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Is there a slow lane on the information superhighway?

Disability Disability Rights

Is there a slow lane on the
information superhighway?

Professor Alice Tay AM
President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Australia
1998-2003
Fulbright symposium
Perth, August 2000
Alice Tay

The title I have taken for these remarks is "Is there a slow lane on
the information superhighway". I fear that by now there may already be
something dated or quaint in using the term "information superhighway".
I am going to use it anyway, and perhaps make matters of style worse by
adding reference to a slow lane, because I think a few important issues
are suggested by this title.

First, the idea that there is a need for a slow lane to permit some members
of the community to participate - and the related and perhaps clearer
ideas of a need for better on ramps and expanded public transport services.

Second, and here I think the slow lane metaphor is more directly useful
- some people, and in some respects most of us, are unnecessarily confined
to the slow lane, or even prevented altogether from getting to our destinations,
because of poor web page design and poor site usability.

Third, and perhaps contrary to the most obvious implications of the title
for these remarks, the issue is not simply one of "slow" traffic - such
as older people, people with disabilities and people without computer
science degrees - begging to be allowed in our Morris Minors to be allowed
to use a superhighway built for Ferraris. I want to argue that much of
the internet at present is delivering less than it could, more slowly,
because of widespread failure not just to allow for but to capitalise
on human diversity, including the knowledge and perspectives of older
people and people with disabilities. It is not common to point to age
and disability as productive aspects of the diversity of our species,
but I want to give you some thoughts on these lines today.

I should begin, though, with a confession, of what you probably already
know or suspect: I am not speaking today as an expert in information technologies.
My own preferred information format still uses wood fibres not optical
fibres; ink, not links; paper, not silicon. But, like anyone who works
for a living with information and ideas, I am finding it increasingly
necessary and convenient to work with information in digital forms.

Is it too reactionary of me to think that "information" may be digital
but "ideas" are still distinctively human? Recent years have seen astonishing
advances not only in computers which can transform human speech into text,
and text into passable speech, but in machine translation of language
- free on the internet, no less. But we are surely still far from machines
passing the "Turing test" - the proposition advanced half a century ago
by Alan Turing that if it becomes impossible in conversation to distinguish
the results of machine processes from the results of human thought one
must concede that the machines are thinking.

No: for the time being at least, it is we who must think how best to
have the machines serve us.

Last year, prompted by the International Year of Older Persons, the Attorney-General
asked me to preside over an inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission to examine difficulties faced by older people and Australians
with a disability in achieving full and equal access to services utilising
digital technologies, and advise on options for use of digital technology
in removing barriers to access by these sections of the community to government
and business information and services.

The genesis of the inquiry was in a focus on older people, but this was
supplemented even before we commenced work by including reference to people
with disabilities, because of evidence from the outset of common issues
and barriers. At the simplest level, but one often overlooked just the
same, more and more of us acquire disabilities like impaired vision, hearing,
memory or mobility as we get older.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics study Disability, Ageing and Carers
1998 (ABS, April 1999) indicates that

  • 19% of the Australian community overall have a disability
  • but this rises to approximately 35% for people aged 55 to 59;
  • 44% for people aged 65 to 69;
  • 60% for people aged 75 to 79;
  • and 84% for people aged 85 and over.

So issues which affect people with a disability will affect more and
more of us personally as we age, and will affect a greater proportion
of the Australian people as the population "ages".

Now, an essential part of the role of human rights law and of human rights
institutions is to defend the rights of people who are relatively powerless
because they are members of a minority - as was observed as long ago as
1938 by the United States Supreme Court, in United States v. Carolene
Products Co., 304 US 144 (1938), when the Court realised belatedly that
the Bill of Rights might be concerned with more than protecting slavery
and other property rights against governmental intrusion. I hope it will
always be able to be said of the Commission which I lead that we do not
hesitate to raise issues affecting minorities in our society whether or
not it is popular to do so.

I include in that of course the "51% minority", where women remain a
definite minority in very many of the decision making bodies of our nation,
from Federal Cabinet down.

Still, it is almost a refreshing change to be dealing with issues where
doing the right thing may be popular too; where it is not necessary to
appeal solely to human rights in principle, to conscience of society,
business and government; where the issues more obviously engage personal
self interest (sooner or later) and institutional self interest also -
and where many of the solutions are fairly readily identifiable and achievable.

The report of our inquiry was tabled in June this year. It is available
on the Commission's web site (www.humanrights.gov.au) and in other formats
on request. (My colleague in this inquiry, the Deputy Disability Discrimination
Commissioner Mr Graeme Innes, who is blind, takes some pleasure in the
fact that for this report and for an increasing range of our publications
in this respect print on paper and Braille have equivalent status as "alternative
formats", with the principal distribution being in electronic form. His
pleasure is perhaps in part due to the fact that the budget savings achieved
by reduced printing and distribution costs through use of the internet
have largely funded the creation of his position.) Other papers generated
throughout the inquiry are similarly available - an initial issues paper,
an interim report, an audit of accessibility of Commonwealth government
web pages, two studies of issues affecting accessibility of automatic
teller machines, links to online resources, and public submissions.

I will not take time here, therefore, to go through the report and other
papers in detail. For one thing, as I said in my letter transmitting the
report to the Attorney-General, "The pace of relevant technological developments
is such that many of the technical details of this report are likely to
become rapidly dated."

If I may quote myself again, though, I went on to say that "The importance
of ensuring that all Australians can participate in and benefit from these
developments, however, will endure and require continuing attention by
government, business and community". We asked government and other decision
makers to consider recommendations including these:

  • Ensuring as far as possible that on line and automated services are
    used to complement and enhance availability of direct human service
    rather than completely substituting for it
  • Increased business and government support for community access points
    for online services and for awareness, education and training for people
    who might otherwise remain on the wrong side of a "digital divide".
  • Increased focus on provision of appropriate equipment, software,
    training and information to meet needs of people requiring adapted or
    customised equipment to achieve effective internet access
  • Appropriate resolution of issues affecting access to copyright material
  • Particular attention to issues of equal and timely access to materials
    in electronic form for students with disabilities
  • Implementation by Commonwealth departments and agencies of Cabinet's
    decisions of March 2000 requiring web site accessibility
  • Other information and service providers ensuring compliance of their
    web sites with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility
    Guidelines.
  • Ongoing support by the Commonwealth for assessment by community experts
    of access issues and options arising from new technologies
  • Relevant industry bodies taking an increased role in educating those
    developing and implementing new technologies on accessibility issues.

The release of the report is still only recent. But progress so far on
some issues at least is clearly encouraging.

I think it is fair to claim the Cabinet decision in March, setting requirements
for Federal government web sites to move towards compliance with international
standards on accessibility, as a rare example of a recommendation of a
report being implemented before it is delivered.

We would like to think that the Attorney was assisted by our report in
finding a way forward with the Copyright Amendment (Digital Agenda) Bill
which respected concerns of copyright owners about abuses in the digital
world but which opens up opportunities for people who need digital access
to have equal access or any access at all.

We are certainly encouraged by the strong endorsement of the report by
the Internet Industry association and related industry organisations and
their commitment to an industry awareness campaign on accessibility issues.
We have had a positive preliminary meeting with a working group established
by the Australian Bankers' Association to progress implementation of our
recommendations so far as they affect the banking industry, both as regards
internet based services and also regarding issues of automatic teller
machine access and telephone banking.

Why should Australia's national human rights institution become involved
with highly technical issues like these now - in fact, why did it become
involved in web accessibility issues in 1996 and issue guidelines in the
area in 1997? Because it is clear that access to information and communication
in digital forms are increasingly crucial to opportunities for participation
in economic, social and cultural life. It will increasingly be the reality
that not to have access to information technology and services will be
to be forced into economic and social exile.

I do not want to give any impression though that our inquiry or its findings
supported a negative picture of the spread of digital technologies, or
put the Commission in the camp of those who see a growing "digital divide"
as inevitably worsening social divides. One of the fundamental things
about digital information is that it is far cheaper and more widely available
than information on paper or in most other forms - once people have access
to the necessary skills and equipment to gain access to it. Five hundred
years ago, should one have complained that the proliferation of printed
books increased inequality between those who could read and those who
could not? Or should we look rather at the greatly increased affordability
and number of printed compared to hand scribed books - creating the prospect
of vastly expanded group who could have access to information if and when
the key of literacy was provided.

Digital technologies offer great potential in providing more effective
and economical access to government and business information and services,
and improved prospects for equal opportunity in many areas of life, for
all Australians including older people and people with a disability. Use
of digital technology has particular potential benefits for many people
with disabilities and older people in providing access to information
and services in formats and locations which they can use, which previously
have been difficult or impossible for them to have access to.

These points are made in the Commission's report, and perhaps should
be obvious anyway. I mention them here because of the still frequent raising
of equity issues as reasons not to emphasise making information and transactions
available in digital form. I am thinking of assertions from time to time,
from self styled radicals, that digital technology has gone too far too
fast and that "we" should call a pause. Tell that, perhaps, to a blind
student who for the first time is becoming able through technology to
read the same texts at the same time as the rest of her class and to perform
banking and shopping on line independently. But I am also thinking of
more credible cautionary notes based on limited numbers of people with
effective internet access.

It is true that home internet access is still enjoyed only by a minority
of the Australian community - this time the minority concerned is not
so powerless or disadvantaged; we are talking about a group in which higher
income male professionals who live in capital cities are very strongly
represented. People making submissions to the Commission's inquiry, though,
saw this restricted access not as a reason for governments or business
to hold back from use of the internet but as a reason to pursue means
of expanding access (as well as maintaining alternative means of delivery
of services and information as far as possible).

Already, although internet access is restricted rather than universal,
we should ask: restricted compared to what? The comparison is not properly
between 30 percent or so some internet access and a presumed 100 per cent
figure for some other availability. On the internet side of the comparison,
there is scope for people who do not have home or work access to gain
access through libraries or other community facilities - even if that
scope could and should be expanded with increased government and industry
support. On the non-internet side, how many government documents are hand
delivered free to each and every household?

It is true that there are real and serious regional inequalities in availability
and speed of internet access. Where, though, is the government bookshop
in Goondiwindi? Where is the law library in Launceston? And how many government
documents, let alone commercial publications, are made available in Braille?
Or large print? Or tape or other audio format? - and yet people who rely
on any of these formats can gain access to information given a properly
formatted digital file so long as they also have access to appropriate
equipment.

The Commission's inquiry emphasised unnecessary barriers to access created
by poor implementation of digital technologies. But more serious access
barriers may often be left in place in cases where, for fear of implementing
digital information provision wrongly, it is not implemented at all.

If the digital superhighway may be a road to opportunity and participation,
we need to ask again in what senses there may be a need for a slow lane
to cater for some members of the community.

There are particular potential benefits for older people and people with
a disability in information, services or goods being available through
the internet:

  • Reduced impact of transport and building access barriers: Access
    through the internet is possible for people whose disability or age
    makes it difficult or impossible for them to get to or use premises
    where goods, services or information are provided
  • Access for people who cannot turn paper pages: Many people who find
    it difficult or impossible to handle or read paper pages can use a computer,
    for example with a modified keyboard or with voice control
  • Access for people who cannot see or read print: People who are blind
    or have vision impairments can gain access to documents in electronic
    form and read them in Braille, audio or large print form. People who
    cannot read written English can access appropriately configured web
    pages by using screen readers that can convert text to voice and read
    out loud the content. Text to speech output capability is in fact now
    becoming available as a standard part of several major personal computer
    operating systems rather than only as a specialised add on.
  • Access for people who cannot read English: Emerging web-based technologies
    offer the prospect of greater equality and convenience of access and
    participation for people who are not fluent in English. Access to material
    in spoken form can also assist people who are not yet fluent in a written
    language.
  • Access for deaf people: Deaf people and people with hearing or speech
    impairments can use e-mail, including recently emerged instant messaging
    e-mail services, to avoid barriers in communicating by phone.

As well as being accessed from the internet through PCs or other devices,
electronic documents can also be stored on and used through more portable
specific purpose "e-books". Again, these offer great potential for people
who cannot manage paper pages, and people who require text to speech output
for whatever reason.

In particular, electronic publication offers blind and vision impaired
students the prospect of access to the same textbooks and course materials
as their classmates, at the same time, not months later after waiting
for materials to be transcribed, read onto tape, scanned and reformatted
or otherwise processed - if publishers and educational institutions co-operate
to ensure early availability of material in electronic formats. Of course,
in almost all cases the electronic version of a document now exists well
in advance of the production and distribution of a printed version, and
could be distributed (literally at the touch of a button and at the speed
of light).

With all these advantages, though, there is evidence that many of the
people who could be benefiting most from these new technologies are not
yet doing so. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics continue
to show much lower rates of use of the internet among people aged 55 and
over than among younger age groups. The rates of use among all age groups
are increasing, and may now be increasing relatively more rapidly for
older age groups. But on present trends, it will be years before even
50 per cent of older people are reached effectively by the internet.

Now, a fair question is, how far should lower rates of use of new technologies
be regarded as an issue for concern by government when it may represent
individual decisions not to take advantage of these technologies? Indeed,
focus group research for our inquiry suggested that a substantial number
of older people simply do not see sufficient benefit in new technologies
to invest effort in using them.

This point has been raised in recent media discussion questioning whether
a digital divide is in fact something which government should seek to
address. One response is that business and government should be interested
in promoting and enabling greater rates of internet usage for their own
pragmatic reasons. There seems to be scope for more action by government
and business along the lines of initiatives by some banks, for example,
to provide some internet access free to encourage use of internet banking
- essentially because of the money this saves the bank compared to over
the counter transactions.

It is not a human rights institution's role to seek to dictate these
sort of commercial decisions, of course. . Where human rights issues do
arise is if people are being excluded from services, information or opportunities
because of avoidable barriers to access rather than simply choosing not
to participate.

As our inquiry found, many people with a disability are acutely aware
of potential benefits from participation in use of new technologies but
are being excluded or disadvantaged by particular barriers. It is also
clear that the same issues arise for many older Australians. Perceptions
of a lack of sufficient benefit in using new technologies also appears
to be at least partly a reflection of difficulties in use and barriers
to access. Barriers identified by our inquiry included:

  • Cost of access to computers and internet connection
  • Limited public access facilities for people who cannot afford their
    own equipment
  • Limited sources of resources, assistance and information where adapted
    or customised equipment is required by people with disabilities and
    older people
  • Needs for awareness, and training in use of, available options
  • Inaccessibility of many web pages to people with vision impairments,
    slower connections and older equipment
  • Lack of provision, or delays in provision of materials in accessible
    formats (particularly in education), for reasons including copyright
    or other legal difficulties and the formats in which materials are made
    available by publishers.

Before you can even use a slow lane, of course, you need to be able to
get on the road. The price of computers available in the market and suitable
for internet use, as well as the price of other elements of information
and communications access using the internet, have been falling since
the inception of the use of personal computers in conjunction with the
internet. The fall in price has been very marked relative to the capacities
of systems available - the computer which cost $3000 three years ago costs
perhaps $1000 new today; the computer which costs $3000 now either did
not exist or cost $40,000 three years ago. The fall in prices has also
been substantial in real terms relative to other consumer items, including
printed material, and significant even in nominal dollar value. Despite
this, the proportion of households having a home computer is only increasing
slowly. A computer for home internet use would still be regarded as a
very substantial investment by the great majority of Australian households
and remains financially out of reach for many people on low and fixed
incomes including many older people and people with disabilities.

It may be that the position will change if, as many people are predicting,
likely PCs lose their dominant position as the means of internet access,
in favour of phone or television based access for example. Obviously,
there is much closer to universal access to phones and televisions than
to PCs. Reportedly, in Japan there are already more internet capable mobile
phones being sold than PCs. But I do not think this means that we should
say, well, the market and technology will make the problem of unequal
access go away so there is no further need to discuss it. For one thing,
there is a role for public debate and awareness, government and industry
policy development, and if need be use of the law, to ensure that new
access technologies are effectively accessible, in particular by people
with disabilities. For another thing, there is the question of what people
should be expected to do while waiting for new technologies to come to
the rescue. These developments are not perhaps in the realm of the long
term, in which as John Maynard Keynes famously observed we are all dead.
But certainly, even in an affluent country like Australia we are looking
at a period of years at least before there is close to universal internet
access in the home.

This emphasises the importance of internet access through community facilities
(through local, State and Territory, and Commonwealth government programs,
educational institutions, commercial facilities and community organisations).
Submissions to our inquiry welcomed current business, government and community
initiatives for provision of community access points for online services
and for awareness, education and training for people who might otherwise
remain on the wrong side of a "digital divide", including many older people
and people with a disability; but called for increased business and government
provision of and support for similar initiatives.

We did not see our inquiry as giving the Commission the authority and
expertise to design and demand a multi-billion dollar program to expand
internet access. We were also conscious that the inquiry dealt only with
issues as they affect people with a disability and older people, and did
not perform a comprehensive stocktake of internet access needs and options
in areas such as education. Still, it is interesting to contrast the position
in Australia - where there is a patchwork of impressive initiatives but
not an overall program for expanding internet access - with that in the
United States, where the "e-rate" program based on a small charge on telephone
usage does deliver a revenue stream of millions of dollars for connecting
disadvantaged schools and communities.

For those people who do manage to get onto the highway, we come to the
issue of being unnecessarily stuck in the slow lane - by poor web page
design giving slow download times and poor site usability - or being pushed
off again onto the side of the road by page design which is inaccessible
altogether. As part of our inquiry the Attorney-General asked the Commission
to conduct an audit of the accessibility of Australian government and
business internet sites, in particular for people with impaired vision,
by reference to the Disability Discrimination Act and relevant Australian
and international guidelines. An audit focusing on Commonwealth web pages
was released in December 1999. The results were that:

  • Most Commonwealth sites tested showed significant accessibility barriers
  • Many sites presented barriers to users who cannot see images, cannot
    access documents in PDF format, or have difficulty with sites using
    frames
  • A substantial number of sites appeared to require excessive download
    times even at the home page level
  • Most barriers found appeared relatively easy for providers to remedy
    on existing pages and to avoid for new pages

The Commission therefore regards as necessary and very welcome the decision
by Australia's Federal Cabinet in March this year to adopt accessibility
requirements for Commonwealth sites as part of its policy for use of the
internet, including requirements for

  • all Commonwealth departments and agencies to evaluate their sites
    for compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's accessibility standards
    from June 2000
  • all new contracted site work to include accessibility benchmarks
    from June 2000
  • all Commonwealth sites to pass accessibility testing for compliance
    with at least the "priority one" elements of the World Wide Web Consortium's
    standards by December 2000.

These commitments appear in the Government Online strategy, which is
available on the internet at http://www.govonline.gov.au/projects/strategy/GovOnlineStrategy.htm
.

Accessibility of State government sites appears at least as patchy and
problematic as found in Commonwealth sites in December 1999, including
in states which have applied very substantial effort to on line access
to Government information and services in other respects. We have been
encouraged to hear of a number of states moving systematically to improve
the accessibility of their web presences on similar lines to the Commonwealth.

In the private sector, submissions noted particular problems with the
first generation of internet banking products, which require downloading
of specialised software and in some cases contain techniques such as an
on screen touchscreen unusable by blind people or some people with physical
disabilities. It is encouraging to note reports that much improved accessibility
is being achieved by a number of banks in moving to mainstream internet
browser based products. However, internet or browser based technologies
do not in themselves guarantee effective accessibility or ease of use.
Other private sector sites we surveyed showed a similar range of accessibility
problems as found in surveying Commonwealth government sites, with

  • images and image maps lacking text labels
  • dynamic elements like moving text and animations not having accessible
    text equivalents
  • pages having excessive download times
  • users being required to download additional software, not always
    compatible with older equipment or useable by vision impaired people,
    with no alternative means of access being provided
  • frames used without providing no frames alternatives, and frames
    not properly labelled to enable screen reader software to cope with
    them.

As with other elements of internet and computer technology, access tools
used by people with disabilities are improving consistently. Some elements
of the disability community are highly informed and implementing each
new "user side" access technology as fast as they can, because of the
great benefits to be gained from equal and timely access to information
and transactions - but not all older people and people with disabilities
have access to the finances or expertise to be using the latest technology.
Site designs which can be made to work very well for people with a high
level of expertise and up to date equipment will not necessarily work
for all.

There are a range of automated tools available to check whether pages
will work on older browsers or for users who cannot see, but we have tried
to emphasise that in the end these tools are only a beginning, and should
not be taken as a substitute for testing with and feedback from "real
live humans".

This leads me to the third theme I want to draw from the title about
slow lanes on the information superhighway. In an important sense, the
issue is not simply one of "slow" traffic asking to be allowed in, but
of the highway itself being slower than it could be, less than it could
be, because of a widespread failure not just to allow for, but to capitalise
sufficiently on, human diversity, including the perspectives and knowledge
held by people who are older or who have a disability or both.

Self evidently, the internet is about human communication. This was the
vision of people like Tim Berners-Lee in creating the World Wide Web -
as a means for enhanced co-operation between people in diverse places,
using diverse equipment. The richness of the human ability to communicate
enables us to devise and achieve vast and complex projects far beyond
the reach of any individual. The co-operation we can achieve through communication
is even more powerful than the "swarm intelligence" of social species
like bees or ants: precisely because we humans are not all essentially
the same bee repeated over and over, but are diverse on many levels -
in individual imagination and in dimensions of life experience, along
lines such as those of gender, culture, language, age - and disability.

On first impressions, there is not much diversity reflected in the development
of the internet - anyone who saw the documentary "The triumph of the nerds"
(the scripts of which are available on line at http://www.pbs.org/nerds/
) would have been struck by the parade of fit-looking white American men,
computer whizzes who made their major impact in their 20s and are now
millionaires in their 30s and 40s.

But look a bit further into the ancient history of computing - back before
1995 or so .

There is an often forgotten female history in computing. For example,
Ada, Countess Lovelace, has a good claim to be the first computer programmer
with her work with Charles Babbage's uncompleted difference engine and
analytical engine in the 19th century.

The basic architecture of the modern computer was laid down by John von
Neumann - a refugee from Nazi persecution.

Probably the first person to possess the idea of the digital computer
as we know it was Alan Turing. He was prosecuted for homosexuality, which
seems to have led to his suicide. We should be grateful no doubt that
the English and American authorities (unlike the Nazis) at least waited
until after he had invented the idea of the digital computer and
led the war winning effort to break the Enigma codes before launching
a campaign to drive gay people out of their positions.

Alright, you may say, some of the architects of the information age have
been political refugees, gay, even female, but we are still talking about
the intellectual elite here, the Ferrari drivers of the information age,
not the rest of us in the Morris Minors. How does disability or age or
low income fit in here?

In response let me quote some remarks from a speech on the role of people
with disabilities in the information age by Bill Kennard, Chairman of
the United States Federal Communications Commission, available on line
at http://www.fcc.gov/Speeches/Kennard/spwek807.html :

"The story of how an obscure teacher at Boston's School
for the Deaf named Alexander Graham Bell changed the world with his invention
is pretty well known, and no wonder. Alexander Graham Bell invented the
telephone with the intention of creating a device that would assist his
wife and his mother, who both had hearing disabilities. He went on to
give some other examples: The typewriter - developed in Italy over 200
years ago for people who are blind. For the next 50 years, no one else
was interested. But eventually, it became an everyday business tool. Over
100 years ago, a man named Herman Hollerith, who had a learning disability,
was determined to organize information in a way he could understand. So
he devised the Hollerith Tabulating Machine. The US Government used the
Hollerith Tabulating Machine to complete its 1890 census; in 1924, Hollerith
changed the name of his company to International Business Machines - IBM
- and the rest is history."

The same speech noted that Vint Cerf, generally recognised as one of
the fathers of the Internet, has a hearing disability. It has been argued
that the fact that from the outset the Internet was successfully designed
to carry text messages - E-mail in particular - was due in large part
to the familiarity of its creators with text based communications for
deaf and hearing impaired and speech impaired people.

The challenge of diverse needs and the stimulus of diverse experience
are powerful forces for innovation. Further, the means whereby one person's
disability is accommodated will often mean increased ease of use or range
of choices for others with accompanying net economic benefits.

There are billions of dollars riding on the move to widespread delivery
of internet services through phones - both through text messaging but
also through voice read out of web page content, thanks to the emergence
of computer chips powerful enough to manage synthetic speech but small
and cheap enough to be incorporated in mobile phones. In recent months
there has been sudden high-tech commercial interest in how blind people
navigate web pages using sound alone, to assist in designing systems for
this sort of navigation for mainstream use. Here is an example where the
experience and knowledge of people with disabilities may assist the rest
of us quite literally to use the internet in the fast lane, hands free
on the freeway.

This is something for the near to medium future. Right now, it seems
that almost any major commercial internet site could achieve greater effectiveness
for all users, and greater commercial benefit for its owners, if it were
tested for usability with a few older people and people with vision impairments.
Jakob Nielsen, the guru of web site usability, has produced an analysis
to show that testing with as few as five users is the most effective approach
for identifying design problems with an internet site. For example, the
same factors than still make some bank sites difficult or impossible to
use if you cannot see or do not have the latest version browsers installed
(perhaps because you cannot afford a computer with capacity to run them),
make these same sites too frustrating to use for those who can see, and
do have state of the art equipment, but have other things to do with their
time than struggle with badly designed sites.

The "fast lane" culture of the internet reinforces this lack of willingness
to put up with sites which impose unnecessary delay or complexity on a
user. One of the reasons Bill Gates is the richest man on the planet is
because he and his corporation made computers easier for most ordinary
people to use. And he did it largely by drawing and acting on appropriate
conclusions from other people's research on how ordinary people rather
than computer technologists interact with information. Alan Turing, by
contrast, who despite the vastness of his contribution did not become
either a household word or a billionaire, could not even see the point
of developing computer languages to enable programming using English words
and ordinary mathematical symbols - since as a Cambridge university mathematician
he was perfectly at home in the base 32 arithmetical language of the computer
he was working with.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
call on people who develop web pages to consider that many users may be
operating in contexts very different from your own:

  • They may not be able to see, hear, move, or may not be able to process
    some types of information easily or at all.
  • They may have difficulty reading or comprehending text.
  • They may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse.
  • They may have a text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow Internet
    connection.
  • They may not speak or understand fluently the language in which the
    document is written.
  • They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears, or hands are busy
    or interfered with (e.g., driving to work, working in a loud environment,
    etc.).
  • They may have an early version of a browser, a different browser
    entirely, a voice browser, or a different operating system.

As these Guidelines note:

"The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility.
However, following them will also make Web content more available to all
users, whatever user agent they are using (e.g., desktop browser, voice
browser, mobile phone, automobile-based personal computer, etc.) or constraints
they may be operating under (e.g., noisy surroundings, under- or over-illuminated
rooms, in a hands-free environment, etc.). Following these guidelines
will also help people find information on the Web more quickly. These
guidelines do not discourage content developers from using images, video,
etc., but rather explain how to make multimedia content more accessible
to a wide audience."

To sum up, issues which are commonly perceived or overlooked as disability
issues affecting only a minority are often actually universal design issues,
and attention to these issues has the potential to revolutionise access
and use by the community more generally.

Return with me one more time to the metaphor of the superhighway. Look
- over there, not in the fast lane, not even in the slow lane, off in
a field somewhere, are two young men tinkering with their vehicle's engine.
Let's call them Wilbur and Orville. They cannot afford leather upholstery
or nice chrome headlights or varnished timber door panels for their vehicle.
This vehicle seems to need all sorts of special adjustments, too, compared
to the standard product. On the other hand, though, their vehicle can
fly . Maybe we should pay them some attention.