Assistive Technology is for everybody

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.

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