Cloud services can make life easier and more productive for the disabled community. But inaccessibility in end-user software and devices makes that potential difficult to realize. Now, a massive effort is underway to make accessibility solutions available whenever and wherever needed.
Rarely is accessibility at the forefront of new technologies. Those who drive technological innovation “don’t always think from the start about all of the different people who will be using that technology,” said Jeffrey Bigham, of Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
The argument is that new products would never be released if designers stopped to incorporate all kinds of features that might or might not be worth pursuing. But that deficit often leads to problems “when that technology becomes something that people need to use to keep up in the workplace and education and even entertainment,” he said.
“When something is used for any of those purposes, any purpose for everyday living that is not accessible, then you have a big problem,” he said. “I think that’s where the disconnect happens.”
That’s a real problem for people who are depending on these technologies, said University of Maryland’s Gregg Vanderheiden, Director of the Trace Research and Development Center.
“When Microsoft went from DOS to Windows,” he recalled, “there were all these people who were blind who were working as computer specialists throughout the United States. And in the course of about nine months, companies all started switching to Windows. … And all of these people were suddenly without a job because there were no screen readers for the Windows.”
The reason this happened is because support for screen readers that existed under DOS was not embedded in the new operating system. This creates a problem for disabled individuals who rely on assistive technologies – aids that help them hear or see or interface with the computer or a cloud service to do their job or even land a job.
Companies with disabled employees and customers should ensure their development teams know how to maintain the accessibility code without “inadvertently’ creating “other inaccessible features,” said Dana Marlowe, president of Accessibility Partners, whose disabled employees use aids like screen readers, text-to-speech readers, or magnifiers for their work.
“The cloud … could be always accessible as an environment through the storage of different cloud profiles on which the interface can be immediately customized based on the person with the disability and user preferences,” she said.
While some assistive technologies work as soon as they are plugged in, like keyboards, others need software support and higher-level security privileges to operate. Third-party assistive technologies, in particular, are sometimes identified as “malware or a threat” because they “reach into an application’s code,” said Accessibility Partners’ Communications Director, Sharon Rosenblatt.
Even if all of these settings are saved in the cloud, disabled individuals leaving their personal space will still run into problems. A paraplegic traveler, for example, who might need hands-free or speech-to-text interface, will not be able to access the airport’s touch-based check-in systems. But a cloud service providing customized Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) that can be downloaded on-demand might help bridge the gap, perhaps in conjunction with a USB or other portable device.
“This is some of the work that we’ve been doing for 10 years,” said Bigham. “And other people have been doing for about 10 years, where you actually have it so that the computer or the mobile device or maybe eventually the voice-controlled devices – they could download on-demand the interface that you need and then they could provide the interface that each person could use.”
But without out-of-the-box accessibility support, it’s hard to leverage “some of these really interesting benefits of having a cloud-connected device for accessibility,” said Bigham. “… We’re not yet taking advantage of the cloud for accessibility in the ways that we could.”
Ultimately, the problem with inaccessibility lies with the interface. And that interface, said Bigham, “is what ends up being most important. And it’s usually provided by the local device.”
“You go to the grocery store,” he added, “and you try to find the x … and sign at the cashier, and it’s really hard to do that for many people with disabilities because the device they have there is not accessible. And so you get these bad stories about people having to give their PIN number to the cashier just so they can pay for their groceries.”
Not much is being done to make new devices accessible out-of-the-box. And it is unclear to what extent manufacturers and feature designers can be compelled to do so.
“If it was a lot easier,” he added, “and if you could really achieve this idea of out-of-the-box accessibility for devices … and we’re seeing more and more devices created every day – if each device was accessible, then you wouldn’t have that sort of problem.”
It is doable. And the nonprofit Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), a collaborative effort between the United States, Canada, Europe, and a host of global entities, is determined to promote accessibility solutions that work with all technologies.
GPII’s ‘auto-personalization’ discovers what a person needs to use information and communication technologies. A deaf person, for example, would need a visual interface. A blind person would need an auditory interface.
“When you sit down at the computer,” said Vanderheiden, “the individual would use a ring or a card or a USB … that basically says ‘here’s what I need.’ And the computer takes a key from that – a token [that] goes up to the cloud and it finds a listing not of who the person is, but what that person needs. And it comes back down and then it changes the computer or the phone or the device to match the needs of that user.”
The ability to do this gives disabled individuals that flexibility to really synchronize the cloud accessibility, their preferences, and be … productive,” said Marlowe.
While encouraging innovation, Rosenblatt urged technology leaders to include everyone in their design considerations, so that disabled individuals, who are significantly underemployed in the United States, have a better chance of joining the workforce.
But for this to happen, device makers and operating system manufacturers have “to work together very closely,” said Vanderheiden, and to continue collaborating closely “because every change made to the operating system risks breaking the [accessibility] information.”