As more and more of our lives are spent in the digital world, it’s important that that world is accessible to everyone. Technology has allowed for huge strides in disability accessibility, from improved voice-to-text functions to apps that connect someone with a virtual assistant, but experts say there’s still a lot of work to be done—especially when it comes to simply using the internet. Americans with disabilities are three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online, according to the Pew Research Center.
Advancements have been (and continue to be) made for those who are visually, hearing, or physically impaired, but Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Maryland, says we haven’t yet tackled the most challenging area: differing cognitive abilities. As we’re about to enter a new decade, he hopes this is a gap technology can help fill.
For somebody who is blind, you can turn visual communication into something auditory, and for someone who is deaf, vice versa. “But you can’t take information and transform it from cognitive to some other dimension,” Vanderheiden says. “The biggest thing we’ve found in the last period of time is that many more people are having trouble accessing information than we had suspected.”
This even includes people without cognitive disabilities, he adds—people who functioned in society just fine before technology infiltrated everything. “We’ve started adding complexity to things,” he says. “You used to walk over to the thermostat and turn it . . . now it’s a digital interface.” Being technology savvy is a separate skill set from other kinds of intelligence, and this act of “technifying” everything can be alienating to parts of the population who suddenly find they need to be behind a computer to do their jobs, their work in school, or even complete their menial tasks like paying bills and buying food.
Vanderheiden is working on two solutions to this problem—one which will be available soon and another longer term solution that requires getting a lot of people on board. Like lots of disability focused technologies before them, these solutions would also make things easier for those who don’t have a disability, just less technology-abled or looking for a convenience.
The first is Morphic, an assistive technology spearheaded by the Trace R&D Center. Morphic is an operating system extension that would personalize a computer to an individual’s needs, whether that means changing the font size, language, contrast, or making certain features easier to find. In pilot testing now and slated for an early 2020 release, Morphic would allow anyone to sit at a computer—whether in their home, a library, an office, or a school lab—and have its settings be tailored to their abilities, like putting on a pair of glasses with their prescription. When they log out, the settings will revert, so the next person doesn’t have to manually change everything.
The longer-term solution would change the way our tech world approaches accessibility. Right now, each individual company has to make sure their systems are accessible. While some companies (like Apple and Microsoft) have been putting a lot of effort into making those changes, they still may not have the right resources or enough time to figure out the best accessibility solutions. Rather than having these companies try to create an interface that’s usable by everyone—especially as future technologies look more and more different from today’s—Vanderheiden proposes that developers create interfaces for mainstream users, and then a separate entity would build tools to interpret those interfaces for disabled communities.
This would be an extension of the assistive technology model, but these tools could work with any interface. An example Vanderheiden cites is the idea of a public “Info-Bot” that could understand a mainstream interface and then create user-specific versions for a variety of accessibilities. You might think companies would oppose this if they want to control their own designs, but Vanderheiden says it’s actually the opposite: “The companies want to have control over the main interface design, and all the rules about accessibility put all these constraints on what they can do,” he says.
One problem with putting the onus for accessibility solely on a company is that there will probably be some oversight, intentional or not. Autonomous cars could be breakthrough for the visually impaired, but if developers make clear speech a requirement in that interface, that limits the accessibility for another whole section of the population. Even ordering a pizza is restrictive: a blind man sued Domino’s after he was unable to order food from the company’s website or app, even though he had screen-reading software. Attorneys for the pizza chain tried to argue ADA requirements don’t extend to online platforms, but when so much of our lives are conducted online, how is the digital world not a public space? The courts sided with the man, and accessibility advocates considered it a win, noting that if businesses don’t maintain accessible websites, they’re essentially shutting people with disabilities out of the economy. It’s a ruling that will reshape how companies make decisions about their websites and technology for years to come.
A separate tool that adapts technology for each individual could be the answer to making sure everyone has a fair chance of participation, and proves that—whether companies like Domino’s agree or not—there’s a societal understanding that the internet is for everyone. If anything, the idea shows that our approach to accessibility needs to be rethought. “Technology is ever changing,” Vanderheiden says, “and so how we approach it needs to also change.”