Volume XIV Number 1, March 2014

Still Much to Learn...

Sean Keegan
Stanford University

When starting out in this field, I attended a presentation with colleagues on assistive technology and its uses, capabilities, and design. At that time, my focus was on web accessibility and, while knowledgeable about assistive technology programs, I was not appreciative of the deeper meaning of such applications. During the presentation, we were asked to sum up the ideals of assistive technology in only one word (yes, that “one-word” test). After panicking a bit, I drew upon my web accessibility background and when my turn came along, I gave my answer: “simplicity.” I was sure I had nailed it.

Always up for a bit of competition, I gave my group a satisfied smile daring them to come up with a better answer. While I was busy breaking my arm from patting myself on the back, my director at that time looked at me, smiled, and gave his answer: “transparency.” The answer was sublime. Experience had once again triumphed over youthful enthusiasm. I had much to learn about technology, disability, and accessibility.

Advances in technology are nothing new, particularly to those in the field of access technology. Technical exchanges involving the benefits of multi-core/gigahertz CPUs, the type of RAM required, video display chain management, or the installation order of text-to-speech voices are part of our everyday lexicon. And, while we all relished the evolution of the supercomputer to mainframe to minicomputer and microcomputer, it is the utilization of these devices in the field of accessibility access technology that impacts how people interact with the world around them. Applications and systems that once took half a room and hundreds of thousands of dollars to operate can now be utilized in devices that fit within our backpacks and, in some cases, our pockets.

More impressive is that many of the access technology functions that were considered only for individuals with disabilities are now becoming integrated into our everyday devices. Some computer manufacturers now include robust screen-reader applications as part of the device’s operating system for blind users. Other mobile devices can support braille output, enlarge text and images using the built-in camera, or function as an external listening platform and amplify conversations back to the owner. Previous generations of access technology once requiring a customized hardware and/or software solution—and often joined in a non-harmonious marriage—can now be had for far less money and in a package available to the general public.

There is no doubt that the inclusion of assistive-type technologies into mainstream computing devices has improved access for individuals with disabilities. True, this integration has not always been a perfect combination and the stories of improper installation order alone are cautionary tales. But what is tantalizingly close is that potential for access technology transparency, that opportunity for meaningful interactions between an individual and the information, irrespective of ability or limitation. That transparency towards providing individuals with the relevant accessibility support for interacting with content first and not pestered with endless settings, configuration menus, or the indeterminable delays for the accessible version.

We are not there yet and, I daresay, it may be another decade before we see that level of transparency with access technologies. What is a reality, though, is the increase in mainstream devices and applications today that embrace a level of accessibility unheard of 10 years ago. This offers us a glimpse of what is yet to come. For those of us in the field of access technology, our roles will change as accessibility is further integrated into the mainstream technology environment. We will still be called upon to train our students and guide our institutions in the area of accessible technologies, but we will need to be ever more cognizant to the capabilities and features available on everyday devices. I believe there is still much to learn, and that is exciting.

Keegan, S. (2014). Still Much to Learn.... Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 14(1).