“To think that you can apply some kind of magic pixie dust and make a technology accessible to disabled people after it’s been designed is just crazy,” Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, told the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting in Washington DC, United States, last week (27-28 January).
Cerf, described by Google as its ‘chief internet evangelist’, said that the only way to ensure technological products meet the needs of disabled people is for designers to have accessibility in mind from the outset of their work.
“Imagine how frustrating it is if you have to listen to a webpage,” said Cerf, referring to software that reads out websites for visually impaired people. “You have to experience it in a serial way, rather than all at once.”
His remarks came as the AAAS meeting convened specifically to discuss how people with disabilities might freely “share in scientific advancement and its benefits”, a human right codified in several UN agreements.
There is ongoing discussion among policymakers and disability rights advocates about what this right means in practice.
The meeting heard that, since the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in 2008, there has been growing consideration of this issue. The convention has more than 150 signatories. Article 32 calls for nations to cooperate to ensure disabled people have access to scientific and technical knowledge, and to assistive and accessible technologies.
“To think that you can apply some kind of magic pixie dust and make a technology accessible to disabled people after it’s been designed is just crazy.”
Vint Cerf, Google
But Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, coordinator of the US Agency for International Development’s office for disability and inclusive development, told the meeting that she had seen several examples where technology in the developing world had not been universally designed.
One example was a blood glucose-sensing ‘tattoo’ that changed colour, alerting diabetics to dangerous changes in their sugar levels. “One thing the designers obviously forgot is that a common symptom for diabetic people in the developing world is that they develop blindness,” she said.
Universal design, global market
James Thurston, director of accessibility policy at Microsoft, said that all the major technology companies are “competing to make their technology accessible”.
“We see people with disabilities as a market,” he said.
Thurston said that Microsoft has commissioned research on the size of the market for accessible technology. Although these reports — the most comprehensive to date, according to Thurston —cover only the United States, he said that the global market is also huge.
The meeting heard that, according to the WHO’s 2011 World Report on Disability, 15 per cent of the global population have some form of disability — with 80 per cent of these living in the developing world.
Cerf and Thurston agreed that training technology engineers to understand accessibility requirements was imperative, as was including disabled people in iterative testing.
“Give a disabled person a new tablet or something to play with for a week, and they’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong with it,” said Cerf.
He also lamented the lack of training that, for example, university software engineering courses provide for their students.
“[At Google], we give all our engineers training on how to design with accessibility in mind,” he told the meeting, noting that the company had no other option because university courses in software design still do not generally include modules in accessibility.
> Link to UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
> WHO World Report on Disability