Accessibility and Assistive Technologies…

I have been interested in accessibility for a while now – meaning, making computers and the world in general, accessible to people who are not ‘normal’. Of late, there has been a lot of attention on this issue, under various categories like ‘web for all’ of W3C, inclusion, etc. With the increasing reliance on technology (not just IT) in modern life, this is growing as a problem. There are many skills you are expected to possess for a ‘regular life’ – use of lifts and escalators, use of cellphones, banking machines (ATM, etc), phone, PDA, ovens, transport vehicles incl aircraft, supermarkets, and so on. Not every one is going to be comfortable with these devices for many different reasons.

Claustrophobia can prevent use of closed lifts. Escalators require good mobility control. Technology familiarity and good eye sight is taken for granted everywhere. Most institutions are not friendly to people with disabilities. The myriad number of mental problems – due to illness and accidents — is another ballgame altogether. What level of comfort and ‘normalcy’ is required to book an airline ticket online, for example?

Just as the span of problems is vast, so is the space of solutions. From change of living style and infrastructure support, to training and assistive technologies, there is a good range ahead. Depending on the requirement, one need to look at a combination of things as well.

Three major threads which interest me at present. One handling learning disabilities. Enable such students to learn with the normal course of education (and may be beyond), through pedagogic interventions, personalised instruction, etc. This would address problems as discalculi, dyslexia, writing disorders, etc.

Second thread deals with enabling people to use common technologies such as cell phone and computer – the focus here is on altering the traditional human machine interface in innovative ways. Mouse that can be operated with your feet, cursor movement by tracking your face or your pupil movement, option selection with movement of lips, etc are some known solutions. A computer needs basically three types of interaction: text-input, select, point (incl move). Text-input can also be done through the other two – though, often very cumbersome. So, if you can map any activity that a user can do to translation movement (left-right-up-down) and a select action, in principle, we are done. But ensuring this provides a comfortable option is a challenge. Again, in theory, if any part of your body can move, you can build such a mechanism. Recall the story of someone who does painting, using a camera to track pupil movement in the eye and map them to drawing actions on the screen. Or Stephen Hawking, who uses just two fingers to write books and give speeches. I am sure there are plenty more examples.

Third thread is assistive technology for better living. When discussing at the house of Mr KPP Nambiar, our DG told the story of a person who is fully paralysed from neck below, who is using a sophisticated wheel chair and moves around the house, travels to different cities, and lives a happy life. Such technological innovations are badly needed. Beyond just point and click, now we need to handle a whole range of abilities. Imagine moving within the house (incl turning), carrying out routine tasks (get water, etc), getting in and out of the house, etc.

The opportunities are mind boggling. We can use all the innovative minds out there here. More than just innovation, we need deeper understanding of human structure, analysis of how to mimic things when the normal path is not available, and even build an alternate reality, where things need not work the way they are today. For examples, should houses be like what we have? vehicles? equipments? resting? sleeping? eating? etc.

The accessible desktop project at Mumbai CDAC investigates many aspects of the second thread. One PhD candidate has expressed interest in the first thread, and we are exploring. But I cannot even see the tip of the ice-berg, yet. Anyone out there working on such things? Have ideas? Pls do share as comments to the post.


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