Mobilizing Accessibility: A Conversation with CTIA—The Wireless Association's Matthew Gerst

Matthew Gerst, CTIA —The Wireless Association

Matthew Gerst photoMatthew Gerst is director of state regulatory & external affairs at CTIAThe Wireless Association. Matt leads the association’s efforts before state regulators and other state public policymakers and officials on a variety of policy matters, including universal service, wireless network deployment and resiliency and consumer protection. He also manages CTIA’s outreach to the accessibility and disability, public safety and online safety communities and represents CTIA on the FCC’s Emergency Access Advisory Committee and North American Numbering Council.  

Matthew is a graduate of Ohio University and received his J.D. from New York Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of Media Law & Policy.  He is admitted to the bars of New York and Washington, D.C. and is an adjunct professor of law in the scholarly writing program at the George Washington University School of Law focusing on the Federal Communications Law Journal.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., CTIAThe Wireless Association® represents the wireless communications industry and has a history of leadership on mobile accessibility issues.

We recently spoke with CTIA's Matthew Gerst, director of state regulatory & external affairs, about CTIA's work in this area.

PEAT: First, can you tell us a bit about CTIA's mission and activities?

Gerst: We're an international nonprofit membership organization, and we've represented the wireless communications industry since 1984. Our members include wireless carriers and their suppliers, as well as providers and manufacturers of wireless data services and products. In addition to advocating on behalf of our member companies at all levels of government, we also coordinate the industry's voluntary efforts to provide consumers with information regarding their wireless products and services. This includes voluntary industry guidelines; programs that promote mobile device recycling and reusing; and, of course, Access Wireless, CTIA’s website on wireless accessibility for people with disabilities.

PEAT: Tell us more about AccessWireless.org and your other initiatives related to accessibility in the mobile space.

Gerst: I'm happy to say that CTIA and our member companies have a long track record of working to highlight and educate consumers and policymakers on the many ways that wireless enhances the ways we work, live, and play. Specifically, CTIA’s AccessWireless.org is a “first stop” for consumers and policymakers looking for information about wireless accessibility. The website offers tips for finding the best phone, carrier, and pricing plan to fit one's particular accessibility needs.

In addition, we’re proud to have worked with advocates for people with a range of disabilities, including hearing, vision and cognitive disabilities, as well as seniors, on a variety of accessibility issues, including hearing aid compatibility (HAC), the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, and 9-1-1 emergency services. We’ve also won awards for these efforts, including the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) National Access Award in 2013 and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman’s Award for Advancement in Accessibility in 2011. So accessibility is an issue that's vitally important to us. We remain committed to engaging with the disability community and continuing to help our member companies demonstrate how innovative wireless products and services meet the needs of all users.

PEAT: In your view, how has the proliferation of mobile devices impacted people with disabilities—particularly in the workplace?

Gerst: Thanks to the wireless industry’s constant innovation and collaborative efforts, people with disabilities certainly have taken advantage of the proliferation of mobile devices, particularly in the workplace. For example, people with disabilities may customize their mobile devices, including apps and accessories, to fit their unique needs in and out of the workplace. This often results in greater efficiency and productivity, as well as a boost to employee morale. And as wireless companies continue to innovate, accessibility is a key component of the design and development of new products and services so that as many people as possible are able to take advantage of wireless products and services.

PEAT: We’ve seen some of the best examples of “universal design” for accessibility among mobile product developers. Why is that? What’s driving the innovation in this space and how can other technology sectors learn from this success?

Gerst: I think the real driving factor is collaboration. In the U.S., wireless is an ecosystem of service providers, manufacturers, and application developers that all work together to provide an innovative experience for wireless consumers. And accessibility is a big part of that, driven by the industry’s commitment to meeting the needs of all consumers and innovative platforms that offer “built-in” and “ground up” solutions.

What's important to remember is that each segment of the wireless ecosystem has a role to play in making wireless products and services accessible. For example, application developers provide innovative ways to utilize the built-in features and robust wireless services offered by manufacturers and service providers. At the same time, CTIA member companies have recognized the benefits of collaborating on priority accessibility issues. For example, AccessWireless.org offers an “Industry Resources” page to provide industry with information about accessibility. So partnership is at the core of our industry's accessibility efforts, which is really exciting.

PEAT: What resources can you recommend to job applicants and employees with disabilities who are looking for accessible mobile solutions?

Gerst: Again, CTIA’s AccessWireless.org is a great resource for people with disabilities looking for accessible mobile devices. On the site, consumers can click on “find a phone” to search for mobile phones based upon the criteria they select using the Mobile Manufacturer Forum’s Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) tool. In addition, it provides links to service provider and manufacturer accessibility websites as well as websites that offer information about accessible applications. We're very proud of the tool and recommend it highly.

PEAT: What are your thoughts on accessible wireless technology and its impact on the employment of people with disabilities?

Gerst: We see great promise for people with disabilities to take advantage of accessible wireless products in the workplace. One exciting area is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), which involves employers permitting employees to use personally owned mobile devices—such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones—for work. Smartphones are a huge part of that since they play a critical role in business. In fact, according to Forrester Research, smartphones are the category in which BYOD has its biggest impact today, both in sheer numbers and people's willingness to pay for a smartphone for work activities.

There are clear benefits and challenges to BYOD, and it will be fascinating to see how BYOD practices evolve. A study by IBM revealed BYOD can lead to increased productivity, employee satisfaction, and cost savings for the company. Increased productivity comes from a user being more comfortable with their personal device, so BYOD implementation is of particular benefit to employees with disabilities who can use their customized wireless technology that meets their needs.

PEAT: What are some specific ways that CTIA supports its members' accessible technology efforts?

Gerst: One of the many ways CTIA supports its members in the accessible technology realm is to facilitate opportunities for them to learn from each other and accessibility experts, and to share best practices on accessibility. Through our Accessibility Outreach Initiative, we’ve held a number of events to discuss various accessibility issues, including interfacing websites, older adult outreach, and disability resources for industry. CTIA is committed to engaging those who care about accessibility and facilitating discussions with our member companies to continue improving accessibility for wireless consumers.

PEAT: What advice would you give to a company that is looking to create an accessible workplace that is inclusive of people with disabilities? How about advice for job seekers and employees?

Gerst: From our experience, seeking input from employees with disabilities about accessible workplace technologies is critical to ensuring the environment is inclusive. After all, your employees are in the best position to know their own needs and will have good insights. It's also critical that employers offer an accessible job application process, strong recruitment targeted toward people with disabilities, and a company culture that supports career development at all levels.

Of course, job seekers have a role to play, too. It's equally important for them to be proactive in learning about a company’s hiring policy and provisions for people with disabilities. So here again, it all comes down to collaboration and partnership—and the wireless industry is pleased to play a role.