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Science  28 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6174, pp. 984
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6174.984

28 February 2014

Edited by Kathy Wren


Many Technologies Still Fall Short for People with Disabilities

Powerful prototype.

Microsoft's Kinect Sign Language Translator could become an important communication tool, but many other technologies have a long way to go before they are truly useful for people with disabilities.


Borrowing the motion-sensing technology of the Xbox gaming system, researchers at Microsoft are developing a sign language translator that captures a signing person's movements and translates them into spoken or written words. An on-screen avatar also translates spoken language into sign language.

The device is still in the prototype stage, but for deaf and hearing people who need to communicate with each other at work or in other aspects of their lives, "the implications of that are pretty immediate and amazing," said James Thurston, director of International Accessibility Policy at Microsoft.

Thurston described this advance at a recent AAAS event on disability rights, providing a powerful illustration of how technology can assist people with disabilities — and a reminder of how much progress remains to be made. Too often, the concept of accessibility is considered as an afterthought or used in ways that do not improve the lives of the people who need assistance, said co-panelist Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.

Using a screen reader to navigate through a Web page, for instance, can be awkward and frustrating if audible navigation wasn't considered during the site's design.

"I consider it to be one of the most ironic and almost tragic facts that information technology [and] programmable devices probably have the most facile capacity to adapt to human need for assistance, and yet we have not done a very good job applying that technology for that purpose," said Cerf, who was the keynote speaker for a plenary session at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting, on 27 January. The 2-day event focused on the intersections between the human rights of persons with disabilities and the fields of science and technology.

Companies that are developing technologies for persons with disabilities are not doing it simply out of a desire to help. Clearly, there are social responsibility reasons for providing such technologies, Thurston said, but "Microsoft looks at it as a business opportunity" as well. About 15 percent of the world — approximately the population of China — is dealing with some form of disability.

Market demand has also increased due to the aging baby boomer population and to the implementation of Section 508, an amendment to the U.S. Rehabilitation Act that requires the government to develop or acquire only accessible technology. The features that make products more accessible are now another area over which companies can compete, Thurston said.

Change has come slowly, however. Technology developers still need to think more about how to integrate accessibility into applications early in the process, Cerf said. "To imagine that you can just overlay some accessibility pixie dust that makes a specific application work all right for a person with hearing impairment or a person with motor problems, I think, is overly optimistic."

Cerf praised Microsoft and Apple for their efforts in this field and admitted that at Google there was room for improvement. But he cited one "fundamentally critical" effort at his company to train every new engineer in accessibility methods.

Hiring engineers and scientists with disabilities and unique experiences would also benefit technology companies. The AAAS Entry Point! program, a partnership with government and industry, provides opportunities for students with disabilities to contribute to a diverse workforce. Ninety percent of alumni pursue graduate studies or employment in science or engineering fields. Partnerships have included NASA, IBM, Merck, Dow Chemical, Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, L'Oréal, and university-based research programs.

On the other hand, more or improved technology should not be the only focus for disability rights, noted Eric Matthews, an advocacy associate at Disability Rights International, who spoke at the AAAS meeting about the need to end segregation for persons with disabilities. Instead of just supplying computers to an orphanage, for example, companies, donors, and nations should think more about how to use technology to get people out of segregated institutions and back with their families or placed in family-based care in the community. We need "to think about the ways that science can challenge the need for institutional care," Matthews said.

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