An impressive wave of computer-based technologies will soon
help millions of people with disabilities communicate, learn and
become more productive workers. Learning professionals are invited
to catch this global tide.
Blind and visually impaired individuals can now listen to content
as fresh as their morning newspaper in the world's most widely used
"talking book" format. The new capability will soon benefit
millions of visually impaired people everywhere by enhancing their
ability to read and learn.
Thanks to a recent add-on to Microsoft Word, any Word document can
be converted with a single click into the globally accepted DAISY
Standard for reading and publishing multimedia content where it can
be instantly enjoyed, even on a portable MP3 player. The
application, upgraded in January, was created through an open
source project with Microsoft, Sonata Software Ltd. and the Digital
Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) Consortium. It joins a
rapidly evolving landscape of accessible technologies that have
profound implications for learners and the learning profession.
"The Save-as-DAISY plug-in is an exciting advance for disabled
individuals," says Deborah Kaplan, director of the Accessible
Technology Initiative at California State University. Kaplan
foresees a day when the electronic environment is designed and
built to accommodate individuals with all sorts of physical and
mental limitations, and when providing a fully accessible workplace
is a priority for every employer.
That day may be closer than we think. Activities underway
throughout the accessibility universe are improving the quality of
life for every person with a physical or learning related
disability. A dizzying array of innovations is aimed at ensuring
maximum access to the internet and other communications tools for
those who face barriers in their ability to use them.
That marketplace pull is being matched by a policy push that has
caught the attention of employers, internet marketers and others.
It includes legal and regulatory initiatives that are increasing
the worldwide urgency for design and adoption of new assistive
technologies. In short, accessibility is becoming the new green.
One important driver for these advances is California State
University itself, where vision, expertise, and muscle are being
applied to the challenge. Using the clout of its 23 campuses, CSU's
Accessible Technology Initiative pursues every opportunity to
impact learning, from requiring technology vendors to meet
accessibility compliance requirements to pioneering approaches for
students to receive and perceive learning in the classroom. It is
also promoting universal design in all future learning related
For example, the following recent AT advances have been introduced
with input from CSU's initiative:
- Virtual classroom. Learning provider Elluminate
offers a web conferencing platform called Elluminate Live! that
features closed captioning functionality for hearing impaired
learners as well as enlarged, easier-to-see video and other
- Blackboard's Version 9. The latest upgrade of
Blackboard online learning platform, called Blackboard Learn,
provides a full range of accessibility features such as embedded
text to accompany graphics.
- Apple and Google. Apple Inc. has added
accessibility features to its iTunes U, a dedicated area of the
iTunes Store for content provided by colleges and universities.
Apple also promises to ensure full accessibility of iTunes software
and the rest of the iTunes Store to blind people using both Mac and
Windows operating systems by June 30, 2009.Similarly, Google has
added accessibility features in its Google Documents and Calendar.
Another example of product conversion, unaffiliated with CSU, is a
Braille printer offered by Oregon-based ViewPlus Technologies Inc.
that embosses Braille along with a printed page from HP Inkjet
cartridges. Called the Emprint, the product is produced under a
partnership between ViewPlus and HP.
When it comes to promoting accessible technologies, Kaplan and her
staff think big. "We're trying to institutionalize AT so it becomes
part of everybody's job," she says. "After all, it's as big an
issue as security, and it should be implemented on an equally broad
scale." Her message to employers is that when they purchase
enterprise software or a learning management system, all of their
employees must interact with it. "It simply has to be accessible.
You're losing out on talent when it's not."
Benchmarks are achieved in her opinion when an innovation first
described as an assistive technology moves seamlessly into the
mainstream. Examples include DragonDictate, the original speech
recognition application from Dragon Systems.
One of the school's campuses, CSU Northridge, even hosts the
world's largest annual conference for experts to share the latest
AT research, best practices and products. Its 24th CSUN
gathering, slated for March 16-21 in Los Angeles, is expected to
draw more than 4,000 attendees and exhibitors. (www.csun.edu/cod/conf ) Another
popular conference is held annually by the Assistive Technology
Industry Association. (www.atia.org)
"When discussing the AT field, it's important to include the large
population of individuals with learning disabilities," says Sam
Ogami, an AT expert in Kaplan's office. "It's often not apparent
when people have such disabilities, and they won't necessarily tell
anyone," he says. New technologies such as DAISY greatly benefit
people with hidden disabilities such as dyslexia, he says. By
adopting technologies that address the specific reading and
communication needs of workers, employers increase workforce
productivity in ways they may never specifically know about, he
As noted earlier, other drivers of the AT bandwagon are political
and legal in nature. Here are five important initiatives certain to
impact the adoption of accessibility technologies:
White House leadership. President Barack Obama has
promised to make employment of people with disabilities a priority.
First, he is expected to restore the budget and leadership of the
Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which was seriously
constrained under President Bush. One obvious focus: the dramatic
disparity in employment and salaries between individuals with and
New teeth to the ADA. A handy club for the EEOC to
wield is a new amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Effective January 1, 2009, the provision clarifies and strengthens
the protection of anyone who faces discrimination on the basis of a
disability. That includes workers whose employers discriminate
based on a perception that a worker is impaired, regardless of
whether the worker has a disability.
'508 Refresh'. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation
Act requires federal agencies to ensure that employees and others
with disabilities have the same access to information and data as
those who don't. It means that federal agencies must procure the
most accessible product on the market, a clear business incentive
for suppliers that has spawned a spirit of collaboration by the
European Union and other governments. A proposed revision of the
section, dubbed "508 Refresh," has prompted a drive for consistency
of AT rules around the globe.
The United Nations. An international push is
coming from the United Nations Convention on Rights of People with
Disabilities. The initiative is expected to produce an ADA-type
policy on a global scale to advance the rights and protect the
dignity of people with disabilities.
Accessible websites. In a closely watched lawsuit
with implications for businesses, Target Brands Inc. has settled
litigation by the National Federation of the Blind for maintaining
an inaccessible web site. After losing in federal court, Target
agreed to pay $30 Million and meet specific requirements regarding
web accessibility. The suit, filed under the ADA, marked the first
test of the statute for relevance to an internet based business.
IBM steps up
While such inducements are certain to force-feed the AT
marketplace, AT advocates say it's time for product and learning
content developers - and their customers - to embrace accessibility
for the right reasons. "We need to change the mindset of courseware
designers, authoring tool developers and others so that full
accessibility becomes second nature," says Heather Hasner, Global
Accessibility Lead for IBM's Center for Learning and Development.
For example, voice recognition software now creates accurate
captions and transcripts of spoken learning content, and it should
be part of every day learning tools, she insists. That will only
happen when content developers view people with disabilities as a
vital new audience, and when accessibility guidelines are
established for authoring tools, she says.
IBM is helping to pave the way with a mindboggling array of
activities aimed at making technology and information easily
accessible to people with visual, cognitive, hearing, and motor
disabilities. Leading those efforts is IBM's Human Ability and
Accessibility Center, an entity that has evolved from its
20-year-old Special Needs Group, which pioneered advances including
the Home Page Reader self-voicing web browser.
With the center's help, Big Blue aggressively integrates
accessibility into its product development process, conducts vital
research and development, and participates in numerous outreach
activities. They include building accessibility into web 2.0
technologies, such as standards and tool kits for widgits, to IBM's
Easy Web Browsing tool that improves web page readability for
people with limited vision.
IBM's software advances include WebAdapt2Me, a tool that enables
people with vision, cognitive or hand limitations to customize the
way web pages are presented. Accessibility features are also
included in popular software programs including its Lotus Symphony
desktop application and Lotus Learning Management System.
To help broaden the reach of ATs, IBM contributes its Accessibility
Tools Framework to the Eclipse Foundation, an open source community
focused on developing a universal platform of frameworks and tools
for the creation of software. It enables developers to build and
use various types of tools such as those for accessibility
compliance validation and alternative interfaces for people with
Other research and development activities at IBM include
development of a Web-based tool for the blind to access virtual
worlds like Second Life. A prototype technology provides an
interface with virtual worlds that enables blind people to
navigate, interact with and understand the objects in the virtual
world. The project, dubbed the Virtual Worlds Interface for the
Blind, also relies on a social network of sighted users who add the
descriptive information to objects and places in Second Life. The
project has been released as a trial on IBM's alphaWorks.
As with most AT initiatives, the benefits from the project will be
broad, predicts Phill Jenkins, a business executive at IBM
Research. "Just as curbs designed for wheelchairs benefit others in
the real world, we're creating 'electronic curbs' within virtual
worlds that assist learners of all sorts, including second language
learners," he says. When people can see and hear information at
same time during a virtual 3D learning session, better learning is
achieved, Jenkins says.
Meanwhile, a coalition of information and accessibility technology
companies is laying the groundwork for the next generation of
accessible web-based products. Called the Accessibility
Interoperability Alliance (AIA), the global society promotes
collaboration of the design and delivery of solutions to
longstanding compatibility challenges confronting the AT
marketplace. "We recognized that there were good pockets of
activity but little collaboration across the industry," says Rob
Sinclair, Microsoft Corp.'s director of accessibility and a charter
member of the AIA. He says collaboration is required to solve many
problems, especially the standardization of certain application
program interfaces (APIs) so products can interoperate seamlessly.
For example, it's important that any assistive technology, such as
a screen reader for the blind, be able to collect information from
an application and share it with customers. Solving such user
interface problems is the assignment of one of AIA's four working
groups. Another group promotes the consistency of keyboard
shortcuts for AT products used with web browsers, especially for
web 2.0 applications. Yet another seeks to align the leading
accessibility APIs used in the industry today, such as Microsoft's
UI Automation and IBM's IAccessible2, so that they can
interoperate. This alignment will enable the mapping of information
among these accessibility models.
As part of that activity, Microsoft and Novell have partnered to
help software developers create and deliver accessible products for
Windows and Linux platforms. Sinclair says the project will
dramatically improve computer access to the next generation of
software applications by people with disabilities, especially those
who are blind. Microsoft pledges not to assert any patents
necessary to implement its UIA specification, regardless of
platform, in the open source and proprietary software communities.
Novell's compatibility efforts also will be open source and will
make the UIA framework cross-platform.
Microsoft has for years incorporated the latest accessibility
features within its operating systems, of course. Backbone of that
effort is its Microsoft Active Accessibility technology, which is
designed to improve the way accessibility aids work with
applications running on Windows. Along with screen readers, those
aids include visual indicators for people with hearing loss and
software to compensate for motion disabilities.
Microsoft maintains AT vendor partnerships with some 200 companies.
"We divide the AT industry into IT providers, applications
developers, and specialized assistive technology vendors," says
Sinclair. "They control both ends of the customer experience: the
application for them to use, and the assistive technologies that
transform that application into a different experience for people
with unique requirements."
Another important player is the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), an
international organization that develops specifications,
guidelines, software, and tools to help the internet reach full
potential. Its Web Content Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is a
forum for industry, the disability community, researchers and
governments to develop solutions under the W3C Process.
High on the Initiative's agenda is the Accessible Rich Internet
Applications Suite (ARIA), a specification to make Web applications
and content fully accessible. ARIA addresses challenges confronting
developers such as defining new ways to provide functionality to
It all amounts to an impressive campaign to improve the lives of
people with disabilities. Yet as usual, the actual beneficiaries
clearly extend beyond the target audience. One major focus is
certain to be the needs and whims of aging baby boomers, predicts
IBM's Phill Jenkins. As boomers age, they will fully expect to
continue using computers and other familiar devices, he says. "We
will end up with a large population demanding accessible
interface," Jenkins says. "The real profit for developers will come
in when boomers begin driving the market."
(It should be noted that in the parlance of the profession,
accessibility results from the adoption of
assistive technologies, such as a wheelchair ramp to a
building. An accessible technology is useful to a wide range of
people with and without difficulties and impairments.)