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How Can Computing Become More Accessible?

By Neil Savage

June 6, 2013

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A group of New York students who gathered recently to demonstrate how assistive technologies could improve their access to education had a wide range of disabilities. They were dyslexic, or blind, or in wheelchairs, or completely non-verbal, but they all were using technological tools to gain access to a world of information, ranging from screen readers for the visually impaired to eye-trackers for those who didn't have use of their hands or voice to control a computer.

Indeed, says Mark Surabian, an adjunct professor at Pace University who teaches about assistive technology in education and who organized the "Inclusion Requires Participation" event described above at Pace's School of Education in April, a growing number of tools and strategies are available to make computers and digital content accessible to people with disabilities. Part of that, he says, is an outgrowth of trying to make programs more intuitive and customizable, such as allowing users to easily select the size of screen images, or providing voice and touch as alternative forms of input and output. Part of it comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that digital government materials must be available to all, even those with cognitive impairments.

However, accessibility is still not something programmers and website designers think of as integral to their work, Surabian says.

"One of the reasons it's not commonplace is, we don't teach it in school," says Surabian, who also runs CogniTech Café, which offers free help in using assistive technologies in computing. "I would say our teachers aren't getting lessons in college in how to use technology in this adaptive way."

One step toward making computers more accessible is convincing people that accessibility should be built into systems from the beginning, says Sebastien Hinderer, a blind computer scientist who works on BrlAPI, a protocol that lets applications control braille displays. Too often, he says, people think of accessibility as an add-on to a device or program. He cites as an example automated teller machines (ATMs) that have a jack to allow blind people to plug in a headset for audio guidance in withdrawing money. In his home country of France, however, ATMs do not let visually impaired users do things such as depositing checks or transferring funds. "There are two programs; one for the sighted people that lets you do many things, and one for the blind people that just lets you take cash," Hinderer says.

Not only does such an approach provide unequal access, he argues, it also means the people who service the ATM have to maintain two separate programs and ensure each will still work when they update the other. Developers need to realize that maintenance becomes easier when accessibility is part of the basic design, Hinderer says; even if there is an initial cost involved when developers spend more time on accessibility up front, he argues, that is offset by making maintenance easier.

Accessibility also makes computing available to a wider range of users than developers might at first consider. "The first thing is making people understand that accessibility is an important thing, not just for handicapped people, but for themselves as they get older," says Samuel Thibault, a sighted assistant professor of computing at the University of Bordeaux in France, and one of Hinderer's collaborators. Thibault points out that many people will experience a decline in their vision, hearing, or other cognitive abilities as they age, or they could suffer an injury that robs them of some faculties.

"People have a belief that there are two categories of people: people who are healthy, and people who need accessibility," says Hinderer. "Even if you are healthy today, you will become older and you may become visually impaired. You switch categories."

Thibault says universities have an important role to play in convincing people of the importance of having alternate accessibility options. "Ideally, it should be integrated into all the courses where it makes sense," he says. He suggests, based on his experience, that the third year of university-level courses seems to be the right time to introduce this notion, about the same time he is instructing students about the importance of making programs that are able to handle different time zones and international variations in keyboard characters.

Hinderer thinks standards bodies should promote libraries of accessibility standards that programmers could use when building programs. Some such efforts already exist. The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative has developed web content accessibility guidelines. A French organization, Braillenet, offers e-accessibility courses for webmasters, as well as evaluations of websites for accessibility. The United Nations sponsors the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communications Technologies, which is aimed at facilitating "the implementation of the dispositions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the accessibility of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and assistive technologies."

Thibault says researchers need to develop clear guidelines for what it means to make an application broadly accessible, providing precise measurements that will allow developers to say, "this is accessible and this isn't."

Laws can play a role, the researchers say. Thibault argues that the ADA has pushed companies to make Linux products more accessible, because the companies want to be able to sell those products to government organizations in the US, which are required to buy and use products that are accessible to the disabled. Once such products are available, non-governmental organizations can use them as well, even though they are not required to do so by law.

Companies can also promote accessibility, and are likely to do so when they recognize the competitive benefits, says Surabian. Accessibility "has a financial implication; it's smarter to reach more users."

Hinderer says Apple has taken steps toward expanding the accessibility of its products. For example, iOS X includes a screen reader, VoiceOver, which a blind person can have activated when buying an iPhone.

Windows phones, on the other hand, require the separate installation of a screen reader, and if something goes wrong with the installation, the blind user will have to seek help from someone sighted. As for the operating system itself, "A blind person cannot install Windows alone," he says.

Thibault says that even with such issues, corporations are beginning to pay more attention to accessibility. "We see companies, at least the big ones, care more about this, so I am quite optimistic," he says. "We can always go faster, but at least the progress we are seeing is really encouraging."

Neil Savage is a science and technology writer based in Lowell, MA.

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