Moving Forward to Full Accessibility: Getting Closer, Getting Easier

When the assistive technology field was first getting started, the tools available to create access to the same materials used by everyone were limited or nonexistent. Some individuals with disabilities were able to use the available computer hardware or software in those early days with little additional supports or added equipment.  Then there were others, for whom we struggled to create something “similar” that worked sort of like what everyone else was using.  It didn’t always work out, it took lots of time to set up, and usually involved opening up the computer itself to add something so that things “might” work.

Stress on the “might”. The software available was limited in number and scope, and certain platforms (Apple) allowed for more customization than others (PC Jr., DOS).  And additional hardware to use in this process also was limited.

As things evolved, and more computer hardware and software emerged on the scene, it got a little bit better. But there still were hours and hours using optical character recognition software and a scanner to scan text into the computer, let alone the hours after scanning to edit the text.  If pictures were involved, that was a separate document to be merged into the text.

Trying to add other technology to educational software packages used across a number of students never really worked well. The packages were usually locked as they opened, and did not allow for assistive technology to load on top of them.

Sounds sort of like back in the day when the only televisions were black and white and there was no Internet. It was.

Even after the Internet was introduced and technology use and innovation continued to explode, there remained a great need to work around things. Accommodations for individuals with disabilities remained the only way to allow for possible participation when standard software or hardware was used by those without disabilities.  And usually that required someone else assisting for the parts that could not be accommodated.

If only accessibility could be thought of at the beginning of the design process, we posed.  If only accessibility was built into the technology, and that accommodations and other work-arounds weren’t necessary.

If only you could drive the technology with your voice or your eyes or by touch. Or go out to a store and try it before you buy it.  Or have it with you 24/7.  And that can be used independently without needing an accommodation or personal assistance.

It hasn’t happened over night, but the movement towards this dream of accessibility for everyone has been running forward at an increasingly rapid pace.

When Apple began including accessibility in its operating system in the late 1980’s and launched the Think Different campaign, others began to follow suit. Elizabeth Petrick’s book “Making Computers Accessible: Disability Rights and Digital Technology” chronicles the role Apple played in leading the way in building accessibility into its operating system.

Now we have accessibility features in almost every platform we can encounter. Just look at the announcements of late. just announced a new updated Android N with increased accessibility features.

Twitter has added an option for image description.  Chrome has a number of accessibility options, included for Google Docs, Calendar, Gmail and others.  Google Hangout posts can be captioned. Facebook is using artificial intelligence to describe photos.

Netflix agreed to caption 100% of their video in 2014 and is now offering more titles with audio description for blind users, to allow them to understand what is shown on the screen for both movies and some television shows. And we are also finding more television broadcasts that are also adding both captioning and audio description.

Disney has developed an audio description app for use with current film releases, called Disney Movies Anywhere.

Accessibility is being discussed and implemented across many platforms and by many major developers who may have never thought of including it before. Adobe Premiere Pro now allows for Captions and Subtitles.  YouTube can have accurate captions if the time is taken to correct the auto captions or a script is used when creating video.

These are just a few examples of how universal design is being used across technology to include everyone. It’s exactly what we were hoping for in the early days when it took lots of patience and creativity to allow individuals to begin to access technology available to the general population.  Keeping up is a fast paced game of following lots of sources.  Those results are posted on the Disability Services website, accessible Facebook page and Twitter feed.

One might ask why now?   Debra Ruh’s statistics from a recent webinar shows that 1 in 7 people in the world have a disability, as well as 60 million in the United States alone.  More people are living longer.  Technology is a part of our society, thus we all need to be able to continue to use it across our lifespan, in many different ways.

I am just as excited now about the technology as I was almost 30 years ago when I started in this field. Possibilities are endless and expectations are soaring.

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