(Review) The Promise of Technology: Conference Session: International Summit on Accessibility – July 14, 2014
International Summit on Accessibility 2014, Ottawa, Ontario
Review of Session: July 14, 2014 – 8:45-10:15 – By Madelaine Palko
The Promise of Technology: Finding Solutions for a More Accessible and Inclusive World
“With rapid development of information technology and technology platforms comes a natural increase in opportunities to harness their potential to build a more inclusive world. Explore how the strategic use of information technologies when combined with global collaboration can improve knowledge-sharing and transfer to improve health and empowerment of persons with disabilities.”
The three speakers in this session represented: 1) Business – David Berman (conference closing remarks), 2) Government – Paul Jackson (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat), 3) Education (R&D) – Jutta Treviranus (OCAD – Inclusive Design Research Centre). Their perspectives intersected in individual presentations about how accessibility informs their work. Discussion pivoted around sustainable and collaborative solutions to web accessibility. The Town Hall that followed this session provided several business case studies, presented by business owners, that illustrated how specific web accessibility solutions can make web content and websites more accessible. I have added a personal, historical preamble to add another perspective to the discussion:
When I initially went to art school in 1974 I wanted to become an art teacher. In my second year at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) I went on a student exchange to the Vancouver School of Art. One of the things I was interested in was – what it would be like to be blind? As a very visual person this seemed to be the scariest thing I could imagine. So, I took a course at UBC called Teaching the Visually Impaired and was introduced to the basics of Braille among other things. As part of the course requirements I volunteered at the now defunct Jericho Hill School for the Blind residential facility. I worked with the kids in the pool, went on outings, and helped out in the classroom. Shelly was my main charge a multi-handicapped, blind little girl who was very frustrated – although, she found a physical outlet in the swimming pool. Mostly she flailed around and swallowed a lot of water. I was there to make sure she didn’t drown. This was where I realized it was not so easy to pigeon-hole one disability from another. People are complex. I learned to be more verbally articulate and temper my expectations. Maybe origami was not the right thing to teach all visually impaired students?
When I went back to NSCAD (now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University) to continue my art education studies I volunteered at the Halifax School for the Blind. These children came from all over the Maritimes and boarded at the school in Halifax. There was no integration in the regular home school classroom at that time. I learned all about the haptic (touch) sensory responses and how they became heightened and more acute with low vision. We did all sorts of activities with the kids – from making and flying kites (very frustrating) to just watching TV together. Some kids sat inches away from the TV so they could get an inkling of what was happening on the screen. This jarred me at first; my parents had drummed into us how bad it was for our eyes to sit too close to the screen.
Both the Jericho Hill School for the Blind in Vancouver and the Halifax School for the Blind were eventually closed. I did not become a teacher in the traditional sense of class-room teacher, but education has always been a major component of my work. I worked most recently in the interactive game industry. Perhaps all this experience was a primer for my next stage in life as a mother?
My first and only child James was born with Down Syndrome. The geneticist said he was mildly mentally retarded, a “Mongoloid” – Trisomy 21 was the outcome of genetic testing. The Dr. handed us the medical text and left the room for a few minutes; to let my husband and I peruse the book of people with medical abnormalities, so that we might know about all the things that could possibly go wrong in the human reproductive process. This is how the world was in 1984 when James was born to us.
James had Hirshsprungs disease which required bowel surgery when he was one-year-old. He had quite severe speech dyspraxia and couldn’t form a short sentence until he was about 7-8 years old. We used American Sign Language (ASL) as a bridge to speaking. Also, James and I took behaviour management classes when he was about six-years-old so that I could learn to handle his frustration of not being able to speak or communicate clearly. I learned to listen and, James quit spitting. Luckily James is a very confident, resilient and social person.
When James was young I sat on the Carleton Board Special Advisory Committee as a representative for the Ottawa Area Down Syndrome Association. It was very discouraging working with the Board – I finally got the label “Retarded” taken out of the school board terminology. That was my biggest accomplishment. While on The Special Advisory Committee I learned that each disability or challenge has advocacy groups that fight for (usually) their loved ones’ rights and needs. It’s a survival thing. So, there is not necessarily a tight alignment amongst special interest groups. It was very competitive. Each individual needs group needed something quite different – from the gifted, hearing impaired, to the intellectually challenged. I learned that just because someone has a disability it doesn’t mean you have anything in common with them. Although, I met some wonderful, big-hearted people in the school system: teachers, aids, etc.
In my opinion, a result of being integrated into society all his life, my son James did not really know that he was “different” until he was 29-years-old. He became aware of this when he starred, along with 8 other young adults with Down Syndrome, in the play “Rare,” 2013 directed by Judith Thompson. “Rare” was presented at various venues in Toronto and Southern, Ontario. These young adults with DS spoke to the issues that concerned them, from: their gender identity, the effect reproductive technologies could have had on their lives, to the love of their families. They were given a platform to express themselves.
I think technology must provide a platform for individuals who need and want one. David Berman, Principal, David Berman Communications pointed out in his presentation that he is unable to perceive colours. Colour blindness is a chromosomal abnormality that affects approximately 8-10% of men. This is especially challenging if you are a graphic designer. Berman said that earlier in his career he was afraid to speak of his disability for fear of being judged by his design colleagues. Today, there are numerous mobile Apps that have been developed to assist individuals with colour-blindness.
We have invented technologies that extend our abilities and improve our quality of life. Berman stressed the need for a sustainable international legal standard for web accessibility in WCAG 2.0. He believes it should have triple bottom line access for: financial, environmental and social applications. In 2013, David Berman Communications was hired by Tim-Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation to ask specific questions about disability accessibility in an audit for the Annual Web Index: http://thewebindex.org/data/index/. Canada ranks 15th out of 81 on all issues covered by the audit, and higher on many specific aspects of disability access. In Ontario, provincial government legislation uses the World Wide Web Consortium’s Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) as a standard for businesses and organizations to base their websites and web content on. This sets a working standard that cities, municipalities, provinces, countries – businesses, organizations and individuals can use.
The second presenter was Paul Jackson, Web Project Officer with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. He stressed the importance of working in multi-disciplinary teams to build a holistic business case for either retrofitting or proposing new digital/technological accessibility design projects. These teams should include specialized members with: User Experience (UX), Mobile Design, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and Open Data on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), etc. skills. He said: “Web accessibility is not an island unto itself”. The government of Canada is currently involved in consolidating 1500+ government websites onto one interface. He advocated using open source tools such as Web Experience Toolkit (WET) and collaborative learning events such as CodeFest – August 14th and 15th 2014 in Ottawa to improve and develop new accessible tools using the federal government (WET) interface as a base standard. http://carleton.ca/1125/2014/codefest-comes-1125/
Jutta Treviranus, Director of Inclusive Design Research (IDRC) at OCAD University spoke about changing the rules of the game in the field of special needs accessibility services. This concept involves creating co-operative systems where diversity is embraced through collective production, crowd-sourcing, etc.; in a personal, participatory and not a one-size fits all solution. Putting tools in the hands of the users is necessary for overcoming the marginalization of the disabled. For more information about the IDRC and its projects please see the website: http://idrc.ocad.ca/index.php/research-and-development .
In Canada, we generally live a very privileged life and have the responsibility to help, share with and educate others globally. No one knows what tomorrow will bring in terms of technological innovation – but, global standards, inclusive design and collaborative team work will help improve web accessibility and grow a platform to work and play on for everyone.
For more information about the International Accessibility Summit 2014 held in Ottawa, ON please contact Chris Cline firstname.lastname@example.org at Carleton University Media Relations.
Or, please contact Madelaine Palko directly if you have questions about this review.