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Potentials of mobile Internet and digital technologies for a better participation of persons with disabilities in society


Background and central aspects of the topic

Mostly, the term »participation of persons with disabilities in society« is used very comprehensively for different areas of life. These areas range from everyday living and housing, rehabilitation and health, mobility, education, work and employment, leisure activities to administrative matters and political participation.

Digital and networked information and communication technologies (ICT) are regularly considered to have a great potential to improve life for persons with disabilities in various situations and to mitigate barriers to social participation. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges the States Parties to research and develop corresponding technologies and to promote their availability and use.

The TAB working report no. 129 »Technologies in the context of disability compensation at the workplace« of 2009 presented manifold technical solutions which can assist people with motor, visual and hearing impairments in the workplace as well as on their way to and from work and mitigate surrounding barriers. Without doubt, the potential of numerous digital technologies pointed out in the report can be transferred to other areas of life as well and is likely to be increased by mobile Internet. This is due to the fact that the technical components will be ubiquitously available to an increasing degree. Moreover, new digital applications are continuously being developed which help facilitate participation of persons with disabilities in society and pave the way to accessible infrastructures. Examples for this include wheelmap.org, an online map for wheelchair-accessible places, the Greta and Starks apps for audio description and subtitling of cinema films for blind and deaf people or the LetMeTalk app for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) intended for people with speech and language impairments.

For many new developments, it is still open whether and to what extent the supposed potentials can be tapped for larger groups of people – also beyond individual applications. The reason is that digital technologies are researched, developed, adapted, applied and financed in a complex network of relationships of various stakeholders with different (partial) responsibilities. In 2009, the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) came to the conclusion that there is a considerable discrepancy between the respective supposed potentials and the actual application of many technical options for overcoming barriers. Current studies confirm this and point out that the digitalisation of various areas of life might also entail negative consequences and new barriers for persons with disabilities if their special needs are not taken into account already in the development phase of applications.

Objectives and approach

In a first project phase, case studies shall present the opportunities and limits of digital technologies for better participation of persons with disabilities in society. Among the manifold technologies, all digital technologies using networked data or the mobile Internet (except for e. g. purely mechatronic applications without any networking component) are of particular interest. The examples used shall explore the areas of investigation with regard to the following main aspects:

  • Areas of life: The study focuses on situations of everyday living and on leisure activities. This explicitly also includes coping with administrative matters as well as political participation.
  • Type of functional impairment: Besides functional impairments regarding motor skills as well as visual and acoustic perception, cognitive and mental impairments shall be considered as well.
  • Type of technology: Both assistive technologies and a low-barrier or even barrier-free design of the environment shall be taken into consideration.

For bringing up case studies, the perspectives of technology developers and users shall be taken into account. The case studies shall include both the needs and desires of persons with disabilities (requirement profiles of the technologies) and the barriers perceived by them as well as assessments concerning already available assistive systems applying digital technology. This way, it shall be demonstrated which role participatory approaches of technology development play in the different areas of life, which stakeholders (both public and private institutions and organisations) play a pioneering role and which challenges are involved in the respective technology.

The second project phase consists in an in-depth consideration of the following aspects:

  • The innovation system, focusing on the following issues: Which constellations prove to be particularly promising and where can be found structural problems? Which measures could be taken to strengthen technology development? How are technology development and application enshrined in national action plans and participation reports?
  • The relevant legal framework for applying the technologies including the following urgent questions: Who has which responsibilities and duties with regard to everyday living, leisure and political participation? How can persons with disabilities claim their rights in these fields? What are the structural challenges involved for society?

Project progress

In June 2017, the first project phase started with the commissioning of an external expert analysis regarding the topic »Selected case studies of digital technologies for a better participation of persons with disabilities in society«. The expert analysis focused on persons with disabilities as experts by lived experience and exemplified to what extent digital technologies and mobile Internet are able to facilitate participation in everyday life situations.

In the second project phase, which started in 2018, a further expert analysis analysed certain cases of innovative digital technologies in more detail to identify structural aspects and influencing factors that make innovations successful. Particular attention was paid to the role of participatory approaches to technology development including open source. To complement this, a third expert analysis described the legal framework and political control instruments (including funding opportunities) for both technology development and the provision and use of technology. All expert opinions were mainly prepared by persons with disabilities as experts by lived experience.

Based on these expert opinions, the project report is about to be prepared with a special focus on options for action for the German Bundestag.

In a first project phase, an external expert analysis was commissioned to prepare »Selected case studies of digital technologies for a better participation of persons with disabilities in society«. The expert analysis focused on persons with disabilities as experts by lived experience and exemplified to what extent digital technologies and mobile Internet are able to facilitate participation in everyday life situations.

In the second project phase, a further expert analysis analysed certain cases of innovative digital technologies in more detail to identify structural aspects and influencing factors that make innovations successful. Particular attention was paid to the role of participatory approaches to technology development including open source. To complement this, a third expert analysis described the legal framework and political control instruments (including funding opportunities) for both technology development and the provision and use of technology. All expert Opinions were mainly prepared by persons with disabilities as experts by lived experience.

Based on these expert opinions, the project report is about to be prepared with a special focus on options for action for the German Bundestag. The final report will be submitted to the responsible TA rapporteur group of the parliamentary groups for adoption by autumn 2024.