Science and Technology Could Do More to Help People With Disabilities, Experts Say

Too often, the concept of accessibility in technology is an afterthought or used in ways that do not improve the lives of the people who need assistance, panelists said at a AAAS event.
Dandan Yin, a student in the special education school at Beijing Union University, demonstrates the Kinect Sign Language Translator, which uses the motion-sensing technology of the Xbox gaming system to capture a signing person's movements. This prototype is a potentially powerful tool, but many other technologies have a long way to go before they are truly useful for people with disabilities. | Microsoft Research

When new technologies emerge, too often the concept of accessibility is considered an afterthought or used in ways that do not improve the lives of the people who need assistance, said experts at a recent AAAS event in Washington, D.C.

"I consider it to be one of the most ironic and almost tragic facts that information technology [and] programmable devices probably have the most facile capacity to adapt to human need for assistance, and yet we have not done a very good job applying that technology for that purpose," said Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.

15 %

The portion of the world's population that has some form of disability

World Health Organization

Cerf was the keynote speaker for a plenary session on "Accessing the Benefits of Science and Technology" at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting on 27 January. The two-day meeting of the coalition -- a network of 51 scientific and engineering organizations that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights -- focused on the intersections between the human rights of persons with disabilities and the fields of science and technology.

"A lot of people encounter the need for disability assistance in one way or another, and these needs arise in a variety of ways," Cerf noted. A disability may be rooted in genetics, for instance, originate from a traumatic event or come as a byproduct of aging. Cerf himself has hearing problems that likely stem from the treatment he received in the weeks after his premature birth.

Vinton Cerf | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Cerf's wife, Sigrid, is also hearing impaired, having become profoundly deaf at the age of three after developing spinal meningitis. Her life was changed by technology, he said. At the age of 53, Sigrid received cochlear implants. She had always kept her ability to speak, but the implants let her hear. Cerf remembered that when he got home the evening after the surgery, "I discovered I had a 50-year-old teenager…I couldn't get her off the phone."

"We have to come up with incentives, cultural, financial, legal and so on, to cause assistive technologies to come into existence, to be available and to be sustainable," said Cerf.

Accessibility as a Business Opportunity

The financial incentive can be a powerful one, and companies are getting involved in many ways. James Thurston, director of International Accessibility Policy at Microsoft, described an effort by researchers in China to use his company's Kinect technology to create a sign language translator. The Kinect system, originally developed for use with the Xbox gaming system, uses sensors to read the position of a person's body and motion. For use as a translator, the system captures the signs a person makes and a computer program translates them into Chinese or English, both written and spoken. The translator also works in the opposite direction, translating spoken words into sign language.

"To imagine that you can just overlay some accessibility pixie dust that makes a specific application work all right for a person with hearing impairment or a person with motor problems, I think, is overly optimistic."

Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google
James Thurston | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"The implications of that are pretty immediate and amazing," Thurston said.

Companies are not developing technologies for persons with disabilities simply out of a desire to help. Clearly there are social responsibility reasons for providing such technologies, Thurston said, but "Microsoft looks at it as a business opportunity" as well. About 15 percent of the world -- approximately the population of China -- is dealing with some form of disability.

There is now a growing market for accessible technology, he noted. The aging Baby Boomer population and section 508, an amendment to the U.S. Rehabilitation Act that requires the government to develop or acquire only accessible technology, have increased market demand. The features that make products more accessible are now another area over which companies can compete, Thurston said.

And these technologies often have benefits that can be enjoyed by all users. Speech input and adjustable font sizes were two features developed to make computers more accessible to persons with disabilities, but they are now used by everyone.

No Universal Solutions

Despite its tremendous potential, using science and technology to better integrate persons with disabilities into the broader community is complex. "Everybody is not the same," Cerf noted. "The same solution does not work for everyone."

Technology developers also need to think more about how to integrate accessibility into applications early in the process, Cerf said. "To imagine that you can just overlay some accessibility pixie dust that makes a specific application work all right for a person with hearing impairment or a person with motor problems, I think, is overly optimistic," he said. "You really have to think 'how is this application going to be made usable for someone with a disability.'"

A web page, for instance, is visually oriented and navigating through one with a screen reader, while possible, can be awkward and frustrating if audible navigation wasn't considered during the site's design, he said.

Cerf praised Microsoft and Apple for their efforts in this field and admitted that at Google, there was room for improvement. But he cited one effort at his company to train every new engineer in accessibility methods. "This is fundamentally critical to making information technology accessible to people who need help," he said.

Eric Mathews | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

More or improved technology isn't always the answer, however, noted another speaker, Eric Mathews, an advocacy associate at Disability Rights International. Mathews spoke about his organization's efforts to end segregation for persons with disabilities. "Institutions and segregated residential facilities are a violation of the human right to live and participate in the community," he said.

But too often, he noted, efforts to help the people in these segregated facilities consider only how technology can be added to those facilities, such as supplying computers to an orphanage. "It's meant to give these children a better life," he said, but companies, donors and nations need to think more about how to use technology to get people out of these institutions and back with their families or placed in family-based care in the community. We need "to think about the ways that science can challenge the need for institutional care," Mathews said.

But technology can only go so far. Cultural biases may be a huge barrier and even limit the availability of existing technology. "There's some cultures where people who need this assistance don't get it because it's culturally ignored," Cerf said. "This is a reason why the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is so important." The CRPD was signed by the United States but has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate.