Assistive technology and accessing the digital divide

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.

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5 Responses to Assistive technology and accessing the digital divide

  1. Elisabeth says:

    What are your thoughts on accessibility of learning new technologies (training)?

    One issue I run into in supporting student learning needs is really two sides to the same coin: my technicians aren’t familiar with how the technology is supposed to work, so it is difficult for them to determine whether the problem is the technology (for example, a screenreader) or what it is accessing (non-compliant content).

    The other side? Users who aren’t fully familiar with how the technology is meant to work, either. The first is frustrating for the user, the second is almost impossible for my techs.

    Our Student Disability Services goes a long way to providing tools and training to in-need students, but it does not extend to my techs- we have to wade through on our own, which limits our ability to help and is unfair to everyone involved. I feel that this is becoming a larger issue as we have more and more users (both students and faculty) who use assistive technologies that we have limited if any knowledge/training/access to.

  2. hand2mouth says:

    Training is hugely important, for the same reasons you’ve mentioned. Unfortunately, it never seems to be done. Employees are trained on how to use new software all the time, or at least shown the manual, but assistive software never seems to apply. I think part of the problem might be a kind of over specialization — I’m not sure how to put it. But it seems like once technology is identified as being for users with disabilities, it stops being technology proper and becomes something rare that only “the initiated” should be expected to deal with. Of course users versed in disability would have a more intimate working knowledge of the technology potentially, but the end-user is not the programmer or technician. The program is still a program. The hardware is still hardware. It is essential to have at least rudimentary knowledge of what you’re working with.

    Unfortunately, the technology versus content “glitch wars” over site or program incompatibility are kind of a chicken and egg conundrum. It’s understandable if techs don’t know, because it’s become an impasse in some cases — and the companies themselves are no help. Each side blames the other. Take OpenOffice and Dragon, for instance. The OpenOffice developers insist that the fault is on Nuance for not making Dragon compatible with their program, but according to Chuck Runquist — formerly of Nuance — Dragon can’t work with OpenOffice because it’s not SAPI compliant and edit controls aren’t standard. I think a lot of people do expect the assistive tech to magically remove every barrier, not realizing that compatibility requires two-way communication. Which is not to say that the assistive tech never has bugs. But without clear communication and knowledge of what makes things accessible, how can you know?

    Really, one can’t assume that everyone with a disability is going to be familiar with assistive tech. Some people may not have been computer savvy before they became disabled, never mind knowing about specific tech. It helps to have someone with at least a basic idea of what’s going on. It’s like you said: with more and more people using it, the balance has to tip sometime. People need to see the training is necessary, even if only by strength in numbers.

    Is there a way you could work with the Disability Services coordinator to perhaps do some training, to explain how difficult the lack of it makes things for your staff? Or is it a time constraint or financial issue? In a more general sense, would something like the WAVE tool do any good? I do wish more companies would fill out Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates. That would make it easier to distinguish as well.

    Sorry if I’ve talked in circles; it’s been a long day. But I do know what you mean, I just don’t know how to fix it. It seems to be as much an attitudinal — or institutional — barrier as anything.

  3. Spaz Girl says:

    I’m so happy you like my take on the phrase “just like you”. I always feel like people who say that and try so hard to fit in with “normal” people are denying themselves a very beatiful and eye-opening experience.

    I agree 100% about assistive tech and whatnot. I’m somewhat of an amateur web designer and in my web design class in school last year, we didn’t learn anything about making our pages accessible beyond adding alt text. I really believe that should be a part of every web design class, so that web pages can be accessible for all.

  4. Pingback: Disability Blog Carnival! « Brilliant Mind Broken Body

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