High tech evolving to access the disabled

Despite the progress made to meet the high-tech needs of the disabled, there are still some hurdles to overcome.
September 20, 2010 7:35:15 PM PDT
There are new efforts in the Bay Area to make high tech products more accessible for the disabled, but advocates say there's much more still to be done.

There was an "ah-ha" moment in June when apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone 4 as its set of front and back facing cameras opened a new door for deaf people.

Apple played this video of two people signing to each other and there was an immediate reaction.

"You saw tears in their eyes when they realize this had a completely different meaning for a pretty large population of disabled," technologist analyst Tim Bajarin said.

Building accessibility into the latest technology is helping the blind or those with limited vision. despite these examples of progress, users and engineers acknowledge accessibility issues remain.

"It doesn't matter whether it's an iPhone, a Sidekick, a Blackberry, just that accessibility isn't there yet, and that's something we really need to work hard on," Joey Baer from California School for the Deaf said.

Victor Tsaran is the Accessibility Project Manager at Yahoo! As an engineer who is blind, he tries to come up with solutions, but it's not that simple.

"Certain things work for me because I've been a computer user for ages. Those same things may not work for other people, so I don't want people to judge the accessibility quality based on what I think is good or bad," he said.

What Tsaran has succeeded in doing is getting colleagues to make accessibility part of every project and service at Yahoo!

"He's been good at making me understand, well, you know, if a portion of the population actually can't use this feature, then it's not really complete, so you really shouldn't be happy with putting it out into the world unless everybody can use it," Yahoo! engineer Nicholas Zakas said.

There is another motivation behind accessibility that goes beyond public benefit. A Silicon Valley pioneer, who has been focused on the issue for 30 years, says the 60 million disabled in the U.S. have a disposable income of $220 billion.

"Most mainstream companies don't ever see them as customers. They still see them as a cause. We would have a hard time staying here if it were simply a cause," Yahoo! Senior Policy Director Alan Brightman, PhD said.

ABC7 visited the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, where they're avid users of computers and rely on mobile phones for texting.

One deficiency they would like addressed is slow network speed that makes video quality poor.

"But with signing, it looks like a ghost trail when people are signing. You can see the travel of the sign language, and I wish they'd improve on that," Baer said

Meeting the needs of every disabled person may be a challenge, but there is optimism and a just a bit of doubt about how soon it will happen.

"I'm hoping it'll be in 10 years or even sooner than that. Everything will be great, and they'll make progress," said.

Perhaps in time, Silicon Valley companies and other companies across the country will grow more sensitive to the needs of the deaf community -- a community that knows that the technical prowess exists.


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