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 â€“ 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.
- Access to the actual technology – getting it
- Access to operating the technology – working it
- 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!