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May 2004

New technological options for people with physical disabilities, through the use of telecommunications equipment.

By Rob Garrett,
Research and Development Manager,
Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering,
Research and Development Department.

Accessing telecommunication technology and the broad range of services behind it has been an ongoing challenge for people with disabilities. With technology continually changing and mobile phones shrinking in size, the gap between people with disabilities and telecommunication technology has grown.

During the period between April to November 2003, Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering (RPRE), Research and Development department trialled and evaluated new configurable 'off-the-shelf' telecommunication options such as car kits, voice recognition and hands-free technology (eg speakerphone), and network features such as voice mail that can improve the lifestyle, independence, security and social interaction of people with physical disabilities. Although mobile phone technologies were the focus of these trials, personal digital assistant (PDA) and a home phone were also trialled.

The trials involved ten participants, drawn from the 1300 children and adults for whom the Crippled Children's Association of SA, Inc (CCA) provides a service. The trial group included people with mild, moderate and severe physical disabilities affecting movement and speech.

Group 1
included participants with mild physical disabilities that prevent them from using standard telecommunications equipment effectively and efficiently.
Group 2
included participants with moderate physical disabilities (eg. Cerebral Palsy) that typically restrict them to the use of one mode of communication such as text or voice and/or limited use of both.
Group 3
consisted of participants that have severe physical disabilities (eg. Severe Cerebral Palsy) and are unable to access telecommunications independently. A solution was tailored for each participant.

The trials tested the ability of the participants to make and receive calls and for those participants that can use the Short Message Service (SMS), create and send text messages efficiently. Various assessment methods were used to measure the performance, frustration, and satisfaction as well as the time responses of participants when carrying out these activities on the telecommunications equipment provided.

Trials' Results

The mobile communication solutions that the majority of participants identified to be essential and/or important include:

The request for hands-free operation and/or minimal physical control of the phone was common to all of the participants. Five participants trialled mobile phones with these features, three other participants trialled mobile phone car kit systems, one participant trialled a PDA and another participant trialled an infrared telephone.

The overall performances and satisfaction of all of the participants that took part in the trial increased significantly. Nine out of ten participants showed high to very high outcomes. Participant 6 from Group 3 explicitly showed only slight improvement in performance and with reduced satisfaction with the solution provided. This was due to a technical problem experienced with the telecommunications equipment during the trial period.

Figures 1 and 2 show the assessment results of each of the participants throughout the trial period.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Average performances of the 10 participants throughout the trial

Long Description: Figure 1

Legend for graph

Note: Group 1, 2 and 3(x) - where x is the actual participant.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Average satisfaction of the 10 participants throughout the trial

Long Description: Figure 2

The use of car kits that incorporated speakerphone, with voice and speed dialling such as the SonyEricsson and Nokia brands, when installed on wheelchairs proved successful for three participants of the trial. For these participants, the privacy of a conversation was not an issue. The concept of installing a car kit onto a wheelchair was unknown to them.

Photo 1

Test participant using Pathfinder technology.

Caption: A participant with Athetoid CP using a Pathfinder (operated via a single switch) to independently control the RehaPhone (Infrared phone) for the first time to make, receive and terminate calls.

Photo 2

Test participant using Bluetooth technology

Caption: A participant with limited movement and reduced strength, controlling the phone to operate the "Bluetooth" car kit system for the first time to independently make and receive calls via speakerphone and voice recognition technology on the phone.

Photo 3

Test participant using a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)

Caption: A participant with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy using a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and a mobile phone incorporated into one device to communicate via the speakerphone function of the device.

Outcomes from the trials

People with a range of physical disabilities can use and should have equal access to telecommunication equipment and services.

This clinical trial was able to demonstrate that current, off-the-shelf telecommunications equipment can enable people with disabilities, even with severe physical disabilities, to access the telecommunications network. Prior to the trial, the researchers were confident that existing solutions did exist for people with mild to moderate physical disabilities, and were satisfied with the results in these areas. For participants that had not been previously exposed to telecommunications technology prior to the trial, satisfaction has improved significantly because of the realisation of the availability of a solution for them.

It was expected that it would be very difficult to find a satisfactory match for the participants with severe physical limitations (Group 3), yet solutions were found, and they can now have access to the telecommunications network. This was a profound outcome of the trial. Pivotal to the success of these trials was an in-depth knowledge of existing mobile phone technology options and features, a clear understanding of the client's telecommunication needs and abilities, and the appropriate matching of the technology to an individual. This matching of appropriate technology to an individual has led to 4 of the 10 participants purchasing the solution that was tailored for them.

Another important outcome from this research was the discovery that most trial participants were not aware of the full capabilities of their current mobile phone (if they had one), and hence education played a big factor in improving the way they now use their phone.

A final report on the findings from this research has been tabled with the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA). Further reports and presentations will be presented to other disability organisations and bodies such as the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF) Disability Advisory Body (DAB), National Committee on Rehabilitation Engineering (NCRE) and the Australian Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Association (ARATA).


The Regency Park Rehabilitation Engineering's project "New technological options for people with physical disabilities, through the use of telecommunications equipment" was supported by the Commonwealth through the Telecommunications Research Grant Program of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

Telstra's Disability Services provided additional funding for the purchase of telecommunications equipment and access to their network. The authors also acknowledge the support and contributions of staff of the CCA, Prof. Andrew Downing from Flinders University, Adelaide and Telstra personnel that have made this research possible. Most importantly, the authors would like to thank all the participants that took part in the trial.

If you would like to know more about the trials and/or the results please contact:

Rob Garrett,
Phone: 8243 8263
Fax: 8243 8238

Research team

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