Author

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.