Web developers know how to make the web accessible for the blind. We know how to work with those that are color blind, need screen magnifiers, and have degraded vision. But what do we know about other disabilities?
How can we build a better internet for those with non-communicative autism? How can social networks enhance the education of those with intellectual disabilities? What can the cloud do for soldiers returning with traumatic brain injuries?
These were just a few of the topics discussed last month at the ALL TOGETHER NOW: The Power of Partnerships In Cognitive Disability and Technology conference, sponsored by the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities. The pre-conference seminar looked specifically at what benefits are available via the cloud.
What are cognitive disabilities?
Most people are unaware of the term cognitive disability but know someone within this category. Cognitive disabilities range from Dyslexia to Down Syndrome. The conference also spotlighted Autism, Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled, non-communicative disorders, as well as traumatic brain injuries. Michael Wehmeyer, PhD, Director, Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, referred to three elements of cognitive disabilities:
* Impairments: problems in body function or structure
* Activity Limitations: difficulties in executing activities
* Participation Restrictions: problems with involvement in life situations
Cognitive accessibility moves the focus from fixing a person to narrowing the gap between personal capacities and demands of the environment. Decades ago, there were mental institutions for those deemed unable to participate in society. Today there is a growing movement, People First, of the disabled who are fighting for their own place in society. Tomorrow, with the help of technology, there may be no gap between their capacities and the requirements of social standards.
What is the cloud?
Bill Coleman, founder of the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, started the conference by declaring the cloud as the third disruptive influence for all history. The other two were the invention of language and the printing press. The cloud provides customization, communication distribution, and transparency.
The cloud was also referred to in simpler terms: information and services that are not located directly on your computer. This could include your Yahoo! email, Flickr photos, and a workspace to share documents with colleagues.
How can the cloud help those with disabilities?
Dawn Gregg, Associate Professor of Information Systems and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Denver, suggested using the cloud to solve a recurring problem with individuals that need customized tools. For instance, individuals with non-communicative autism use a device that lets them speak by touching buttons with images that represent words or topics.
The user can customize the buttons for quicker access to the words they use most often. Unfortunately, these devices need to go in for occasional repair and the user loses their personalized settings. This could be solved by saving these personalized settings in the cloud, enabling the user to pick up any device and instantly convert it to their specifications.
Distributed personalization settings became a common theme. Cognitive disability comes in many flavors. What works for one person may be detrimental to another.
The National Public Inclusive Infrastructure project lets a user define how they want user interfaces to work. A person may define colors, layout simplicity, amount of content displayed, and many other factors that make a web page uniquely beneficial to themselves. This is in contrast to previous efforts by web developers to create web site variations targeted at specific groups.
Jeff Bigham, Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Rochester, has already discussed the clouds impact on accessibility for Yahoos Accessibility Blog, AT in the Clouds. He envisions a world where a users computer has no assistive technology installed. For instance, a blind user could visit a library computer and remotely navigate a computer in the cloud that performs the screen reader functionality. The local computer is merely a shell. This significantly reduces the cost of assistive technology and provides access to all users around the world. The following slideshow explains it further.
Social networks were the topic of a round-table discussion. While there is a concern over an individuals safety, social networks develop communication skills for students preparing to leave the school system. They develop broader networks and are more prepared for interpersonal communication.
Social networks also benefit care providers as they share support and feedback. YouTube has helped sign language users share new symbols. This is especially important for universities where they need special symbols for physics, mathematics, philosophy, and other studies with unique terminology.
How can we improve web sites for cognitive disabilities?
There are no solutions for cognitive accessibility. What works for one individual may create a negative experience for another. For instance, a pulsating icon to symbolize changed information may be helpful for someone with autism. This same pulsating icon could trigger an epileptic seizure in some individuals if the pulsing is too strong and rapid. Also, a person with Attention Deficit Disorder may not be able to ignore this effect, making the page unusable.
We can start by keeping things in expected locations. Users expect navigation to be at the top, a search box at the top right, secondary information either on the left or right and the main content in the center. People with cognitive disabilities have difficulty finding these features when they are moved around. Firefox documented the locations their users expect functionality to exist: Firefox Main Window Study: A Heatmap Visualization.
Strip away unnecessary clutter on your site. Remove unused functionality, focus on the primary feature of the page/application, and minimize the use of cryptic icons. Provide summaries to long articles, use headers to introduce subsections, and list items to make text more readable. Insert footnoted links at the end of articles for easier navigation. Readability, a project by arc90, allows users to customize and simplify any web page.
Let the user customize the page. This could be a style issue, such as Twitters custom backgrounds and colors. Yahoo! Finance News lets the user customize the subjects displayed on the News home page.
These are not new concepts. Furthermore, they benefit not just the cognitively disabled but everyone that comes across your site for the first time. Even over-worked rocket scientists who need a good nights sleep and a good cup of coffee can temporarily qualify as cognitively disabled.
Cognitive disability is no longer an issue hidden behind institutional facilities. Theres a powerful movement, led in part by those with the disabilities, to empower people for them to become productive members of society. Assistive technology, often powered by the cloud, reduces the gap between what someone is capable of doing and what is expected by society in general. We, as engineers, need to ensure our projects are making this a reality.
Note:Help implement the ideas in this post at the FCC's Open Developer Day - Accessibility Innovation, which is being held on Monday, November 8, 2010, in Washington, DC. See the blog post for registration details.