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The View From Here: Raising the Floor

By Greg Vanderheiden

We all know that information and communication technologies are advancing at an ever-increasing rate and are rapidly being incorporated into every aspect of life. In both developed and developing countries, individuals are finding that, while they may have been able to ignore or avoid technology in the past, the use of technology is rapidly becoming a necessity. As a result, those who cannot access and use technologies are increasingly at a distinct economic, social, and educational disadvantage. In many places, even daily living activities or effective access to social services now require using technology. For many people with disabilities, access to technology is required for them to read, write, talk, and be productive.

Today, there are special assistive technologies for some people with disabilities that allow them to access some of these new information and communication technologies. However, these technologies only allow access to some IT and web technologies, are available for only some disabilities, and are expensive enough that they are available only to a minority of the people who need them. Moreover, only the most expensive of these technologies can deal with some of the newest mainstream technologies being used on the Web, putting them out of reach for most people in this country and for essentially everyone in developing countries.

We need to begin to rethink how we go about providing access to those with disabilities and those who cannot read but who do not have the resources to afford assistive technologies that are good enough to access the emerging technologies on the Web. We cannot let these populations be isolated from modern information and communication technologies due to a lack of effective interface. We need to:

To address these and similar issues, a new international coalition is forming under the banner “Raising the Floor.” This group seeks to create an open source set of tools that can be used to create free public access features that are built directly into the information infrastructure, and facilitate richer and more affordable assistive technologies.

By building free public access features directly into the information infrastructure, individuals with disabilities or literacy barriers would be able to approach any computer, in any location, and invoke the accessibility features they need. This approach is especially important for reaching people at all socio-economic levels—including those who cannot afford their own information or communication technologies and must use public technologies or those of friends. These individuals need to be able to use any computers they can access at internet cafés, community centers, libraries, or schools.

Building accessibility into the infrastructure can, for the first time, allow us to provide access to people with the full range of types, degrees, and combinations of disabilities and economic resources. It can allow users to mix and match features in order to meet their own specific needs. It allows people to use any technology in their environment, invoking the interface features they need from the ether. It allows researchers and developers to work on enhancing specific features or adding entirely new and innovative features or capabilities, rather than having to develop an entire assistive technology package. In this way it can facilitate research and innovation, and also lead to a more feature-rich environment for people with disabilities. It can also provide more variation in features to address different disabilities and low incidence disabilities.

Using open source building blocks that can also be freely incorporated into commercial assistive technology can also facilitate innovation in commercial AT. And by allowing commercial AT to be distributed on the same “on-demand, anytime, anywhere” delivery infrastructure, a broader market for commercial AT and “micro-AT” can be created.

Finally, by allowing individual interface features to be easily developed, tested, and disseminated within an open and supported delivery infrastructure, the whole field of alternate adaptive interfaces for all users can be opened up in a way that has not been possible in the past.

The agenda of “Raising the Floor” is daunting, but if successful, could both accelerate innovation in this area and provide the first real chance at addressing the needs of underserved populations and those from all socioeconomic levels internationally.

For more information or to contribute to this effort see http://RaisingTheFloor.net.UX

Gregg Vanderheiden is a professor of Industrial and Biomedical Engineering and directs the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Work from his team can be found in every computer operating system today as well as Amtrak ticketing machines, ATMs, voting machines, the WWII Memorial, and automated postal systems across the country.

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.

This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2009.

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