Innovation

Despite its promise, modern technology often fails to help disabled users

At the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, professors Meryl Alper and Elizabeth Ellcessor explored how 'accessible' digital media really is for people with disabilities.

Advances in speech recognition, wearable technology, and mobile apps have offered welcome improvements for many people who are disabled. Yet while new technology is often praised for aiding communication for those who are blind and deaf, innovations can sometimes have unintended effects, hindering communication and access to information for those with disabilities.

In a talk at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard titled Disability, Technology, and Inclusion, Elizabeth Ellcessor, assistant professor in the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Meryl Alper, faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, discussed some of the hidden downsides of tech for the disabled.

Ellcessor began by questioning what is meant by "accessibility."

When it came to desktop computing, for instance, "the graphical user interface made it more accessible to a large number of people, even as it very much shut down access for people who were visually impaired," she said. And while academic literature, public broadcasting, and media policy work often considers access as a "unitary and universally desired endpoint," Ellcessor questions that meaning. Accessibility, she said, is not the same as availability—while something may be available, it's not always something you truly need.

Access varies among individuals and contexts, she said. "When check Facebook, we're potentially engaged in a wide range of technological and social practices that vary from person to person," for instance, said Alpert.

So what does "access" really mean? Ellcessor describes it as "an access kit, illustrated here with a sewing kit, with a pair of scissors, some safety pins, needles, a thimble, other items. "You can use it all together to do what it's intended for," she said. "Or you might use the scissors to cut up something in your kitchen." In other words, disabled users should be armed with a "kit" with the tools they need to have access in the ways they need it.

Access is a precondition for participation, she said. "But through the study of digital media and accessibility for disability, it's become evident to me that the production of access is an ongoing part of participation in a digitally mediated society."

One case of how a platform can restrict access for people who are disabled is Tumblr. Because of Tumblr's user-generated content design, it is not "bound by the legal and technical requirements faced in government, educational, or e-commerce spaces," in terms of guidelines for accessibility, said Ellcessor. "Perhaps as a result, Tumblr is formally inaccessible," she said. Also, its scroll and highly variable content makes it difficult to add alternate text to images, even for those who know how.

While this is a problem, and Tumblr did not officially jump in to help many people who contacted the company about these issues, it did have a silver lining: The issue lead many people with disabilities to join together to "adopt and adapt Tumblr, sharing experiences of microaggression, sharing accessibility knowledge, teaching each other workarounds by which to make a site more accessible," said Ellcessor.

"Access and participation depend upon one another. Just as access enables participation, so does increased participation by diverse people make possible the expansion of access," she said.

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Prof. Meryl Alper addresses group at Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

Meryl Alper also talked to TechRepublic about what it means for people with disabilities to "have a voice."

New tech can reproduce biases, Alpert said. Specifically, Alpert gave the example of voice output technologies that can help people with challenges producing speech—like what Stephen Hawking uses. These technologies are intended to help users who can't speak, but don't offer options that represent women and minorities. "The kinds of voices that come out of them," she said, "are overwhelmingly white and male."

"A lot of time technology is presented in a way that it uniformly helps people with disabilities," Alpert said. "That is not always the case."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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