Digital Information Available Through Audio, Video And Alternative Interfaces For People With Disabilities: Could Universal Design Be The Answer?



Tim Noonan

SoftSpeak Computer Services

Keynote Speech

to the Accessibility conference
organised by Karen Groeneveld
from the Commonwealth’s AccessAbility Grants Program

In general terms, Universal Design (or “design for all”) is a philosophy of design to enable the widest possible range of people to be able to use the product, irrespective of age, physical limitation or situation. In this presentation, the universal design concept will be covered with some examples of prototype products which strive to meet this ideal. Universal design shifts much of the focus away from disabilities and limitations, and emphasises the benefits of good and flexible products which are useable to a wider customer-base.

To date, people have largely been expected to “mould” to suit the restrictive input and output requirements of computers, but it is expected soon that computers will be able to be configured or even automatically adapt themselves, to suit each and every one of us, optimising their modes and levels of interactions to best suit our individual preferences and needs. Hardware and software manufacturers realise that the more intuitive computers are, the more they will be used, and the more sales – and hopefully profits -that will be made. Microsoft and Apple are both investing substantial resources into speech technologies, even as they continue to refine visual interface technologies.

For people with particular computer requirements, such developments are just what we have been waiting for – true accessibility of information access and communication for people with disabilities. Link all this to the humble telephone or the more modern mobile telephone and we are no longer bound by our environment either, we can interact with information or people where ever we are.

Advance speech synthesis, natural speech recognition, digital multimedia talking books, automatic sign language translation and portable wearable computers are all developments promising to increase our options and effectiveness as people with disabilities. The technology now largely exists where speech can be converted to text or gesture, text can be converted to natural-sounding speech or gesture, and, in time, gestures may be able to be understood by machines and translated into speech or text, or any mix of the above. Some of these underlying technologies are currently expensive both in dollars and in computing power required, but both costs are likely to continue to decrease over time. All of these and other developments will also aid people who are aging, people with cognitive disabilities, people with dyslexia or low literacy, or people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Natural language understanding, coupled with more human-like utterances, optionally with gesture and appropriate facial expressions, will all make interactions between people and technology more natural, comfortable and effective – well that is the goal and dream at any rate.

These developments aren’t only (or often even) occurring because of the needs of people with disabilities, but are an inevitable progress towards a more natural means of man-machine communication. But the road towards this utopian ideal is not likely to be free of jarring twists and un-foreseen pot-holes, and there are likely to be occasional speed humps that slow down progress and create disorientation. While ever technology designers make assumptions about us, the user, their assumptions will exclude many and discourage others from participation. Some of these developments are very promising and exciting indeed, but most of us can also envisage the likely scenario in which products continue to be designed in ways that perhaps unknowingly and unintentionally “lock out” people with specific sensory, physical or intellectual disabilities, because accessible design of products is still not in the current mindset of most manufacturers and software developers. We only need to examine the visual-only interfaces currently found on mobile phones, automatic teller machines and many home appliances to realise just how inaccessible much technology is, for just one disability group, let alone the whole range of people with sensory, physical and cognitive disabilities, all of whom have access challenges of one kind or another.

One emerging example is biometric identification. Biometrics is the use of biological attributes of a person for unique identification, and confirmation that they are indeed who they say they are. Biometric methods range from scanning a person’s iris; finger printing, thumb printing or palm printing; DNA analysis; voice print analysis; facial recognition; and so on. Other non biometric systems are typing analysis, walking/gate analysis or hand writing recognition.

If we consider people with different abilities and limitations, whether permanent or temporary, it doesn’t take long to identify problems with each and every one of these techniques for some potential users, particularly if any single one of them is used in isolation.

It therefore becomes clear that as with input and output approaches, flexibility and adaptability in design of user identification technologies would be necessary to address the many different people which make up our society.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, computers were principally limited to text-in, text-out. The keyboard and low-resolution screen were the limits of the user interface.

In the later 80’s and 90’s, we saw the prominence of the Graphical User Interface with the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows. Graphics, images, motion video and the mouse were added to the user interface.

More recently, audio has become a key output format and speech recognition has become more ubiquitous in a range of computer interactions.

Although we have had this continual progression, we haven’t totally thrown away the earlier approaches and replaced them with the new, but the new ones have usually predominated.

Technologists now work towards an era where people can naturally interact with computers in which ever way suits their situation best, whether that be by speaking and listening, typing and reading, hand-writing and drawing, using a mouse or puff stick, viewing icons graphs and pictures, or any combination of the myriad input and output options that will soon exist. However its probable that this will not just “happen”, but with input from people representing different groups, we can increase the likelihood that flexible “natural computing” designs become the norm.

In the short-term, however, marketers seem to be pushing strongly at the audio interface, one which meets the needs of many users, but obviously an approach which creates major barriers for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. People who are blind or vision impaired experienced a similar challenge as computing, education and business presentations were almost exclusively visual and graphic in focus in the previous decade.

As each new approach has come of age, designers have exercised the technology as a single channel of communication both to capitalise its potential marketability, and to exercise its capabilities and identify its limitations. In time, however, smart user interface designers will construct environments which employ the best of each modality. Those who do not, will lose the competitive edge and lose prominence in the market-place.

Thus we are at an intersection where people who are vision impaired are getting excited about “hearing a sound at the end of the tunnel”, but where people who are deaf or hard of hearing are “seeing the light start to dim”. However, multi-modal computing is the long-term goal, even if there is a period of time where audio seems to predominate in user interface interactions, with the right guidance, this will be a short-term problem.

Accessibility awareness-raising is therefore vital at this juncture to ensure that in such designs, “all” our needs are also being addressed. In doing that, we can also “give back” to the industry, with our extensive experience of leading-edge technologies – such as speech synthesis, speech recognition and keyboard alternatives – which in many cases can give developers an added advantage over their competition.

A good case in point are the companies who worked early towards adherence to W3C web accessibility guidelines, and who were then well placed to offer the first web-enabled mobile phone services to their customers, before their competition had worked out how to handle their graphic-dependent webpages.

Another very positive example of disability research adding value to regular technology is DAISY. There is a wealth of audio information that now exists on the web, but for which very few powerful tools for effectively searching and navigating it have existed.

Meanwhile, over the last few years an international consortium known as DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) has been working hard to develop powerful and intuitive methods for structuring audio, so that blind, vision impaired and print disabled readers could access audio books with the same power and flexibility as could sighted students with traditional print books.

The work of DAISY both employs and contributes to international standards and guidelines, and as a positive side-effect, has now greatly strengthened the viability and utility of computer-based e-books which are modern alternatives to paper books that are predominantly designed and marketed to the mainstream non-disabled market.

By employing the richness and synchronisation of the DAISY format, Microsoft and other e-book vendors can now provide crisp on-screen text of books and also offer synchronised quality audio narration of the text for those customers who like to read, AND listen. Such technology will also have significant implications for the mainstream education and children’s literature markets.

A whole range of people with different disabilities have opportunities to contribute their experience in the design of next-generation services. If a person is blind, then its quite possible that he or she has had very extensive experience in non-visual interactions, computer-generated speech and so on. Such a person is often ideally placed to uniquely contribute to telephone-based audio-only services. Similarly, many People who can’t type or who have limited direct control over their physical environment have utilised speech recognition for some time now. For years many such people have been providing valuable input and insights to manufacturers and implementers of the technology, making it more effective for us all. There are many other examples. As people with disabilities we need to give value to our unique technology and interaction experiences and remind industry that in designing equipment and services that are useable by us, that they are also designing equipment and services which will be easier to learn and use for everyone.

In conclusion, I believe that we are at a very exciting threshold, a threshold where the necessary underlying technologies are growing to maturity but where their effective and non-discriminatory integration and application is still some time away. It is largely up to us all to continue raising awareness, providing input, and wherever possible to channel the direction and inclusiveness of design, so it is accessible and “useable by all”.

As most of the projects funded by the AccessAbility Grants Program have now, or are nearing their close, we need to find other ways to individually and systematically continue to remind industry and government that although we are on one hand discrete groups of people with disabilities, we are each of us, just as importantly, a critical part of the diverse tapestry of society, a society more characterised by individual difference than by sameness.

One of the key goals of this conference is to identify ways of doing this, and the first step is clearly by sharing our research, findings and outcomes over the next two days.

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