. These can result in social isolation and cause people with disability to avoid going to new or hard to get to places, often being late due to public transport issues, getting disoriented, experiencing fatigue, having to ask strangers for help, and needing a support person to accompany them. Mobile devices and accessible applications (apps) are becoming an integral part of navigating urban space for all Australians, including those with disabilities. Mobile phones increasingly characterise our experiences of public spaces, replacing both interpersonal interactions and transforming the way we traverse these spaces. The participants in this research were therefore recruited to determine whether it is possible for people with disabilities to become more adept at navigating urban environments using technological advances like Google Maps and Google Street View, technology which is easily accessible via their smartphones. This report details findings of the research project Using smartphones to navigate urban spaces – People with disabilities and the role of mobile technologies in three WA locations. This 9-month pilot study was carried out to test the feasibility of this type of research before undertaking a larger scale study. It reviewed prior research in this area, tracked how people with disabilities used their smartphones via focus groups, gathered data from one-on-one interviews, and designed and monitored the use of a unique research app (the Urban Spaces app) to discover initial answers to the following key questions ? How are people with disabilities using smartphones to mitigate the effects of their impairments and compensate for inaccessibility in urban spaces? ? Are people with longer term impairments more adept at this navigation? ? Does the use of smartphones improve social inclusion? The research focused specifically on two cohorts – people with vision impairments and wheelchair users – in two distinct Western Australian locations, namely the Perth metropolitan area and in the less urbanised southwest region of Western Australia around the regional city of Bunbury. This report begins with a brief overview of the history and current use of smartphones – by the general population and by people with disabilities. A comprehensive literature review then follows, covering the two main foci of current research in this area – the design of smartphones and their use as assistive technology (AT), and the use of smartphones as a socially empowering device. The report then considers the methodology used in the study. The findings of the pilot report are then outlined. These are divided into three sections. The first details findings from focus groups held in Perth at the disability support centre VisAbility and Curtin University. These groups captured insights from a total of ten people with disabilities living in the Perth metropolitan area – three wheelchair users and seven with a vision impairment. Participants acknowledged that their smartphone was an essential requirement for navigating urban spaces and decreasing social isolation. Key benefits mentioned included: ? GPS built-in functionality – examples include the ability to provide your location to taxis and other transport services and the ability to identify the location of objects and places nearby such as accessible toilets. ? Mapping – specific guidance on going to a particular place. ? Quick web search – use of digital assistants such as Siri to provide an easy hands-free option to perform quick searches and find locations. ? Environment monitoring – identification of specific weather conditions in a localised area. ? Optical character recognition (OCR) and image recognition – identification of documents, signage and landmarks for blind and low vision users. The second details findings from focus groups and interviews with people with disabilities living in the southwest region of Western Australia. Five people participated in this stage of the research – three participants that used wheelchairs, one who was blind and one who was an orientation and mobility specialist with Guide Dogs WA. These participants believed the smartphone was a useful tool and a number of essential smartphone features were noted, including GPS – for example Apple maps – and route finding, voice over and text-to-speech technology, SMS messages, simple phone calls, weather apps or websites, digital assistants such as Siri, in-built voice recognition services and the notetaking function. However, participants determined that these features did not necessarily change how accessible spaces were for them, although they did note the usefulness of apps such as Snap Send Solve which could be used to report on inaccessible spaces. The results section concludes with an assessment of the apps available to people with disabilities that may improve their navigation of urban spaces. These apps are categorised into three distinct groups – direct navigation, environment awareness and object identification. The study then considers the findings in relation to the project aims and highlights some limitations related to research methodology such as privacy concerns and the importance of paying people with disabilities for their expertise. It then goes on to consider future research directions and concludes with recommendations that emerged based on the findings of the focus groups and interview discussions as well as on analysis of existing literature. These include: ? Service providers and particularly the Disability Services Commission (DSC) must embrace app-based communication, particularly to assist their clients navigate the urban environment. ? While web resources such as Access WA are vital to this group and are still accessed via smartphones, we recommend the DSC create an app version of this resource for greater ease of use. ? Local councils need to integrate public access with mobile access. Councils should work towards free public Wi-Fi access modelled on the ACROD parking system for the disabled population. ? Further training for people with disabilities about which apps are available and how this group can use their smartphones for greater public accessibility is vital. We recommend two approaches – create more specific tip sheets (Appendices 1-3) and conduct public training sessions. As discussed throughout this report, people with disabilities who are active smartphone users are the ideal facilitators for this training; however, they must be paid.
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