To the majority of people lucky enough to have full sight, hearing, mental faculties and mobility, the needs of people with disabilities can seem like an abstraction. We recently profiled Kathy Martinez, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. She is blind from birth, (I met with her again recently – more on that in a moment,) but seeing her move about a strange office suite, to and from a hallway elevator lobby, it’s possible to forget that she is blind. By whatever adaptations available to people with sight impairment, she seems to have a sixth spatial sense. She accepts guidance, but her outgoing nature and matter-of-factness stand in contrast to the stereotype of blind people being timid and halting. Still, it’s a mistake to underestimate the accessibility requirements of her particular disability.
This was driven home to me not long ago when I was out on the roads for a run. When I took off my glasses momentarily to wipe them off, they snapped in two, totally unwearable. I still had four or five miles to get back home. And, let me tell you, I am very nearsighted. Like, I can’t read my iPad screen if it’s sitting on the desk in front of me, much less see the details of curbs, sidewalk irregularities, and intersection signals. No pun intended, it was a real eye-opening experience. Scary, actually.
More importantly I’ve had the opportunity to moderate two webcasts for the Office of Disability Employment Policy. The guests and I explored what technology is doing now to improve accessibility and what it will do in the future.
With cloud computing all the vogue, coupled with the equally hit trend of mobile computing, some exciting things are happening. To cloud and mobility it adds in what Vint Cerf called the “Internet of things.” Cerf, the Internet advisor to Google, used the term to describe the network of sensors, sensor-equipped appliances, and other objects with URLs that will eventually create a fabric of location-based data.
Now imagine that items like the myriad of kiosks – bank teller machines, store checkouts, and Transportation Security Administration airport terminals, for example – had connectivity to an extra cloud. This is where the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure project comes in. It envisions people with disabilities having profiles of their accessible technology requirements stored in a cloud, much the same way the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace envisions people’s security credentials stored in a cloud to be invoked when needed. Online devices encountered by disabled people would have the capability to assume the accessibility characteristics, invoked from the cloud, corresponding to the person’s profile.
With respect to privacy, the profile would not necessarily have to be tied to the person specifically.
Such initiatives show that, while IT accessibility has advanced tremendously, imaginative opportunities abound. It’s noteworthy that the most popular mobile devices get praised from disability advocates, and from users with disabilities, for their built in capabilities. There is no reason why people’s Galaxies and iPhones could not also contain an accessibility profile readable by fixed, connected equipment with Bluetooth.
As Assistant Secretary Martinez pointed out, demographics are going to push along the next generation of accessible technology. A bumper crop of aging Baby Boomers will be acquiring weaker sight and less sensitive hearing. More people will become mobility impaired. Federal accessibility initiatives must stay in the forefront of the next wave.