Just read a great article, A New Way to Think about Assistive Technology, from the Bookshare Blog, about how we can change people’s view about what AT actually is, and by extension, what disability is.
When I introduce accessibility to newcomers, I like starting by saying « X people around this table are using an AT right now » (X being the number of people wearing glasses, and it’s generally around half of the audience). Sometimes I go as far as saying that in the sky, any human being is unable to fly, which can be qualified as a disability; yet, we have assistive technologies that allow millions of us to fly, every single day. It helps making them think differently about what « disability » means. It’s important because most people associate the idea of disability with a serious medical condition. This tends to make it a somewhat marginal issue: not that many people have visible impairments that make us think: « this person has a disability ». Whereas a fair share of the population should feel concerned by accessibility for their own needs, especially in ICT. In fact, a 2004 survey by Forrester for Microsoft revealed that 57% of the US active population could use accessibility features, such as screen or text magnification, improved contrasts, or improved mouse precision. It could go as far as spell-checking and customized keyboard shortcuts, indeed.
I also like the author’s point about how the lack of even the most basic assistive technologies negatively impacts education, which of course impairs future economic growth. A study by the UNESCO (featured in this presentation by Donal Rice at the European Accessibility Forum in 2011 (PDF, 792 kb)) estimated that 35.8% of the future Gross Domestic Product of Europe depended on the inclusive education of children with special needs. That should be a compelling enough figure for any government to act upon.
It’s to be noticed that mobile devices are helping a lot with making AT more mainstream. Cool features like speech input, on-screen keyboard, touch control, motion control, self-adapting display and luminosity, all have their origins in AT development. In return, those features benefit from a much larger userbase, meaning better feedback, and more incentive to invest in their improvement.
Those are excellent news for accessibility. We are living a paradigm shift, going from accessible design to inclusive design; and ultimately, to design that is inclusive by nature. We couldn’t hope for more.