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May 23, 2011 / Dr. Toad

The Future of Accessible Technology

I went to this panel because I wanted to hear Richard Ladner talk about his work in accessible information technology, and to see where the whole field is going. I was imagining a panel where he and Mark Harniss discuss the future possibilities in commercializing the research being done now, and the future directions of new research. Because both advertised speakers are computer scientists I imagined talk of things like smart prosthetics, implants, accessible software and mind-controlled robots.

But it turns out that wasn’t what the panel titled “Redefining Bodies: A Panel Discussion on the Future of Accessible Technology” was about.

First, Mark Harniss of the UW Center for Technology and Disability Studies talked about technology and disability in the developing world. 80% of all people with disabilities live in developing countries, and from Hardniss’s presentation it was pretty clear that what they need is not more clever technology but less war, famine and poverty. And once you’ve got those three low-hanging fruit figured out, then you can focus on community, education and desegregation of those with disability, and then maybe you can think about technology.

Then, Gaby de Jongh of WATAP briefly explained what they can do for you should you be in need of assistive technology: you can demo things, borrow them and try them at home for a while, get help with choice and customizing, get financial help, and go green by reusing.

Then the panelists took questions from the audience. That’s when we finally saw Richard Ladner of the UW Department of Computer Science and Engineering. My question was: so, what is the future of accessible technology?

The answer was two-fold. The more immediate future is in finding ways to make design — especially software, mobile software and web design — universal and universally accessible from the get-go, make it accessible by default. The more distant future is in encouraging people with disability to become engineers themselves so they can make technology accessible. To that effect, Ladner told the story of a high-school student Nicole TorcoliniĀ  who attended the 2006 Vertical Mentoring Workshop for the Blind in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) held at the UW and organized by 40 blind academics in STEM fields and Ladner. Torcolini had a problem: she learned to do math in Nemeth, a Braille code, but turning her work in required a translator. After the workshop, where she learned about LaTeX, she wrote a program to automatically translate Nemeth to LaTeX and started turning in the most visually beautiful math in her school. Then she founded AccessiSoft to market her program. She’s now an undergrad at Stanford majoring in computer science of course, and she went back one summer to work with Ladner on the MobileAccessibility android software project. Here’s an NPR story about her.

So it all comes down to the people, even if it’s the people who make technology.

There were no robots mentioned during the panel at all, but I kept thinking about another inspirational figure in the field of assistive technology: Hugh Herr. But that’s a topic for another post altogether.

The panel ended up being not really about technology at all, but you can check out Ladner’s projects in accessible IT on his research page. Disability Awareness Week continues at UW through May 28.

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