Breaking Down Barriers—For All

A focus on making technology accessible to those with disabilities

6 May 2009

As technology becomes more essential to our lives, so does the importance of keeping it accessible to those with impaired sight, hearing, motion, and cognition and with other disabilities. To ensure everyone can reap the benefits of technology, IEEE is holding its first conference dedicated to accessibility issues, to be held on 20 and 21 July in Boston.

The Accessing the Future conference, organized in partnership with IBM, will cover universal design standards, patient-centered collaborative care, online workplaces and communities, travel and transportation issues, and related topics.

“Our focus is to look 10 years out at coming technologies, to ask how they’ll increase or decrease barriers to accessibility, and to make accessibility an integral concern as these technologies are developed, rather than trying to retrofit them,” says conference co-chair Michael Lightner, 2006 IEEE president.

Adds co-chair Frances West of IBM, “We want to bring public and private sectors together to develop a clear understanding of the challenges and to develop recommendations for making technology more accessible, today and in the future. We also want to help drive awareness of how innovations designed for people with disabilities help everyone.”

IEEE Member Gregg Vanderheiden, one of several keynote speakers, stresses that the conference needs to attract people who aren’t already working in the area. “We want to pass on the wisdom of the ‘usual crowd’ of accessibility workers to new people, and to invigorate the field with innovations and ideas from the newcomers,” he says. “Often fresh eyes and new perspectives can identify new solutions, including solutions that were staring us in the face.” Vanderheiden is a professor of industrial and biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the university’s Trace Research and Development Center.

Age-related and other disabilities make accessibility increasingly important. According to statistics supplied by IBM, about one quarter of 50-year-olds in the United States have disabilities, and so do nearly half of those older than 65—and by 2025, almost a fifth of the industrialized world’s population will be 65 or older. Today more than 54 million people in the United States, and more than 650 million worldwide, have a disability.

“Further, most people with disabilities acquire, rather than inherit them, so we don’t normally have lore from their families as we do with race and gender,” says keynoter John Kemp, a disability advocate born without arms or legs past the elbows or knees. “So peer-to-peer information is more important in our world. We have to find others like us and share knowledge.

“We don’t know what we don’t know. And most of us don’t know that access to the Web and Internet is a civil right under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to IBM’s West, governments are beginning to realize that if they can’t help citizens stay productive in a technological environment, those citizens become an economic burden. In the past two years, 139 countries have signed and 50 have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which pledges to help disabled people achieve “all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“We are getting to the point,” Vanderheiden says, “where you cannot live, vote, participate in the community, follow current affairs, or get government benefits without interacting with technology.”

For the elderly and those with disabilities, “technology that changes almost daily creates a near-continuous stream of barriers to employment, work, and life,” Lightner adds.

Technology can also, of course, increase accessibility by applying text output for the deaf and speech output for the sight-impaired, providing access to the housebound, and more. And enhancing accessibility has benefits for all. People with disabilities are a talent pool eager to be tapped. And, as the numbers show, it’s a large and growing market.

“There’s money to be made,” West says. “Just as green technology is not just tree-hugging, there are economic benefits.”

“Accessibility is a huge opportunity to expand product lines and market size,” says keynote speaker Axel Leblois, executive director of the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies. “In the United States, the disposable income of people with disabilities is twice that of teenagers—but look how much product design and marketing goes to teenagers and how little to persons with impairments.”

“Accessibility and usability are the same thing,” says IEEE member Nick Bowen of IBM, another keynote speaker. “There’s a convergence here: Accessibility is turning from a compliance issue, something legally required, to a mainstream concern we see as simply the right thing to do.”

“The challenge,” Kemp says, “is not to slow the pace of innovation but to build in accessibility considerations for a wider and wider group of users.

Sometimes there are unexpected benefits. For example, closed captioning, developed so deaf people can enjoy television, can help everyone in noisy surroundings such as bars and airports. But accessibility should be incorporated at the earliest possible design stage, a sentiment the conference chairs and keynote speakers echo unanimously.

“If you think about it while you’re inventing and designing, it’s not hard,” West says. “It should be automatic, just as you don’t build public buildings without considering ramps.”

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