Sense and accessibility

“Pushing the Envelope” from ACM <interactions>, May/June 2007

By Fred Sampson

Well into the first decade of this century, we are all, presumably, familiar with the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2) WCAG2, on the design and implementation of computer hardware and software.[1] Testing our products for accessibility is just part of the production cycle, especially for large software suppliers doing business with the U.S. government.

Yes, there remains a very real need for technological answers to the needs of the vision-impaired, to those with physical limitations, and for the cognitively-challenged to enhance their lives, to achieve and maintain independence. We have plenty of compassionate, capable researchers and practitioners addressing these issues, with the support of government and industry. For instance, IBM has a long history accommodating and supporting physical disabilities in the workplace, with a sort of affirmative action program that seeks to proactively include everyone in the benefits of technology.

But what are we doing for an audience whose handicap is the lack of access to high-speed bandwidth, cheap computing power, or reliable electricity? What does accessibility mean to the 300 million impoverished residents of India’s 680,000 villages, to the 35% India’s population who cannot read (as much as 67% in the villages)? [2] Sure, screen readers might help the illiterate, but only if they have access to computers, electricity, and the Internet in the first place. What does accessibility mean to the villager whose sole telephone contact with the world at large is provided by the entrepreneur who brings a cell phone to the village once a week?

Accessibility isn’t just for the physically handicapped. It’s for the cognitively handicapped. It’s for the financially handicapped. And for some, it’s for the culturally, geographically, or emotionally handicapped.

As new means to distribute content on the Web continue to develop, new accessibility challenges arise. No amount of Web 2.0 and AJAX will make the Web more available to those who can’t read it. Not to mention that AJAX is not accessible using current techniques.

More and more we rely on full-time Internet connectivity to do business. But how accessible is SaaS (Software as a Service) where bandwidth is nonexistent, electricity is unreliable? Think for a moment of the telecommunications access that was abruptly disrupted after recent earthquakes and underwater landslides along the Pacific Rim. The fanciest, most expensive, fastest fiber-optic cable is still vulnerable to acts of Mother Nature. Access to the world depends on communication, which in turn depends on reliable connections and reliable electricity.

What does accessibility mean to an ambitious tech geek in a country that limits access to the Internet? What does it mean in a country where cell phones are more reliable than landlines? Friends recently returned from a trip to Tibet and China reported that cellular telephones are ubiquitous and the service reliable-more so than landline.

What does accessibility mean to the elementary school teacher whose computer has been made unusable by e-mail spam, adware, viruses, Trojans, botnets?

For some, age is the handicap when the young adult and old grandparent need to use a single computer. Communications between generations is difficult enough without technological roadblocks. Might artificial intelligence aid intergenerational communication? Is intergenerational communication an access issue? Would cross-generational interfaces improve communication with my children? I could claim that the tiny keyboards of smart-phones interfere with my access to instant communication. Will the innovative interface of the iPhone help to mitigate the fat-fingering of the old and less-agile of us?

By now, some of my readers will assert that I’m misusing the term “accessibility,” crying “Politically incorrect!” and “How insensitive!” As father for five years to a developmentally disabled son, I plead immunity be virtue of having paid my dues, thank you. All the sensitive wording in the world doesn’t ease the pain, drain, and exhaustion of parenting a seriously demanding child, especially when simultaneously raising three other youngsters. And I am well aware of the challenges faced by an aging population: I am one, and have first-hand experience of the impact that even temporary disability can have.

I’m talking here about the massive numbers of the world’s population for whom physical or mental disabilities are only one of the many debilitating, demeaning, and dangerous challenges they face every day.

We challenge you as you work making products usable, desirable, delightful, valuable, marketable, and accessible, to consider how your work contributes to a better world for every one of its 6-billion-plus inhabitants. We believe that technology can make life easier and better for everyone. We pray that the technology that contributes to pollution, stress, global climate change can also serve to counter the same ills. Do your activities contribute to a better world through design, through technology?

One project that seeks to put technology to work by focusing on accessibility as I’ve suggested here is the One Laptop Per Child project, led by MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte.[3] Access is part of the project’s mission, drawing from years of experience with the Media Lab’s projects around the world. By distributing specially-designed low-cost laptop computers to children in developing countries, the project hopes to enable access to information.

Responding to questions in the San Jose Mercury-News, Negroponte notes that “In the 1990s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab did a great job of work in remote regions of the developing world, bringing access through viral telecommunications and what is today called WiMax and WiFi.“ [3]

According to the OLPC Web site, their XO computer “enhances learning by fostering communities and social networking, and by enabling access to large repositories of knowledge such as Web sites, and school or community servers. . . laptop computers that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to acknowledge and modern forms of education.”

The XO’s user interface, dubbed Sugar, focuses on the job of educating, by teaching children how to learn by learning:

“The Sugar UI promotes collaborative learning through child-to-child and child-to-teacher sharing. The realities that OLPC’s XO laptops will be used by children of varying ages, nationalities, and who have little or no prior computer experience, were critical considerations when designing the UI. As a result, OLPC created Sugar to be simple and intuitive without limiting the complexity of ideas that children may explore or express.”

The XO computer’s design even addresses the issue of access to electricity by incorporating a hand-cranked generator with which to charge its batteries.

Negroponte and the OLPC don’t really need my help for publicity; they get plenty of attention on their own. But they provide a good example of not just making technology accessible, but using technology to make the world accessible. OLPC applies technology to enable access for children who would otherwise be left out. What are you doing? Look for more in the September-October 2007 issue of ACM <interactions>, which will focus on accessibility.


1. Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990,; Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act:; Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0,

2. Hempl, J., The Indian Paradox. BusinessWeek, February 12, 2007,

3. Takahashi, D., Work in poor nations inspired cause, San Jose Mercury-News, February 8, 2007.; One Laptop Per Child, and

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, Vice President for Finance of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2007. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XIV.3, ISSN 1072-5520, (May/June 2007),