Cornucopia of Disability Information

Cornucopia Of Disability Information
Comments made to NIDRR Forum on Disability Research

CODI Directory

CODI Archives

Contact Webmaster

Comments made to NIDRR Forum on Disability Research
[Summer 1995]

Gregg C. Vanderheiden, Ph.D.
Director, Trace R&D Center
Waisman Center and Department of Industrial Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Good afternoon. My name is Gregg Vanderheiden, and I am the Director of the
Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Trace Center
is a NIDRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center whose focus is
on access to computers and information systems, including the Internet and
next-generation information and transaction systems.

I have four basic messages I'd like to deliver in my few minutes:

1) There are both tremendous opportunities and tremendous potential
barriers to people with disabilities posed by next generation computers and
information systems;

2) Government-sponsored engineering research has and will continue to play
a critical role in addressing these issues;

3) Industry is willing build accessibility into its standard product IF
effective and commercially practical interface strategies are developed.

4) The incorporation of these access features into standard products has a
profound effect on the lives of people with disabilities as well as
providing benefit to individuals without disabilities.

Let me give a couple of examples to illustrate these points.

When microcomputers were first becoming popular, we became concerned that
they were being used in special ways, to do special things for people with
disabilities, but that there were not effective mechanisms for allowing
people with disabilities to use them in the standard ways running standard
software so that they could work side-by-side in school and employment
settings. We developed a number of extensions to the human interface of the
computer that allowed people with disabilities to access and use the
standard computers and software.

For example, people with high spinal cord injuries who had to use a
mouthstick to type on the keyboard would have trouble typing some
characters such as a parenthesis or control characters like control-P.
Using a single stick, they were unable to hold down the shift key and type
the other key at the same time. With an extension called StickyKeys,
however, they would be able to tap on the shift key five times, which would
cause all of the modifier keys (e.g., shift, control, alt) to become
"sticky." Thereafter, they would be able to press any modifier key and then
press the second key (sequentially rather than simultaneously).

Another modification, called MouseKeys, allows users who cannot operate a
mouse to move the mouse pointer around on the screen by using the keypad on
the keyboard. Other extensions allow people with impairments typical of
cerebral palsy to access standard keyboards, so that even very erratic
typing patterns would result in error-free output. Another extension
provided visual indication of sounds for people who are deaf.

Based on this work, we were able to convince a number of the computer and
operating system companies to begin building disability access features
directly into their standard computers and operating systems. Apple was
first, and has built features like this into every single Macintosh for
almost eight years now. IBM contracted with us to create a set of eight of
these extensions for DOS -- the AccessDOS package. This is now distributed
by IBM; and there is even a clone of AccessDOS done in Japanese (with the
Trace Center's permission, and indeed blessing).

This led to incorporation of these features in X Window for UNIX, and as of
August of this year, all of these features plus half a dozen more will be
built in as a standard part of the human interface for Windows95 from

This took many years of development, testing, and demonstration. There were
many fears on the part of the companies that these types of adaptations
would interfere with the use of the computer by people who didn't have
disabilities. By having actual demonstrable software which they could put
on their computers and work with the features; by having worked with
consumers in order to ensure that the strategies would work in the field;
and by working with industry to address key issues, we were eventually able
to get the features incorporated by one company -- in this case, Apple. The
fact that Apple incorporated them and did not have problems was then key to
getting them successfully implemented by other companies.

At this point in the story, we can see another key role that Federal
funding plays in making new technologies accessible. Once the techniques
had been developed and incorporated into Apple's software, other companies
became more interested in trying to address these same accessibility
issues. However, one of the first questions that was asked by other
companies was who owned the rights to these disability access features. If
they had been developed by any one company, then the other companies were
concerned about implementing similar strategies, and they were not
interested in talking about licensing techniques from competitors. Almost
all of the computer companies have had bad experiences with each other in
these areas, and have rather strict rules regarding use of ideas generated
by their competitors (unless of course they see absolutely no other
commercial alternatives). Because the basic techniques were developed under
Federal funding, we have been able to successfully maintain that this
research should remain nonexclusive in nature, so that anyone may
incorporate them in their software. We have also been able to cause the
features to be implemented in similar fashion on all of the computer
platforms, thus allowing individuals with disabilities to move freely from
one computer system to another and be able to have the same access
features, invoked in the same way.

In this one example, then, we see several unique roles that Federally
funded research in the process of making standard products more accessible.
Briefly, these are:

1) The basic underlying research on accessibility, which the companies are
ill equipped and not always motivated to conduct.

2) Providing feasibility testing and demonstrations of the practicality of
mass deployment in the field. Traditionally, companies are very risk-averse
when it comes to new human interface paradigms. In addition, they are very
concerned about testing ideas which might not work, and without
demonstration they are very much afraid to build them into their new
products. Some independent mechanism for developing and providing new
approaches is therefore required.

3) By developing techniques outside of any particular company, it is
possible to prevent companies from patenting particular techniques and
blocking their adoption by the field as a whole.

4) By developing strategies that are not proprietary to a single company,
standard approaches or implementations are possible across a field. This is
critical to compatibility between different computer brands and between
computers and different assistive devices.

5) We often find industry needing an outside, independent party who can act
as an evaluator of the variety of ideas as well as a broker between them
and other companies. In fact, in working on the X Window access features
(which involved the cooperative work of a number of different companies) we
were told a number of times how important it was to have a neutral third
party who could broker communication and work between the various companies
working on the effort.

Talking Fingertip Kiosk

A second quick example is the Talking Fingertip technique. Banks, ATM
manufacturers and other kiosk developers have wrestled for some time with
the issue of providing access to touchscreen kiosks for people who are
blind. In some cases, industry invested considerable funds trying to create
a solution. However, no effective solutions were identified. Now, under
NIDRR funding a technique has been developed which promises to allow
individuals who are blind, as well as those with low vision and reading
difficulties, to have full access to most touchscreen kiosks. Working
closely with consumers and industry, the technique is being refined.
Although a prototype of the technique has only been in existence for seven
months, there are already four major computer and information / kiosk
companies interested in using the technique. Again, because the technique
was developed with public funds, it can be rapidly deployed by multiple
companies in simultaneous and compatible fashion. Users would therefore be
able to walk up to touchscreen kiosks and know how to turn them on and
operate their access features without having to first figure out which
particular computer, information, or ATM manufacturer created the
particular touchscreen system in front of them .

Information Superhighway

In some ways, the "information superhighway" and next-generation
information systems in general pose some of the same problems as the
computer industry - - particularly with regard to public or shared systems.
In other ways, however, the problems are very difficult. For one thing,
there is an immense number of players all vying to get a hold on the area.
Secondly, the area is evolving so fast that it is difficult to keep up with
the area in general, much less with disability access issues. Industry
seems to be somewhat more aware and interested at this time, but they
appear to be not much more informed. Moreover, for every one that is aware,
there are 15 or 20 that are not. As a result, we are being hit with massive
requests for technical assistance when we are scrambling to keep up with
the technical innovations. In our case, our entire Center is smaller than
the work group of one company working on one prototype of one product for
the NII. (This same company has multiple teams working in parallel on
different generations and different products.)

The rate of change is incredible. In the last 18 months, Gopher, with its
wide accessibility, very rapidly gave way to World-Wide-Web and its Mosaic
browsers with HTML. No sooner had we developed guidelines for making HTML
accessible than Netscape (who currently has 80% of the World-Wide-Web
browser market) announced that it was going to support PDF (a graphic page
description format). This breaks all of the accessibility tools and rules
that existed for HTML, and creates an entirely new environment. The
government responds with a PDDF which is a slightly enhanced version of
PDF. However, this still creates an entirely different set of ground rules
and issues which must be defined and solved before individuals with certain
types of disabilities will be able to access documents in these PDF or PDDF
formats. (Most commercial companies, by the way, are showing much greater
interest in using PDF format than in using the more accessible HTML,
because it gives them tighter control over the presentation of the
information.) Then, last month, Netscape announced that it was also go
support Hot Java from Sun Microsystems. This allows individuals to build
animated graphic Web pages. Again, industries interested in commercializing
the Web and using it for advertising and selling their products find these
advances exciting, since it can make for a more dynamic and interesting
"presence" on the Web. Coupled with VRML (virtual reality mark-up
language), it is also possible to create entire virtual environments on the
Web. It would be possible, for example, to go visit a "Sears" store while
sitting at your television set. You'd be able to control your movement
through the store, looking at, picking up, and having demonstrations of any
product in the "store." A few more button presses, and you can purchase the
item on your credit card and have it shipped to your door. For $15 more,
small items could be dropped off by cab from local vendors. (One company
currently allows you to buy groceries via the Internet and have them
dropped off at your house later that day.)

Such capabilities could be tremendous time-savers for individuals with
mobility or other impairments which make it more difficult to travel or
shop. The convenience and time-saving factors for everyone, in fact, may
cause us to significantly change our shopping habits -- particularly if we
are in a hurry or face the problems of shopping with an entourage of
children in our care. As more and more people turn to electronic shopping,
or even shopping via public kiosks, first specialty stores and then other
stores may become fewer, more separated, or have shorter hours. This has
already occurred in the banking industry with the advent of ATMs.

If people with disabilities are not able to effectively access these
next-generation communication, transaction, and information system, they
will find themselves at a considerable disadvantage compared to their peers
who do not have disabilities. Furthermore, they may find their old methods
for doing things becoming less convenient or less available, as noted
above. It is essential, therefore, that strategies be developed and
incorporated into these next-generation
communication, transaction, and information systems.

The example above only dealt with daily living, which is perhaps one of the
tougher areas for innovation to impact. The NII is being felt even more
rapidly in both education and employment areas. If we are not able to get
strategies developed and incorporated, people with disabilities will very
quickly find themselves at a disadvantage in all aspects of life, including
education, employment, and daily living. With all of the emphasis on
visualization, graphics, and sound in next- generation systems, there are
going to be tremendous challenges with regard to accessibility. As was
found in the computer and kiosk areas, however, these problems appear to be
addressable with sufficient research effort. In addition, the solutions are
likely to point to advances for a wide range of users beyond those with

Cooperation of Federal Departments and Agencies

As mentioned above, the research on new information, interface and display
technologies is racing ahead at a tremendous rate. In addition to the
efforts being carried out by industry, the Federal government is also
funding increased efforts in these areas. This funding is coming from a
broad range of agencies involved with different aspects of science,
education, NII, computers, information systems, and HPPC. No single agency
is going to be able to effectively address the disability access issues
being raised across this broad range. Each of the agencies involved needs
to address disability access issues within their particular area. Yet to
avoid duplication of effort, the efforts must not be isolated and
independent. Some coordination of work, particularly with regard to
disability access, is required between the various agencies with disability
expertise and the agencies with expertise and research programs in these

Potential Future Research Breakthroughs

Three areas that I would highlight to watch (and areas where cooperative
efforts could be most fruitful would be:

1) Interface research

Breakthroughs in voice, sound and graphic display technologies are going
create new interface techniques that are only dreamed of now. Some recent
developments, coupled with some that I would expect to see in the next 5-10
years, will drive the cost of very sophisticated interface technologies
down to a consumer level. This holds both potential barriers and tremendous
promise for individuals with disabilities. As discussed above (and in a
recent White Paper titled Inclusion of people with functional limitations
due to disability, aging, or circumstance in the "Everyone Interface" for
next- generation systems), there are also a number of disability access
strategies which can significantly enhance the development and user
flexibility in these new systems.

2) Modality independent data storage and serving strategies

Again, it is impossible to access data which is a form which is inherently
inaccessible; e.g., a photograph for someone who is blind or a sound track
for someone who is deaf. There are strategies for creating information in
parallel modalities which show great promise for making information more
accessible to everyone. Developments under Item 3, immediately below, may
also provide some significant help here for some types of data. Advances in
visualization technology, however, may create further challenges.

3) Data translation technologies

A third area involves data translation technologies. We already have speech
recognition for converting speech into text, as well as OCR for changing
printed text into electronic text. There are tools which will take a chart
that has been scanned and turn it into tabular data. These tools, while
still somewhat elementary, provide examples of ways that information in one
form can be converted to other forms. I believe we will see some
significant advances in these and related technologies which can to some
extent provide cross-modality access to certain types of information.
Eventually, it may be possible to allow translation of text or speech into
other languages, including sign language. We may also see the availability
of extremely powerful translators, available on-line. Technologies which
would be much too expensive for individuals to own may be available for a
nickel in conjunction with standard telecommunication services.

For example, an individual who was blind might sign up for a service
offered by their phone company which would automatically convert any fax
into electronic text and another service that provides voice access to
e-mail. Although the features are mostly used by businesses wanting
extremely high quality OCR translation and access to e-mail by phone, the
individual who was blind could also use it to get access to the cooking
instructions on the back of his Lean Cuisine frozen dinner. He would simply
send himself a fax of the back of the frozen dinner package. He would route
the fax through the fax-to-email converter. He would then dial up his
e-mail and have the fax read to him. In this case, he would hear the
directions from the back of his frozen dinner package read to him.

As advanced telecommunication information services evolve, many new tools
and strategies may become available to individuals with disabilities. In
all cases, however, care must be taken, or services which would almost
provide tremendous access tools may be inaccessible simply because of their
implementation. For example, if the company implementing the fax-to-email
feature required the user to operate a small touchscreen in order to
control the feature, the individual who is blind may or may not have a
for nursing home care or other care services.

- Advancing technologies, however, can either facilitate or impede this
process. They could provide greater capabilities for the incorporation of
flexible interfaces and therefore built-in cross- disability accessibility.

- Generally, I see a future where individuals with disabilities will, over
the long term, have the potential for having greater and greater access to
information, services, and opportunities. Unless we are able to maintain
access to new interface and information systems as they are introduced,
however, individuals with disabilities may find themselves perpetually
behind, and ever further behind the competition in both education and
employment settings.

MOST POPULAR DOCUMENTS:   ADA Accessibility Guidelines | Disabled Students in Higher Education | Caregiver Stress: Causes & Treatment | History of Disabilities and Social Problems | Disability Statistics | Using Knowledge and Technology
This site is maintained by Jennifer Weir, Disability Services at Texas A&M University -- Corpus Christi