In Support of Information Technologists with Disabilities

The Internet, online video services, video games, and other information technologies are being developed without much regard for users with disabilities. As a result, hard-won victories by the disabled community are being erased by the shift to new technologies. Accessibility law suffers from the same problem that plagues most laws governing rapidly changing technology – the laws are not written to be future-proof, so the law lags the technology. When little to no regulation is combined with a corporate culture interested in innovation to the exclusion of accessibility, people with disabilities are left behind by modern technologies.

Why are modern technologies so inaccessible? One possible reason is that the people in charge of designing and developing the technologies aren’t disabled themselves, and thus aren’t affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create. For example, it would be impossible for a red-green colorblind video game developer to test a game that relies on the ability to distinguish between red and green in order to play the game. New technologies have been tested by developers and (sometimes) by user testing groups, but these two groups rarely include people with disabilities. If developers were personally affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create, they wouldn’t create inaccessible products. At a minimum, if developers were exposed to people who were personally affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create – either by being on the same development team, or part of a user group – the likelihood that they would continue creating inaccessible products would decrease.

How can we, as a society, make modern technologies more accessible? High technology fields have long been dominated by middle class, heterosexual, white, non-disabled men. This fact has resulted in a variety of technologies that work best for middle class, heterosexual, white, non-disabled men. For instance, voice recognition software has been notoriously inaccessible to women, minorities, and people with regional dialects, because of how the technology was developed and tested. A number of academic and nonprofit groups have been active in trying to get more women, minorities, and people with disabilities involved in computing careers in order to achieve greater balance on product development and testing teams in an effort to produce more accessible technology. For example, the National Science Foundation funds a grant project called Broadening Participation in Computing that focuses on this problem.

Getting more people with disabilities involved in computing and technology careers can help produce more accessible technology. For example, a deaf Google engineer named Ken Harrenstien led the development of a project to automatically caption YouTube videos using speech recognition technology. The fact that Google had a deaf engineer on its YouTube team meant that there was someone with the skills and experience working “on the inside” to make the technology more accessible to the deaf community. In the age of user-generated content a la services like YouTube and Facebook, innovative solutions to accessibility, including “technological fixes,” are becoming a necessity.

YouTube, like many other modern websites, relies on users to upload content, so there is no central mechanism for captioning these videos – it is up to the individual user to provide a caption track, which most users do not supply. By contrast, television studios that put episodes of television shows online have a much greater ability to control whether their shows are captioned or not. Therefore, the television studios are the target of recent legislation – the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 – meant to extend the captioning requirements from broadcast television to “Internet Protocol-delivered video programming.” Such regulation would make little sense if applied to services like YouTube, where content is created by users, so more innovative methods are required. YouTube’s approach involves two different methods of attacking the problem – what we in STS call “social” intervention and “technical” intervention. The “social” intervention is YouTube’s caption track tool, which has been simplified significantly compared to most video captioning utilities. All the user needs to do is put the text of the caption and the times (in seconds) the caption should be displayed, and YouTube takes care of the rest. The “technical” intervention is the automatic captioning system, which takes care of providing captions for videos that users do not caption themselves, and is intended to be a “last resort” measure.

How can we get more people with disabilities interested and involved in technology careers? It is important to work with high school guidance counselors to encourage people with disabilities to pursue careers that interest them, regardless of perceived or actual barriers to employment in those careers. There needs to be institutional support for people with disabilities interested in technology careers to be able to participate, including whatever assistive technology is required, such as text-to-speech software, sign language interpreters, specialized hardware for people with motor impairments, and the like. Professional societies could leverage people with disabilities already working in technology careers as spokespersons for raising the interest of young people with disabilities in those careers. Professional technology conferences could devote time to discussing issues of accessibility in design, leveraging technology professionals with disabilities as keynote speakers at such events. Raising awareness of the issues facing diverse communities of people with disabilities is critical in making technology more accessible for everyone.

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