Volume XIV Number 1, March 2014

Pondering the Future: The Four Things I Want to See by 2024

Steve Noble
University of Louisville

Looking back

When Information Technology and Disabilities (ITD) Journal celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2004, I was privileged to serve as its Editor-in-Chief. The introduction I wrote for that special celebratory issue mentioned the fact that when ITD began publication in 1994 there were only 3,000 websites in existence across the globe, and by 2004 we were up to 50 million. It is not surprising that with the current rate of growth many are predicting that we will see up to one billion websites by the end of 2014. Though the actual number depends on how you do the counting (many hostnames are simply duplicates of other sites), the point to be drawn is that the growth of information and information technology services provided over the Internet is showing no signs of slowing down.

Furthermore, the number and types of devices that are connected to the Internet continue to grow at a remarkable rate. No longer does one have to be tied to a computer to access information. Smartphones, for instance, now make up over 60% of all cell phones used in the U.S. Roughly 150 million people owning smartphones, which amounts to about 47% of the current population of 317 million.

Regardless of how big the Internet grows and how many devices can connect to it, all that digital content will be meaningless to people with disabilities if it hasn't been created with accessibility in mind. With that vantage point understood—and observing the need for advancing accessibility in all forms of information—I want to consider what the accessible world of 10 years from now will look like. In my mind's eye, it is really a great time for accessibility.

Looking ahead

What follows is not a particularly well-reasoned prediction of the future, though surely it is a world that could exist—if enough of us work together to accomplish these goals. So, here are the four things I expect to see by 2024 by virtue of their overcoming the things I hope to never see or hear of again.

1) Accessible math is everywhere.

By 2024, I hope to never again see an image format used to represent a math equation. Forget about whether or not the image has an alt tag. That might have been seen as sufficient back in the last millennium, but that practice is already way out of touch in 2014. Instead, in 10 years or less I expect to see all math expressions encoded in such a way as to make them fully accessible to the end user. All mathematical content—wherever it is found in digital environments—will be able to be spoken by synthetic speech engines just as easily as plain text, seamlessly served to braille displays, copied and pasted from one document to another, easily plugged into other software for manipulation and graphing—you  name it, and it will just work—and it won't matter if you are blind or sighted.

All these capabilities will likely involve some connection to Mathematical Markup Language (MathML). Actually, there's no good reason to explain why we aren't seeing MathML universally used today. Other than simple indifference or lack of vision by technology companies, there's no plausible explanation for why, in 2014, we don't see MathML supported in every browser.

Surely by 2024, I expect that not only will every browser support MathML, but every reading technology on the market will support synthetic speech access to all mathematical content in whatever math speech style best suits your accessibility needs. Furthermore, if people are still using the PDF format, math expressions in those docs will always contain MathML with full speech and support braille access to the math. And if you still have to get out the old scanner for the occasional archaic print book, all the optical character recognition (OCR) software on the market will properly recognize all math expressions with 99+% accuracy and export your document as MathML or some other fully accessible, math-savvy format.

2) All education software and web resources are accessible.

By 2024, I hope to never again see news stories about students with disabilities whose rights to education are being drastically compromised by schools that use inaccessible education software. Surely by then, instances such as the 2014 complaint filed against Miami University alleging the use of inaccessible course management and assignment software, or the 2011 suit filed against Florida State University for an inaccessible e-learning system, will simply be footnotes in accessibility history—because all digital applications used in education will be fully accessible to students using assistive technology.

Such a future isn't that hard to imagine. Actually, it is rather amazing that all education technologies aren't already 100% accessible. There are already a number of mainstream education technology vendors who are making a point to build accessibility into their products; some even go to the effort of certifying their web-based applications through services such as the National Federation of the Blind's Nonvisual Accessibility Web Certification or the WebAIM Accessible Web Site Certification programs. Further, some states like Kentucky have had laws on the books for many years that mandate all technology purchased by state-funded schools and universities meet federal accessibility standards. Even in the absence of state laws, the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear—via a Dear Colleague letter sent in 2010 and a Frequently Asked Questions clarification sent in 2011—that federal laws mandating access to educational programs by students with disabilities apply to all online courses and other online content that are part of the operations of the school, whether they are provided by the school directly or through contractual or other arrangements. So surely by 2024, inaccessible education technology will be totally extinct. Let's hope so.

3) Digital Rights Management (DRM) will never block accessibility.

By 2024, I hope to never again hear horror stories of DRM gone mad, like what happened when Amazon enabled publishers to purposefully block text-to-speech access to their content on the Kindle 2. Furthermore, I expect Congress to revisit the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and not just allow people to legally break DRM tools for accessibility purposes, but also to make it a fineable offence (if not an outright crime) for companies to use DRM tools to purposefully interfere with text-to-speech and similar access technologies used by people with disabilities.

Every time I pop a DVD into the player I am reminded that, "Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000." So why not similarly investigate and punish attempts by companies or individuals to intentionally deny accessibility by people with disabilities to media they have legally purchased? Whether it comes about through legislative efforts, future case law as a result of litigation, or simply the return of reason within the media publishing community, I am looking forward to a future free of accessibility-restricting DRM implementations.   

4) No one will ever have to scan a textbook again!

By 2024, I hope to never again read email discussions on disability-related mailing lists—or anywhere else—about how much the latest model scanners cost, or what OCR application they think is best, because nobody will be scanning textbooks anymore. I expect that every textbook used in every school in the U.S. will be available directly from the publisher in a digital format that is fully accessible out of the box. In fact, 10 years from now I really hope that programs like Learning Ally and Bookshare are doing other useful things in the world, as their current textbook access services will no longer be needed.

Moving forward

I could go on with my list, but sometimes brevity is a virtue. True, many days I may feel exasperated over the inaccessibility of a particular application a student is trying to use, or perhaps distraught because a software vendor or publisher has told me, essentially, that they aren't interested in making their product accessible. But deep down I am a perpetual optimist, and I look forward to a future which is much more accessible than today, thanks to the good work of so many people in the accessibility field. So, to all you accessibility advocates, technology developers and service personnel who may be reading this, let me encourage you to keep your wits sharp and your focus on target. We'll be light years ahead in 10 more years!


American Foundation for the Blind. (n.d.) AFB's comments on rulemaking exemption to prohibition on circumventing of copyright protection. Retrieved from http://www.afb.org/info/programs-and-services/public-policy-center/technology-and-information-accessibility/afb%27s-comments-on-rulemaking-exemption-to-prohibition-on-circumvention-of-copyright-protection/1235

Danielsen, C. (2014). Blind student files discrimination suit against Miami University. Retrieved from https://nfb.org/blind-student-files-discrimination-suit-against-miami-university

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Reading Rights Coalition. (2014). The Kindle TTS issue. Retrieved from http://www.readingrights.org/kindle-tts-issue

United States Census Bureau. (2014). U.S. and world population clock. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/popclock/

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WebAIM. (2014). Accessible web site certification. Retrieved from http://webaim.org/services/certification/

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Noble, S. (2014). Pondering the Future: The Four Things I Want to See by 2024. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 14(1).