The world has already reckoned the importance of ICTs in improving the everyday life of persons with disabilities and persons with specific needs. Assistive technologies (AT), as some are also popularly called, improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities and enable them to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish or had great difficulty executing.
We are in the era of rapid ICT evolution; new technologies like AI and the IoT are hot topics of high-level discussions. While much research and development is taking place on the emerging technologies, their accessibility considerations and features are not adequately highlighted or even included. Some of the panellists at the WSIS Forum 2019 stated that this is due to a lack of knowledge about accessibility features required for these new services and technologies.
One way to implement accessibility features in ICTs is to recognise and deploy Universal Design. Universal Design means to make usable by as many people as possible from the beginning. If Universal Design is not incorporated from the beginning, it can be more costly to retrofit or rectify these omissions later.
Initiatives like Teach Access, where technology companies dedicated to accessibility come together and address the common challenge of preparing designers, engineers, and researchers to think and build inclusively, are key game changers. Similarly, academic programs in design, engineering, and HCI are seeking ways to better prepare students to address the needs of diverse populations.
With Teach Access, industry, academia, and advocacy have now come together to create models for teaching and training students of technology to create accessible experiences. Ms Abeer Shakweer (Advisor to the Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology for Social Responsibility and Services) stressed the importance of Teach Access and similar platforms. She noticed that many developers faced the issue of design for accessibility and added that she would love to see how they can benefit from this programme because there is a huge gap in Egypt in people skilled in accessibility.
Mr Ben Tarbell (Public Policy Manager, Global Connectivity & Access Policy at Facebook) added that he seconds the panellists on the importance of soliciting user feedback and collecting user feedback and building accessibility tools. He utilised the case of Auto ALT Text, where they had extensive user research based on which they updated their product. They also did one-on-one interviews with users of screen readers to test early prototypes and a two-week experiment on Facebook to learn that what people really wanted to understand is the actual actions and occurrences happening in the image. For Facebook, it is ever more important to consult with users with disabilities to understand what their needs are and the importance of tailoring products to their needs, he added.
To err is human—and smart cars and gadgets are introduced to eliminate that very human error element. Mr Kawamori Masahito (Co-chair of ITU-T Focus Group on Media Accessibility) interestingly pointed out that human error can be considered a temporary disability at the performance level. Temporarily disabled can be defined as inability to perform something of which normally a person is capable. For example, in the United States, the onset of age-related vision loss can begin in people in their late 40s and early 50s. Similarly in Japan, after the age of 65, the number of persons with hearing loss suddenly increases, until over the age of 80 about 80 percent are hard of hearing. Since people over the age of 65 in Japan accounts for 27 percent of the population, this may imply that over 30 percent of the population probably have either vision loss or hearing problems.
As society ages, accessibility becomes a more important design principle, so accessibilities should be part of the requirements of vehicular multimedia standards from the very beginning, and that means technologies like the ADAS system (used in smart cars) can benefit from accessibility.
Accessibility should be the design principle from the very beginning for emerging technologies; organised and relevant feedback from users will help technology developers better to serve their needs. Since feedback should be in a more or less standardised way, it was established that, especially in the area of emerging technologies, some sort of objective guidelines be put in place for the industry to adapt.
By Mili Semiani