Designing IT to ‘open doors’ for people with disabilities


Helping students design technologies accessible to people with disabilities and the aging population is the objective of ACCESS, an online repository of learning materials and other resources created by IBM Inc. in partnership with universities.

Academic institutions currently involved with ACCESS include the University of Toronto, University of Illinois, California State University, and Georgia Tech. The idea is encourage professors to incorporate these learning materials into everyday university computer programming classes.

Most students can complete a post-secondary career with limited exposure and awareness of accessibility challenges, says Ben Kempner, program director of the Human Ability and Accessibility Center (HA&AC) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. These students, he adds, enter the workforce ignorant of the requirements of people with special needs.

The current system, Kempner argues, spawns “generations of graduates who don’t understand accessibility, and as a result continue to create software, Web sites and products that don’t work for everyone.”

Obstacles to overcoming this problem are two-fold, says Kempner. First, there is a lack of awareness around the needs of people with disabilities. And second, professors often don’t understand the issue well enough to incorporate it into their courseware.

The ACCESS portal – which stands for Accessibility Common Courseware Exchange for Software Studies – seeks to respond to these challenges.

The portal itself provides a range of tips, pointers and best practices for making technology accessible. For instance, it suggests that Web sites include transcripts or audio descriptions of video clips posted on the site; or that a software application provide visual cues in lieu of audio alerts. Another suggestion is that the option of adjusting volume, using software, be made available with a range of applications.

As a collaborative venture, ACCESS allows academic professionals to design and contribute material to the repository as well, says Kempner. “Materials can be as simple as a two-hour module on how to make Flash accessible, or a lab exercise, case study, homework exercise or lesson plans.”

The repository includes materials for the design of Web, hardware, software and documentation.

Everyone stands to benefit from universally-accessible IT, says Kempner, not just those groups with special needs. “You can make a font bigger, change colour contrast, stream a captioned video from the Web. These features benefit everybody, but they certainly open doors to employment for people with [special needs].”

Although initiatives such as this are initially focused on people with disabilities, they inevitably prove useful to the general public, says Jutta Treviranus, director of the Adaptive Technology Research Centre (ATRC) in the faculty of information studies at the University of Toronto.

An example of such an initiative, says Treviranus, is the curb cut – a slope in the sidewalk that allows people to easily get on and off. This was originally intended for wheelchairs, but “it’s used more by individuals with baby carriages, skateboards, and anything on wheels.”

The same has occurred with text captions on televisions originally designed for the deaf and hard of hearing, she says. “A recent survey showed it’s most frequently used by fitness centres, bars, and spouses who want to watch television while their partner is sleeping.”

It was natural to be involved with the ACCESS initiative, says Treviranus, because ATRC focuses on sharing and reusing academic courses, as well as on accessibility and inclusive technology design.

She said “this was a perfect opportunity to further advance those goals” given IBM’s “open courseware exchange that makes courses available across institutions, and the focus on accessibility.”

ATRC has designed and is currently uploading an undergraduate course on adaptive technology, and workshops intended as corollaries to existing courses. For instance, one such workshop that can accompany a database design course is about components that make a database more accessible.

From a quality control perspective, the process for contributing materials to the repository requires the HA&AC to review content before it is uploaded. However, Kempner says there are plans to place universities on a steering committee that will oversee the content.


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