Historically, people with disabilities have faced constant challenges in order to be able to fully participate in society. Digitization of information holds great promise in eliminating the barriers to fuller participation, but technology has not fully realized that potential.
However, it is not the technology that is necessarily the problem sometimes, said Christian Vinten-Johansen, manager of WebLion, Penn State’s web content management system. “Digital technology in many ways actually gives people with disabilities freedom to be full participants,” Vinten-Johansen said. “But the barriers they they face now are not all tech inherent. In some cases, the barriers are put there ourselves, generally without our knowing it.”
Vinten-Johansen said that keeping in mind the challenges people with disabilities face is extremely important when creating a website. He said that there are guidelines out there that truly help, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and Federal Law such as the Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
One interesting and somewhat surprising game changer in the accessibility world are mobile devices, Vinten-Johansen said. “For example, location-based devices like navigation on mobile devices give people with blindness a lot of assistance,” he said. “They can walk around and find places. We use them for driving, they can use them for walking.”
Vinten-Johansen said he has been following a number of online forums on disability, and he noticed that the disabled people are teaching each other how to use smartphones like the iPhone. “People want to do things themselves, and visually impaired people have embraced the iPhone with a passion you rarely see,” he said. “What’s interesting is that the iPhone doesn’t have a tactile interface, but it’s the text-to-voice functionality of VoiceOver that helps people with blindness.”
As for more classic computing, Vinten-Johansen said there are some sites and applications that do accessibility well. A few examples he gave include Yahoo, Amazon, and Apple sites like the App Store. Shopping online is just one example of the extraordinarily liberating technologies where barriers previously existed.
Plone is the open-source web content management platform that WebLion is built on, so Vinten-Johansen is very active in the Plone open source community. While Plone is accessible out of the box, standards change over time, and access to the software code allows WebLion staff to update Plone to the latest standards and best practices.
“Open-source is a good thing for accessibility,” Vinten-Johansen said. “If someone raises an issue to the community on say a listserv or chat, then people can collaborate on a solution. That may include people with disabilities, working on the fix themselves.”
Still, Vinten-Johansen said that developers should use caution. “Templates that are accessible are fine but you can still mess up,” he said. “You can add inaccessible content, alter color for subheads, etc. So you still need to think things through.”
Other suggestions that Vinten-Johansen made to improve accessibility include adding captions to videos. “There are tools out there being developed that automates much of the work in captioning and makes it quite easy,” he said.
Overall, with new technologies here and in the works, Vinten-Johansen said the future is bright for for improving the lives of people with disabilities. “All we need is more awareness, and a will to use these tools, but I think that is happening,” he said.