Making Technology More Accessible

IEEE conference covers ways to create technology with disabled users in mind

27 July 2011

When developers of high-tech gadgets think about who their potential users will be, business people and gamers are probably the first who jump to mind. Rarely considered are people with physical and cognitive disabilities and special needs. That’s why IEEE partnered with IBM to hold a first-of-its-kind conference that brought leaders from industry, government, and academia to Boston to discuss how to ensure those with disabilities are part of the technology-development process. An video of the Accessing the Future: A Global Collaborative Exploration for Accessibility in the Next Decade conference is now available. Here are some highlights from the program originally presented in July 2009 during the conference at Northeastern University.

About 10 percent of the world’s population is totally disabled, according to keynote speaker Axel Leblois, research committee chair of the G3ict: The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, a United Nations advocacy initiative based in Atlanta. (“ICT” stands for “information and communication technologies.”) He said the number of people with temporary disabilities worldwide is even higher, at 18 percent. Then there are others with special needs, such as the elderly and people with brain injuries or learning disabilities.

“Technology development has to start not just when we [the disabled] receive the device but when the mainstream technologies are first being developed,” said conference attendee Sunish Gupta, who lost his sight about 10 years ago. He subsequently helped build a machine with Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in assistive technologies, that reads words to the blind from a book or printed page.

Gupta has added a special feature to his cellphone that lets him take an image of a document, convert it first to OCR characters and then from text to speech. In other words, his cellphone can speak to him.

He calls his phone the world’s first portable reading machine for the blind. “These technologies could have easily been made—especially the talking features—by companies like Nokia or Motorola,” he said. “They could have incorporated the text-to-speech technologies into their cellphones.”

John D. Kemp, one of the conference chairs, was born without arms or legs and uses a scooter to get around. He is the executive director and general counsel of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a disability organization in Washington, D.C., that represents more than 5000 employers.

“I tend to go with what is reliable and effective, so I want my scooters to run well all the time, and I want assistive technologies like my clamps on my hands and my artificial legs not to break down,” Kemp said. “I want durable things, and some of the new technologies just aren’t quite there.”

Some companies are working to make their products more useful—or accessible—for the disabled. Several speakers noted that Apple designed features for the visually impaired for its iPhone 3GS and later models. The phone reads the screen out loud as it’s swiped by a person’s finger, and it tells you what the keys are when you tap on them.

Frances West, director of IBM’s Human Ability and Accessibility Center and the conference co-chair, noted that IBM was working on putting real-time speech-recognition technology in more places.

“Speech recognition is what I call the ‘foundational technology’ for all accessibility solutions,” West said. “We are trying to apply speech technology to [read out loud] webcasts or podcasts, which are becoming very popular.”

People without disabilities also benefit from special-needs features, according to several people at the conference. “As we get older, our needs change, almost in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t always have to be from a disability,” said conference panelist Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy for the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City. “Eyesight tends to go with age, so suddenly it’s harder to read your cellphone screen. Having speech output suddenly becomes more useful.

“Our view is that technology that works for people with disabilities is better for everyone because it tends to meet more needs and be more useful across more lifestyles than would otherwise be the case,” Schroeder continued.

New parents pushing an infant in a stroller certainly appreciate a curb ramp built for wheelchairs, Schroeder noted. And people who struggle with memory loss could benefit from a prompting system, said Cathy Bodine, an attendee from the University of Colorado.

“Technology can play a ton of roles,” Bodine added. “People with cognitive disabilities such as traumatic brain injury may struggle with remembering what they need to do next, which bus stop to get off, or how to make sweet potato pie.

“It can be done through prompting systems, through context-aware sensor-based technology, and through using computing resources in new and different ways. The list of possibilities is endless.”

Other roadblocks in the computing arena include operating systems that are upgraded, she noted: “When things change on the computer screen or things don’t operate the same as when you first learned them, it becomes a continual learning process.”

Engineering has myriad roles to play. “Disability involves different areas, from vision to hearing, so [meeting all the challenges] really will take engineers of many different disciplines,” said IBM’s West.

And Kemp, the conference cochair, offered this advice to engineers: “Empathize with people with disabilities and listen to what they want. You have all of the skills and capabilities to solve our problems.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More