Thinking about Three Levels of Technology Access

July 8th, 2007 | by dnw |

Overview: * Getting hold of technology, operating it and getting value from it are challenges when the mode of access falls outside the intended design parameters.
* Access to technology needs to start with a person focus not a technology focus.
* Gaps in access should be approached from the bottom up with an openness to opportunity of technology overlap from other areas.
* Along with principals of universal design, a focus on technology access can open up yet unforeseen markets due to the because effect.

My friend Laurel is off to an event sometime in August called Consumer Congress – ACMA & Communications Alliance. I was asked (by Laurel, not the organisers), for some thoughts.

She’s on a panel : What Technologies are on the Horizon?providing an overview of the technologies that are likely to be adopted in the future and how consumers could use
these technologies.
There’s also another session : Empowering Consumers – The Way Forward about accessibility and addressing possible scenarios and solutions for enabling consumers to fully participate in the digital age.


At the end of the day we are talking about people’s lives here. Well, at least I am. Therefore the focus should be on the people, not the technology.

Instead of talking about how we can enable people (because that’s what consumers are, btw) to participate in a digital age, let’s talk about how the digital age can be best developed and applied to progress and enable people to participate fully in life!

Look for opportunity to fit the technology to the person, not the other way round.

Back in the very early 90s I was asked in an interview for Internet Australasia magazine if I thought the Internet was a good thing for people with disabilities. My response was only for those who have access to it.

It remains a saddening fact today that people living with a disability are the group of society who stand to gain the most from the use of technology in their daily lives yet are the ones less likely to be able to have access to it. I’ve seen this first hand for 25 years and don’t see much that’s going to change that in any significant way in the foreseeable future.

Now, I must say that this isn’t the fault of technology, I learned long ago that technology isn’t the problem – policy is. The fact remains that technology doesn’t discriminate, people do.

That being said, I do see positive things that technology advance can bring about in this area. I’d argue however that traditionally this mostly has been because of the consumerisation and commoditisation of technological devices that people living with disability can stand to partake in any benefit, kind of as a ‘trickle down‘ effect, rather than by directed affirmative action or planned design.

As an example. After decades of a dedicated few trying to assist people living with disability to live independent lives in their own homes and devising ways to enable them to control appliances and things in their homes like lights, temperate etc – a field known as environmental control – it’s only now with the proliferation of ‘home automation’ that are we barely starting to see the affordability of such systems come in reach. It’s because of people who can, yet don’t want to do these mundane things, that other people who can’t, but need to, can. Yet the unforeseen markets of the because effect of universal design still goes unnoticed in this area. And there’s many others.

I know. I know about economies of scale and market forces and the time factor inherent in Moore’s Law. But in a world where technology is marching many things into a post-scarcity phase, unforeseen possibilities will emerge. With these possibilities comes the potential for barriers to access. Traditionally technologies emerge and develop and accessibility is left playing catch up – retro fit it. People thinking about the effects of emerging technology and adopting universal design principals can go a long way to reducing this catch up gap between a technology and an accessible technology. But even better, the spin offs because of access technology can have benefits in other areas and other markets.

As I see it, there are three basic levels to the issue of access and technology.

  1. Access to the actual technology – getting it
  2. Access to operating the technology – working it
  3. Access to the functions of the technology – using it

Let’s take the Internet as an example of this. Say a person living with disability wants to access the Internet. First the person has to get some stuff together – in simplest terms that means a computer and a connection and an Internet service provider. Next, whack said stuff on a desk in the person’s home and depending on the person’s abilities it will involve different adaptations to enable the person to work it. This could involve something non-physical, like training. Then if those two things are met, the person still may not be able to use the actual services existing on the Internet. If this fictitious person had a visual impairment, not having the services appropriately marked up and formatted could prove problematic.

Of course this gets real complex real quick when you add in the different requirements by different individuals.

Some of these things in the past have tried to be mitigated in various ways. Let’s assume that step 1 is taken out of the equation by providing computers for access in a public library. Then (forgetting issues of access to transprt etc) level 2 issues become the next barrier. One that I’m sure libraries struggle with all the time. Certainly in our little space where I work and interactions I’ve had within my limited sphere, I’ve seen enough to know it must be an issue. And I’m here to tell you that it’s as much an issue for a person who like myself would like to access these. This also becomes true in education and vocational training circles. Different situation, same issues.

As historically scarce technologies become abundant and the cost approaches the zero rather than the infinity end of the scale, so too does the possibilty of people getting technology and therefore people living with disability gaining from it. However even with increased lowering of barrier to entry and the best universal design across all technologies, there will still be barriers at step 2. This is mainly because what’s possible with disability isn’t universally designed.

Ironically, often technology is used to bridge the access-gaps that exist between each of these access levels. It’s a field called ‘assistive technology’ or ‘adaptive technology’. It’s also the place where I see the greatest opportunity for technology to help with accessibility.

Various ways to attempt to address gaps at all of these three levels exist, some more successful than others. However the way I see it the whole issue is often unrecognised, under valued, under resourced and top heavy. As the number of people living with disability increase by virtue of an aging population and you couple this with an explosion of technological growth, then the gap to catch up between technology growth and access to the said technology is set to increase – as is the demand for agile, scalable access solutions.

Increasingly I see that these solutions will need to come from a wider range of people and sources and involve inter-disciplinary segments of the technology spectrum.

Want to operate Apple’s latest technological marvel, the iPhone, with a mouthstick – or even operate it while on the snow fields with your warm gloves on? Maybe you’ll need some spray-on skin on that stick or the finger tips of your gloves!

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(cudos to Doc Searls re “Because effect“)
Update: In a serendipitous timed blog post…JP gives good overview of the because effect in the context of music here.


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  1. 6 Responses to “Thinking about Three Levels of Technology Access”

  2. By lucychili on Jul 20, 2007 | Reply

    I think you need some more kinds of access:
    * The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
    * The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    * The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
    * The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

    For me a goal of technology would be that the standards are open and the interfaces are not only gui but are wrangleable from different accessibility perspectives, and that we are able to configure for ourselves. There is no big broadcast benefit in making it easy for people to do this but I think it is a very practical approach because more people are able to have tech that suits them.

    Fewer consumers and more people able to participate I feel is going to be an important shift for future society and technology =)

  3. By Dave the Lifekludger on Jul 20, 2007 | Reply

    Hi, certainly access is about freedom and my three are only base levels. I see where the freedoms you talk about could fit within these basic levels – kind of as sub-sets or freedoms that enable such basic access.

    I like your goal, though think it speaks more of the method of making things accessible. My goal of technology is to actually use it. And the three things I outline are three places that we are traditionally tripped-up. I wanted to point out these different access levels as they have unique problems that often need addressing in different ways.

    Participation as you point out is going to be an important shift and openness certainly is the best way to enable that – as well as maybe discovering spin-off benefits – if not ‘big broadcast’ ones, certainly ‘long tail’ ones.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. By lucychili on Jul 21, 2007 | Reply

    I guess I was wondering if the diversity and customisation required for accessibility
    was a challenge in terms of use because it doesnt fit well with a broadcast model of making technology. Someone makes something to fit a big market makes more money. The business model for making technology probably is a factor in the outcomes for users of the technology. If the technologies are the kinds of things that users can adapt and tweak then it is possible that improving access to training in making technologies would be a good way to improve access to technologies which are effective for their purposes uses and specific needs. It feels like this would be a continuum but that being able to particpipate not just as a consumer would be an interesting shift.

  5. By Dave the Lifekludger on Jul 22, 2007 | Reply

    Certainly, access is a huge challenge given the individual nature of abilities of people who have some form of impairment that means they can’t use technology in the manner that is dictated by broadcast design ideas.

    The bottom line seems to be engagement and collaboration with ‘end users’ (eg: customers, PFKATA) rather than a directive, siloed approach.

    And, getting back to what spurred my original post – access needs a holistic view of the individual in context.

    Thanks for your continued discussion.

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