A goldmine for accessibility apps

Apps have become a familiar presence in people’s everyday life. From organising your day to giving you access to your favourite media content at all times, apps can be a valuable digital tool to make everyone’s life better. For some, they might make a more significant difference.

“In 2018, there were over 4 million apps on the Android market if I remember correctly,” says Fabian Roslund, Project manager for Appoteket at the city of Malmo. “If we estimate that about 1% could be helpful for people with a disability, that’s still 40,000 apps to find. The scale is massive!”

On the one hand, this means that somewhere out there, there is the perfect app for virtually everyone and any need; on the other hand, “it’s a lot of work to research and find which apps work for you,” notes Roslund. Yet, that’s precisely what the Appoteket project has been doing for the past two years. You won’t have to look through 4 million apps because the Appoteket platform will have narrowed it down for you.

Only apps that can be useful for people with a physical, communication or cognitive disability make it on the platform in the first place. “The apps are categorised based on the different needs, like cognitive or communication aids, and can also be filtered using additional criteria, for example by the operating system, or by language,” explains Roslund. Leaving you with only about five apps that can meet your specific needs. “For example, if I work with a person that has memory impairments, I can select the category ‘memory’ and then filter for Android and Swedish.”

Appoteket logo

Eurocities interviewed Fabian Roslund, Project manager for Appoteket at the city of Malmo, to understand where the project came from, how it is used and where lies its future.

Why did you start Appoteket?

There are so many apps out there, and a lot of them could be helpful to people with special needs, but the lack of knowledge about what exists means most aren’t found by the people who need them. We want to make these apps accessible and help people be more independent by extension.

We want to make these apps accessible to people who need them and help them be more independent by extension
— Fabian Roslund

How do you find the apps?

In the beginning, I looked for the apps, but as the project went on, we started collaborating with other organisations. For example, we work with the daily operations set up by the Swedish Law regulating Support and Services to people with specific functional disabilities – the LSS. The daily operations are places where people with impairments come to work. They’ve been helping us with finding new apps and testing apps. We also have a form on the website that people can use to give us tips about relevant apps.

Who uses the platform?

We primarily made the platform with organisations and professionals who work with people with disabilities in mind. The thinking behind it was that we would reach more people this way by giving knowledge to the people that work closest to individuals with disabilities.

But it’s a public and free platform so that anyone can access it.

Also, we started by collecting only apps for people with cognitive impairments but quickly realised that more users could benefit from such a platform, so we widened the scope to include more individuals with various difficulties, for example, blind people, or people with mental illness issues or even seniors.

How do you select the apps that make the cut?

‘Can this app help someone with a disability?’ If yes, then we’ll take a look at it.
— Fabian Roslund

We start by asking ourselves: ‘can this app help someone with a disability?’ If yes, then we’ll take a look at it. We have a testing process where people from the daily operations try the apps out and verify that they work and are helpful.

Useful apps don’t have to be developed specifically for people with disabilities. We have found valuable apps within the games section; for example, some games help with motor skills. That’s why we’re generous about what apps we add in. Time and people’s feedback will tell if we should take down any. If we get such feedback, we’ll look again and maybe remove those apps.

What other kinds of apps can be found in the Appoteket?

An app called ‘Be my eyes’ connects a person with sight impairment with someone with eyesight, and they can help each other.

Some apps help people that can’t talk, communicate. Some apps have the same function as advanced physical aids like eye-tracking and speech synthesis to make users select and express the message they want.

Some apps are less clearly directed at people with disabilities but can be very useful. For example, if you have difficulty understanding the ‘size’ of time, apps that represent time visually can be of immense help.

Each app has a short description and more in-depth explanation, and details such as if the app is free or not. Others also come with a video showing how they look when running. The videos were made by the people of the daily operations.

For the apps that don’t work for your users, do you give feedback to the app developers?

That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something we hope we get to do in the future. Or, if the platform gets used a lot, maybe we can influence others and future apps to think about accessibility during the development phase.

For example, in Sweden, there’s a free taxi service specifically for people with disabilities, but this service doesn’t show the GPS position of the car. Instead, people have to be ready at a pre-defined spot 15 minutes in advance, and the vehicle can be up to 15 minutes late. So it happened that even in winter, people stood outside waiting for 40 minutes.

If we become a recognised platform, I hope that we can give feedback to app developers and designers. It would be nice if we could help companies make better products that could make society more accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities or impairments.

Do you have suggestions for cities that want to be more accessible?

I work for the department for people with disabilities of the City of Malmo. In Malmo, we are working on making the physical environment more accessible too, and we are developing an app that maps which parts of the city are accessible and for who.

Accessibility of spaces has to do with the quality of life, and it should be a human right
— Fabian Roslund

Accessibility of spaces has to do with the quality of life, and it should be a human right. Not going to certain places just because of a physical impairment is not a good feeling. You feel that you’re not welcome.

How can Appoteket be a resource for people interested in making the digital world more accessible?

The platform has two parts. The apps repository was tested by professionals that work with people with disabilities from five Swedish counties. We learned from these exchanges that an app repository isn’t always enough.

There’s a need for additional information on how to work with technology. For example, an essential principle is to always start from the person’s need and then find the technology to match it.

We have added a page to the Appoteket with articles and more information on the subject. You can find theoretical articles, like ‘What is an operating system?, How do you use assistance?, How do you use voice control?, What is welfare technology video calls?’ etc. And practical guides like ‘How do I create an Apple ID?’. And some interviews where we show some people that have and use digital aids. Because sometimes you have to show that technology in itself doesn’t have any value. It’s when it interacts with the human being that value is generated.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer