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National Council on Disability Explores Emerging Technology Trends and Provides Strategies for Change

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

NCD #06-528
December 27, 2006 

WASHINGTON―The National Council on Disability (NCD) today released Over the Horizon: Potential Impact of Emerging Trends in Information and Communication Technology on Disability Policy and Practice(/publications/2006/emerging_trends), a policy paper that explores key trends in information and communication technology, highlights the potential opportunities and problems these trends present for people with disabilities, and suggests some strategies to maximize opportunities and avoid potential problems and barriers.

The technologies used in information and communication products are advancing at an ever increasing rate. Devices are getting smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more capable. Electronics are being incorporated into practically everything, making a wide variety of products programmable, and thus more flexible. Computing power is increasing exponentially.

According to NCD chairperson John R. Vaughn, “The more reliant society becomes on technology to perform fundamental aspects of every-day living, how we work, communicate, learn, shop, and interact with our environment , the more imperative it is that people with disabilities have access to that same technology, and the more costly will be the consequences of failure to ensure access.”

This paper discusses technology trends that present opportunities for universally designed products, and for improved availability, usability, and affordability of assistive technology that can have significant impact on quality of life for people with disabilities. The first trend discussed is the ever-increasing computational power plus the decreasing size and cost of technology—resulting in technology that is more portable, affordable, and for which it is easier to build in access. Second, advances in interface technology are creating new opportunities for better assistive technologies, more accessible mainstream technologies, and entirely new ways for users to control both. Third, new advances will soon enable people to be connected to communication and information networks, at any time, wherever they are—making real time assistance only a button press or voice command away. Finally, the proliferation of virtual places via the World Wide Web is changing the way we approach communications, education, work, and commerce - increasing access to goods and services without the need to leave home.

Many of the same technological advances that show great promise of improved accessibility, however, also have the potential to create new barriers for people with disabilities. The following are some emerging technology trends that are causing accessibility problems.

  • Devices will continue to get more complex to operate before they get simpler. This is already a problem for mainstream users, but even more of a problem for people with cognitive disabilities and people who have cognitive decline due to aging.
  • Increased use of digital controls (e.g., push buttons used in combination with displays, touch screens, etc.) is creating problems for people with blindness, cognitive, and other disabilities.
  • The shrinking size of products is creating problems for people with physical and visual disabilities.
  • The trend toward closed systems, for digital rights management or security reasons, is preventing people from adapting devices to make them accessible, or from attaching assistive technology so they can access the devices.
  • Increasing use of automated self-service devices, especially in unattended locations, is posing problems for some, and absolute barriers for others.
  • The decrease of face-to-face interaction, and increase in e-business, e-government, e-learning, e-shopping, etc., is resulting in a growing portion of our everyday world and services becoming inaccessible to those who are unable to access these Internet-based places and services, particularly when the Web sites are not created in accordance with Web accessibility standards.

In addition, the incorporation of new technologies into products is causing products to advance beyond current accessibility techniques and strategies. The rapid churn of mainstream technologies, that is, the rapid replacement of one product by another, is so fast that neither assistive technology nor technology-specific accessibility standards are keeping pace. Without action, the gap between the mainstream technology products being introduced and the assistive technologies necessary to make them accessible will increase, as will the numbers of technologies for which no accessibility adaptations are available.

The paper sets forth the following issues for action:

  • Maximize the effectiveness of assistive technologies and lower their cost. Key strategy: Foster results oriented R & D all the way to commercial availability.
  • Maximize the accessibility of mainstream information and communication technology products, so that people with disabilities and seniors can use standard products as they encounter them. Key strategies: Increase funding for research, proof of concept, and commercial hardening of approaches to accessible design of mainstream products to advance understanding in this area.
  • Ensure that access to the Internet and other virtual environments is provided, as it has been to physical places of public accommodation.
  • Address new barriers to the accessibility of digital media caused by digital rights management, including when visual and audio rights are sold separately.
  • Base all policy regarding information and communication technology accessibility on a realization of the importance of the business case. Where a solid business case cannot be built based on market forces alone, create accessibility regulations and effective enforcement mechanisms that provide a clear profit advantage to those who comply and a disadvantage to those who do not.
  • Create accessibility laws and regulations that are not technology specific, but are based on the functions of a device.
  • Ensure that up-to-date information about accessible mainstream technology and assistive technology is available to and being used by the public.

“The policies we adopt today will determine whether the technology of the future empowers people with disabilities, enabling them to work, learn, communicate, shop, and live independent, productive lives as full and equal members of society,” Vaughn concluded.

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