This post is for the “Distance” Disability Blog Carnival. I use “they,” “we,” and “you” interchangeably here. I should really pick a pronoun.
When people talk about the digital divide and compare those who have or use technology with those who don’t, they may concentrate on factors such as age, race, or socioeconomic status. While people with disabilities also belong to these topics, particularly socioeconomic status, there is a divide affecting us that doesn’t seem to be addressed: access and accessibility. Some people with disabilities are separated because they cannot get to the machine, either because they can’t use standard equipment or can’t afford the equipment that would enable them to access a computer or even communicate.
Accessibility barriers might be as subtle as being locked out of setting the Accessibility Options on a public or work computer because the admins didn’t realize they could put the icon on the desktop, thereby still being able to lock the Control Panel while allowing users with disabilities to configure the accessibility settings. They might be architectural, where the keyboard or mouse may be set too high for someone to reach.
They might take the form of absence and/or ignorance — a public library may have screen readers and magnifiers, but no software or hardware whatsoever to assist users with physical disabilities. Combine that with locked Accessibility Options, and it gets interesting. Or maybe there isn’t anything assistive at all. They might be found in design — a webpage or program might be inaccessible by keyboard or screen reader or speech recognition. They might be found in education — programming students may not be taught thoroughly how to code accessible programs.
Overarching these concrete gaps is an abstract distance linking all of these: the distance between how far assistive technology has come and how few people who need it can readily obtain an appropriate device. An appropriate device, after all, could act as a bridge over the gaps, overriding the inaccessibility of the thing itself if necessary. But when representatives for assistive tech companies use phrases like “at no cost to you,” they seem to be unaware of the fact that it can be a great personal cost indeed.
The representatives are referring to the fact that, ostensibly, medical insurance or some other organization will pay. If you have no insurance, you can’t get anywhere with the well-known solutions. Even if you have insurance or are going through an organization, there is distance still. There are the medical or vocational people in between, the middlemen who control whether you get a device or whether the device you get is even the one you want. There are the companies that may price at the maximum Medicare or Medicaid will pay, whether the cost is proportional or not. There is the time between applying and receiving the device, which can be months or more.
And when you have finally expended that mental effort and endured the wait and received the device, knowing how astronomical the price is and therefore how dear — in both senses of the word — the device is, there may be a sense of how tenuous your new bridge really is. It may underscore another feeling of distance, which technology companies unwittingly perpetuate: the distance between you and others. Implicit in high prices and long fights seems to be a thought something like “a rare thing because the person is rare, so the market…etc.”
Of course people with disabilities aren’t exactly like people without; I like Spaz Girl’s take on that phrase. There are people who require customized access options that take time and effort to develop. I do strongly support freeware and shareware developers, and admire the work on OATS and Project Possibility, but I’m not saying that developers of sophisticated technology don’t deserve to make a living. I’m not saying funding shouldn’t be available for sophisticated hardware or software.
But I do think the chasm between us and them isn’t as wide as the companies believe. I am saying that alternative access can benefit both sides. I am saying that what can be made as accessible as possible out of the box should be. I am cheered by Microsoft’s integration of basic speech recognition into Windows, and was glad to read about the improved onscreen keyboard in Windows 7. I read on Kindle for PC. I am happy that people who can use a touchscreen can use the iPad, a “mainstream” technology, to communicate.
When companies start marketing toward universal access, or at least as close as possible, more people can potentially afford technology, and more funds will be left for those who absolutely need more customized or sophisticated devices. With more (close as possible to) universal accessibility, maybe the divide won’t set us worlds apart.