Technology Can Improve Lives

The part technology plays in helping and/or hindering people with disabilities.

by / April 16, 2007
Technology is meant to make life easier for those who take advantage of it, but an advantage for some is a disadvantage for others. No one can deny that the Internet has made life easier, but the findings of a recent global United Nations report found that only 3 percent of Web sites are accessible to persons with disabilities. According to the 2002 U.S. census, there are approximately 51 million people with disabilities in America. The International Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference held by California State University, Northridge brought people with varying degrees and types of disabilities together to discuss the issues affecting people with disabilities -- whether it be preparing for an emergency or ensuring accessible voting -- and what part technology plays in helping and/or hindering these issues.

Emergency Preparedness

When there is an emergency, people need immediate access to vital information. Accounting for people with disabilities in emergency situations means closed captioning of information broadcasts, audio descriptions of visual images such as maps, and special considerations for those with mobility issues.

In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held hearing to determine the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert System. Part of these hearings, which were held in response to the Sept. 11th attacks, was to verify if people with disabilities were able to receive emergency information. The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies (Wireless RERC), which researches and works to improve access to municipal and other wireless issues, recommended that the FCC improve access to Emergency Alert systems by upgrading technology.

"The RERC emphasized to the FCC the importance of providing parity of service with respect to emergency communications and expand[ed] TRS [Telecommunications Relay Service] requirements so as to allow text messages to become a regular part of emergency communication services," explained Nathan Moon, a research specialist with the Wireless RERC. Advantage should be taken of assistive technologies such as TRS, STS (speech-to-speech services for those with speech disabilities). Pairing them with wireless will bring them into the public, Moon said.

Wireless's capability to reach millions of people was taken into account when the RERC made recommendations to the FCC again in 2004 regarding the future of the Emergency Alert System. Expanding rules to cover new digital technologies and devices "essential for providing emergency information to people with disabilities;" encouraging wireless manufactures to build TTY capabilities into products; and "more comprehensive planning and coordination among state and federal agencies and focused on the benefits of digital and alternative technologies for people with disabilities" were some of the recommendations made. According to the results of a policy Delphi conducted by Wireless RERC between October 2004 and March 2006 regarding "Use of and Access to Wireless Technologies by People with Disabilities," device incompatibility or poor interoperability cited as most important technology issue.

"A little bit of a push will make a big difference," remarked Paul M. A. Baker, also of the Wireless RERC.

Help America Vote Act

Although not a life-threatening problem, voting accessibility is a right for all citizens in America. Ensuring that those with disabilities are given the opportunity to cast a ballot on Election Day makes certain that all people have a voice in their government.

Dr. Sarah SwierengaThe November 2006 mid-term elections were the first federal elections to employ voting system improvements mandated by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). "The primary purpose of the Help America Vote Act is to provide funding to replace punch card voting systems," explained Dr. Sarah J. Swierenga, professor at Michigan State University and director of the Usability and Accessibility Center. "Part two of HAVA, however, set aside funding for local governments to assure access for individuals with disabilities."

It is believed that the move to electronic voting machines, including touchscreen, will improve access for all voters, including those with disabilities. But some debate has arisen around this issue of electronic voting machines. One such controversy came in the November 2006 Sarasota County, Florida, 13th Congressional district race, which had an extreme undervote of 12 to 15 percent compared to the rest of the ballot. This district used a touchscreen voting machine. Swierenga presented the findings of a study into the reasons for the undervote, as conducted by the Usability and Accessibility Center.

First Screen
Screen shot of Florida voting machine screenOn the first page of the ballot, obvious color bars (red and blue) are used to designate titles of sections, and pale grey lines are used to separate the individual races.

Second Screen
Screen shot of Florida voting machine screenWhen moving on to page two, the eye is automatically drawn to the title in blue, which was the gubernatorial race. Above this section, barely noticeable, is the 13th Congressional district race.

"In this case," explained Swierenga, "Usability testing revealed that the heading for the [13th congressional district] race probably was not prominent enough." It was in the same place that the ballot heading was on the first page, which "may cause voters to ignore it, assuming subconsciously that it's the same thing." The ballot was not consistent from page to page, making it difficult for voters, including those who have visual impairments.

Swierenga did make recommendations for improving voting accessibility for all voters:
  • Don't assume that the voters are familiar with technology
  • Headings and instructions should be active voice, in simple, declarative sentences, using plain language
  • There should be one race per page
  • Make sure there is contrast between backgrounds and text
With the many issues affecting the daily lives of those with disabilities, adding technology to the gamut may not amount to much. But as technology becomes even more integral to life, it is vital to make reasonable accommodations.

Accessibility Resources:

San Diego State University

University of Colorado at Boulder


ADA Guide for Local Governments: Emergency Preparedness and People with Disabilities
Gina M. Scott Writer