For perhaps as long as 70 or 80 years telecommunications facilities within the disability sector has largely been supported by government handouts. Back in the 1920s the teletypewriter (TTY) was invented, which allowed for some basic communication by deaf and hearing-impaired people and up until the present day this remains one of the key subsidised tools available for this group. Innovation has largely bypassed this sector as it was ‘looked after by the government’.
This is all changing very quickly because of the rapid developments in ICT. Devices such as smartphones and tablets have led to an explosion in apps and several of these are aimed at the disability market. In general, however, for a number of reasons a significant proportion of the market has been slow to take up these new tools. It is by its nature a conservative market when it comes to change – change makes a considerable impact on the well-being of the person involved and so the tendency is to preserve the status quo.
There are two key reasons, however, why these new developments will totally disrupt the way this sector communicates.
Because of the subsidised nature of the market services have been strictly limited to those eligible for the service, largely ignoring people who have a partial disability – and, in the case of deaf and blind people for example, the way others communicate with them.
New smart technologies are changing this. With affordable and smart technologies it will be possible for most people to access new services without the assistance of subsidies; and at the same time those with partial disabilities, as well as friends, family and others who want to communicate with disabled people, will all now be able to share similar affordable communication and information tools to do so.
Furthermore, people with disabilities will at several points in their life have to review their tools because of changes to their environment. They start in a home environment, move into study and from there into work; and at all of these points the way they communicate will change. Taking this further, similar changes occur when people go on holidays, go on a business trip, or visit an event, performance, movie, museum, and at all these times new tools are available that would allow them to much more fully participate in these activities.
This enables people with disabilities to operate in a much broader market, and makes the integration far more inclusive and seamless.
Organisations that can harness these disruptive changes and position themselves in the middle of them will be able to build sound business models around these communities. There will always be the need for a government-funded safety net, but at the same time there are plenty of commercial opportunities that will benefit the community and that will allow them to be much more independent, making their own decisions and selecting from a competitive market rather than just being fed the product that is subsidised by the government.
This market, however, remains highly specialised and a large amount of personal service will still be required. And quality-wise it needs very trustworthy suppliers. A range of the personal care services will need to be integrated into this new environment and it is therefore critical for the carers and everybody else directly involved in this sector to play a key role in the transformation, and education, information and high levels of customer service are required to achieve this.
The organisations traditionally involved in this are therefore well-positioned to continue and extend their key role in these markets. However it is a disruptive development and also these organisations will have to transform, wean themselves – at least partially – off subsidies and look for broader opportunities to build new business models around the customers they service. As new technologies are in general significantly cheaper than the old ones, and closed systems and technologies are rapidly being replaced with open systems, the barriers for others to enter this market have been lowered and new companies will be very keen to jump in and take their share away from those who are lagging behind in this transformation.
As this market becomes far more inclusive it will cover much more than just disabled people. As mentioned, it will include others with whom they communicate, as well as businesses and organisations that need to communicate with them. However, a very specific sector is closely linked to these developments also, being the more general ageing population. As with the digital transformation in other sectors, here also disruption will come from outside the traditional organisations servicing these communities. This will lead to a far more horizontal development, breaking down the many silos that exists within the social sector many of them still trying to hang onto their traditional subsidy models.
Key technologies that are going to play a key role in the transformation are, aside from the devices such as smartphones and tablets, broadband for access and interactivity, data centres, cloud computing and data analytics. Developments in IoT (internet of things) and M2M (machine-to-machine communication) will see the private environments of people with disabilities becoming smarter as well.
All of this is good news for people in the disability sector, as they will be able to benefit much more from the innovations that are flooding the general market, at lower cost and based on far greater community inclusion.
Because of this inclusiveness more people and organisations are becoming positively exposed to people with disabilities, and as a result further developments and further innovations can be expected. This will lead to a far more seamless integration, affecting everybody. In the end this is a ‘good feel’ development for everybody and as such it will be supported by the broader community.
I will present at the ACCAN National Conference on the 2nd of September in Sydney. The theme is Dollars and Bytes – communications affordability now and tomorrow. I will also address the conference based on my views on how broadband can assist the disability community (free report).