Social connectedness offers another way to promote community integration and participation. Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative for the World Wide Web Consortium, described the abundant and rapidly proliferating ways in which information technologies can augment social connectedness for people of all ages. Clayton Lewis, consultant to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education (on leave from the University of Colorado), focused specifically on the use of these technologies by older people. As with the physical environment, universal design can span age groups and the spectrum of limitations.
Web Accessibility Initiative, World Wide Web Consortium;
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The World Wide Web provides people with access to the world. It offers news, information, online learning, civic participation, health care, social networking, entertainment, and more. It also represents the space in which many digital technologies are converging, which makes it a focus of both accessibility challenges and accessibility solutions.
Because of the Web’s steadily increasing importance, maintaining accessibility across all Web environments is essential for healthy aging, whether someone has a disability or not. In addition, a strong business case for Web
accessibility exists, involving technical carryover benefits (that is, Web accessibility also has benefits for individuals without disabilities), long-term financial benefits (due to efficiency of building to Web standards), social responsibilities, legal requirements for accessibility of information technology, and the growth of the independent living movement and disability rights culture. And people expect mainstream technology to be accessible and to address their needs in the community, with seamless access in health care settings.
As with the physical environment, universal design is a key aspect of Web accessibility, said Brewer. As Ron Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, has put it, universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Thus, universal design defines the user very broadly. In the context of the Web, universal design implies that everyone matters when it comes to design. Thus, compatibility and interoperability with assistive technology are critical elements of universal design for the Web.
Web Accessibility Initiative
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international vendor-neutral organization that develops standards for the Web. Hosted by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, and Keio University, W3C encompasses an expanding range of technologies as broadcasting, publishing, entertainment, and games all move increasingly to the Web. One of the four main technical divisions of W3C is the Web Accessibility Initiative, which includes multiple layers of work to support Web accessibility.1 The initiative covers not just hypertext markup language (HTML) but another 100 or so technical specifications that run on the Web. It identifies accessibility barriers, evaluates resources, conducts education and outreach, coordinates with research, and works to harmonize standards. W3C takes a multi-stakeholder approach that encompasses government, academia, industry, and the disability community. It seeks to build consensus through an open and transparent process that is responsive to input from different sources, including the public.
As examples of the work done by the Web Accessibility Initiative, Brewer pointed to captioning and signing for people with auditory limitations; cognitive and neurological assistance through consistent navigation, appropriate language levels, graphics, and a lack of flickering or strobing that could cause seizures; physical or speech accommodations for people
who need to rely on keyboards, touch, eye gaze, head mouse, speech, or other alternatives to speech; and visual consistency through descriptions for graphics and audio and interoperable assistive technology. The initiative has packaged these concepts in a set of accessibility principles, which urge that Web content be
- understandable, and
The Web Accessibility Initiative also has a motivational context so that people understand the need for accessibility and act on that need. It provides training, demonstrations, sample code, and other forms of implementation support for accessibility efforts. It supports accessibility at the technical level across the expanding range of devices. International standards for Web content accessibility have been endorsed by international standards organizations, including the W3C, with provisions for the addition of future technologies. Web developers can customize the standards to the technologies being used in an organization. User accessibility guidelines cover the entire Web space and pay particular attention to mobile accessibility.
The Open Web Platform ties together the current generation of Web technologies, including mobile devices, tablets, traditional desktops, and kiosks. The Web Accessibility Initiative has been working to build accessibility into the platform so that it will conform with the goals of universal design. For example, interactive menus and drag and drop capabilities should be accessible to people using assistive technology. Independent user interfaces should add capabilities for touch, gestural, and speech control of Web content. Accessibility should be built in and capable of extension.
Accessibility solutions largely exist, said Brewer, though continued research is needed to keep up with new advancing technologies. Accessibility policies need to be in place throughout organizations, with end-to-end project management approaches, and training needs to be available where needed. The Web Accessibility Initiative offers resources on getting started, guidelines and techniques, planning and implementing, evaluations of accessibility, presentations and tutorials, and other ways of getting involved with the initiative. Support for future research and standardization efforts in multi-stakeholder forums will continue to promote awareness as well
as ensure implementation for newer accessibility solutions as they become available.
Clayton Lewis, Ph.D.
National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
Lewis began by quoting his late mother: “The Internet is a corner I will not turn.” How can an intelligent, capable, older person be convinced to take advantage of the technological opportunities that are available? he asked.
Drawing on an example offered by Gregg Vanderheiden at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Lewis showed a picture of a typical computer screen. If described as an image of windows, Lewis’s mother would say, “There are no windows there.” If told to click on a scrollbar, she would say, “What’s a scrollbar?” As an example of a technology suited to his mother, Lewis showed a computer screen developed by Vanderheiden’s group, in which e-mails appear as conventional paper envelopes with printed pages inside. He also showed an animation in which a mail truck comes onto a screen and picks up an e-mail icon so that a computer user knows that an e-mail has been sent. Finally, Lewis showed a photograph of binders containing printouts of some 2,500 messages that his mother had sent and received by e-mail using programs designed to overcome the complexity of electronic communications, developed by CaringFamily LLC. Even people who do not want to turn the Internet corner can take advantage of technology if provided with answers to their problems, he said.
Cloud-Based Accessibility Technology
The Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure initiative,2 supported by NIDRR and led by Gregg Vanderheiden, has been working to improve the user experience for computer users with disabilities by allowing those individuals to store their needs and preferences online and then autopersonalizing online content and services on the basis of those stored settings. For example, someone could store a need for larger font sizes. Every time that person used a digital device, those preferences would be reflected in the experience. Such a system would help not just people with disabilities but everyone who uses digital devices.
NIDRR also sponsors other accessibility initiatives, mostly through
partnerships with other federal agencies. For example, NIDRR and the National Institute on Standards and Technology are engaged in a cloud computing project that is assessing cloud-based accessibility technology; the two agencies also have a visualization and usability group that is looking at cloud-based accessibility for inclusive voting. With the U.S. Department of Education, NIDRR is examining cloud-based online educational assessment for children with cognitive disabilities and accessibility information in a metadata framework for online educational resources.
Cloud-based accessibility technology opens a wealth of opportunities, said Lewis. This technology supports not only family communication but community communication. For example, many people move late in life, which often means breaking community ties. Technology can help people maintain ties with church groups or civic organizations even when they are not in the same community. As Lewis pointed out, people are much more likely to maintain their high school friends now than in the past because of applications of technology. Technology can also enhance community participation, as when social media help people with disabilities interact with their communities or take advantage of educational activities and resources.
Technology can help people manage personal data, such as the forms for applying for services and establishing eligibility. People can get assistance on demand when needed from trusted parties. For example, someone who sometimes gets disoriented in the community could know that they could always call for help.
A major initiative called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace is developing ways to make online transactions safer, faster, and more private, which could have important implications for people with disabilities.3 Further opportunities for cloud computing include developing improved technology for creating accessible content and services, supporting the sharing of experience among technology consumers, and using big-data techniques on data from cloud-based services to improve services. For example, a big-data initiative could collect data in different ways that allow for the extraction of structured information and the improvement of services.
If these opportunities are realized, Lewis concluded, everyone can have access to greatly expanded and improved services. Nevertheless, there is a
big but, Lewis said. Accessibility technology must be incorporated into the infrastructure that everyone uses, not just provided for people with disabilities. Otherwise, services for people with disabilities will continue to be expensive and limited and will constantly lag behind those available to the public at large. Support for work such as the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C, and the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure initiative, he said, is crucial.