Will the digital age be accessible?

Will the digital age be accessible?

New DH contributor, Clive Gilbert from London, UK, shares a thought provoking article on whether advances in digital technology will be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

It seems almost a cliché to point out that the rapid growth of information technology in recent decades has been tremendously beneficial to people with disabilities. This has happened as much by coincidence as design. The technological sophistication that is the hallmark of most modern societies, has improved living standards for disabled people in countless ways. The Internet, remote controls and voice recognition technologies are examples of advances that have benefited people of all creeds and abilities while at the same time removing barriers that prevent people with impairments from participating fully in society.

The prospects for further shifts towards greater technological inclusivity abound. Communications, education, work and commerce have been thrust decisively into the digital era to be mediated through common brand names such as Google, Apple and Microsoft. Combined with recent strides in computing power and the decreasing cost of technology, these developments mean there has never been a better outlook for achieving universally higher standards of accessibility. Precise estimates of the size of the market for assistive technology are unavailable but a report by the UK Government’s watchdog Consumer Focus puts the figure in the region of £1 billion for specialist equipment alone.

The opportunities afforded by reaching out to disabled users have been realised only gradually. Computer software often allows users with visual impairments to adjust the size and colour of onscreen objects, virtual keyboards which allow users to type with the cursor are a standard feature of Windows operating systems and the online community is slowly becoming acquainted with the tenets of accessible website design.

As the prevalence of personal computing has risen, so has an industry producing specialist software and hardware aimed at remedying specific needs grown to provide solutions which can be grafted onto more mainstream technologies. These range from voice recognition software designed to process the speech patterns of dyspraxic users, and eye gaze systems that allow people with limited mobility to operate computers solely by looking at the monitor. Although expensive and still in its infancy, such gadgetry holds great promise.

However, these trends cannot be taken for granted. A report published by the US based National Council on Disability (NCD) says that the increasing complexity of everyday devices threatens to reverse them. As smart phones, iPads and e-readers have shrunk the digital media revolution so that it can be carried in our pockets, keyboards and screens have been miniaturised, requiring a level of dexterity that would be daunting for many whether they have a diagnosed impairment or not. Mp3 player option menus that demand users make a selection within a limited interval before reverting to the default screen and touch screen devices where there is little to help guide the fingers of people with visual impairment and coordination difficulties are two illustrations of the problem features that increasingly characterise the latest gizmos.

Another major impediment to the adaptation of mainstream technologies for people with disabilities is the increasing tendency among manufacturers to guard against modifications to their products. For example, Apple’s iTunes digital rights management makes difficult to play media downloaded from its store on any portable device other than those whose names begin with ‘i’. Electric wheelchair manufacturers have been known to favour certain types of control systems over others by making the hardware on their models incompatible with rival technologies.  This mercantilism limits the ability of disabled people and professionals involved in procuring equipment to take full advantage of the technologies available, forcing many to compromise when one gadget in their preferred set-up does not work with another. Where no single market solution to an individual’s needs exists, life-enhancing innovation can rely on mixing and matching different products.

Overcoming these obstacles to inclusivity requires greater awareness and determination on the part of both consumers and manufacturers. The specialist assistive technology market needs to become better at serving users with improved advice and by deploying and communicating technical knowledge more effectively. This would help narrow the information gap which pervades many, if not most, specialist transactions. Where technology is acquired with financial assistance from the NHS or other public body, moves towards a retail-orientated approach that transfers purchasing power from professionals to the users themselves makes this more urgent.

Mainstream manufacturers need only consider the huge demographic changes currently taking place to understand the need to reverse the trend towards product design that excludes potential consumers. Declining fertility rates and the considerable lengthening of people’s lives thanks to modern medicine will contribute to the rise of an ageing population throughout the developed world by 2050. The number of users who are likely to struggle with the tiny and the fiddly gadgets is set to grow exponentially over the coming decades.

The pace at which the digital age has arrived has taken us by surprise, leaving little room for reflection or planning. People with disabilities have come to be somewhat overlooked, and in the next phase of technological advancement we will have to be more concerned with harnessing our ever-growing computer power to address social and economic issues. This will require a concerted effort from technology manufacturers, governments and civil society to ensure nobody is excluded.

By Clive Gilbert

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  • A really interesting post. Perhaps singling Apple out of their use of DRM is a little harsh in this case, seeing as they stopped enforcing this in 2009 with the release of iTunes+. They do a great deal of work in creating devices that are as inclusive as possible, creating technologies like FaceTime allowing deaf users to have signed video conversations, and more recently Siri to allow users with visual impairments a simpler voice control experience.

    Speaking from experience, developing accessible websites is a challenge, and one that not a lot of web developers face head on. The best way to create accessible sites is to include an appreciation of accessibility in the design and scoping phases – rather than try and tack it on at a later date. Anything can be achieved with the right amount of planning and testing, but this is time that not all web developers are prepared to take.

  • The problem with accessible technologies is that developers aren’t ready to develop them because of the relatively small customer base. Someone should pour in lots of funds and make a big change.

    Even for people with SMA like us, typing on a touchscreen is difficult because of our lack of dexterity. Hope things change for the better!

  • Louise Amor

    Absolutely agree with Pratyush – I can’t use a touchscreen and yet technology seems to be heading away from ‘real’ keyboards altogether. It’s a worry.