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Getting Access, Getting Training: Neither Are Impossible
by Nolan Crabb
Salem, Oregon

Companies are more interested in providing accessible products to blind and visually impaired customers if they can be shown that millions of others will benefit from that accessibility, says Steve Jacobs, president of Ideal Group, a company which seeks to enhance the accessibility and usability of electronic and information technology. Jacobs spoke at a Webcast conference on access to technology held in early June. Hosted by Talking Communities in conjunction with Vision Worldwide, the all-day conference focused on accessible technology. It was attended by between 40 and 50 individuals from throughout the world who went to the Talking Communities Web site and participated in the conference using their computer's microphone and speakers to ask questions and hear presentations.

Jacobs says the concept of universal design is ultimately not achievable. He prefers the idea of products that are "more accessibly designed." That includes products that are designed to be used by as many people as possible to the degree that such design is economically and technically achievable. He says there are non-market forces that influence the design of products, including the idea of designing a product a certain way because it's the right thing to do. "However," he explains, "each of these different drivers does not rest a case for profitability." He says while doing the right thing is effective, it often isn't enough to convince a company to build an accessible product.

"You don't even need to mention the word disabilities when you're talking to companies about access," Jacobs asserts. "When you design a simple interface for a person who is blind to use an ATM, that same interface works with someone who can't read."

Jacobs points out that in China and India, there are more than 600 million potential customers who never learned to read. "Not all of those people will get the opportunity to use an ATM, but many of them will. If you design a system that works for blind users, it will work for them as well."

He says access to the Web works in similar ways. Those who have written Web pages that adhere to the guidelines established for designing accessible Web pages for blind users have automatically created pages that can be transcoded to work with wireless devices such as cell phones. As products get smaller and use lower bandwidths, Web sites that offer unlabeled graphics will grow increasingly unpopular with sighted as well as blind Internet users. Jacobs says American telecommunications companies spent more than $17 billion in 2003 investing in such nations as India, China, Brazil, Russia and others. They're keenly interested in relatively simple interfaces that can be applied in developing nations with small amounts of Internet bandwidth.

Accessible products can even help reduce America's trade deficit, he notes. While he acknowledged the reality that cheap labor in other countries is attractive for American firms, selling U.S.-made software designed with accessibility in mind to customers in other countries is attractive as well. "You can pretty much state that countries where more cellular telephones are in use than wired telephones will have a low bandwidth infrastructure," he explains. "They'll need to have access to content over the Internet that is accessible in order to use it effectively." He said in the U.S., there are 76 cellular phones for every 100 hard-wire telephones. In China, there are 96 cell phones for every 100 regular phones. In Mexico, there are 174 cell phones for every 100 regular phones. He says many of these customers in other nations won't be able to access the Web in ways other than by telephone. Again, designing for access can ensure that using the Web by voice phone works.

Jacobs says accessibility is crucial in countries with high-density populations. "If you have high densities of people, you'll have longer lines at devices like public computers and such. You either have to provide more devices or assume that your population will stand in ever-longer lines," he says. "The more accessible and usable the interface, the more quickly someone will be able to do what they want to do and walk away from it."

Convincing companies to design accessible products is only part of the battle, however. Getting appropriate training on already-existing accessible products remains a problem for blind and visually impaired people throughout the world. Those who claim to be trainers but who do a poor job of providing training are more common than they should be, according to Cathyanne Murtha, founder and director of the Access Technology Institute, a California-based company that provides training via the Internet. One common problem is that trainers are hired to teach everything and are expected to know everything, she says. "It's impossible to know everything about access technology because there is so much out there. It's time that employers and educators and rehab professionals understand that it's ok to specialize," she says. Murtha believes the time will come when specialization will be crucial. "There's so much to cover that no one person can be an expert in everything."

She said the rate at which access technology has burst on the scene is so rapid that rehab professionals and others can't be expected to know about the latest device or software package. "What happens is, we have students entering higher education with little or no understanding of computer technology, we have high school or college educators unaware of and unprepared to meet the needs of the blind student, and we have rehab professionals paying huge sums of money for little or no outcome." She says education doesn't begin and end with the blind consumer; rather, rehabilitation professionals and teachers have to educate themselves regarding the technological options available. She points out that there isn't a great deal of accountability in the field of accessible technology trainers. Rehabilitation professionals must take the word of the trainer that the student has been taught; students aren't often asked to prove they've learned what they were taught; in fact, many students have come out of a course no better off than when they began."

She says many of the trainers are trying their best, but there are no industry standards. "It's time that educators, rehabilitation professionals, and students work together to become better educated," she asserts. "When you go into an agency to be trained, you're asked to fill out forms; you're evaluated. I think the trainers need to be evaluated as well. Trainers should be asked to show samples of their work, offer a syllabus of their courses, provide an outline of the materials to be covered in a class session."

Murtha says students in training need to ask whether they're able to remember what they were taught or whether it was a litany of keystrokes that jumble in the student's head? "It's important that the trainers prove that they can do what they profess they can do." She urged her listeners to interview the trainers, get references from others for good trainers, and shop around and consider alternatives. "The Internet has brought about a revolution in access technology training," she says. "You're no longer limited to getting training from the local rehabilitation agency. You can stay at home in the comfort of your bedroom slippers if you want to, and you can learn access technology on the Internet."

Editor's Note: Blindskills will be hosting seminars and co-hosting conferences in conjunction with Talking Communities. Keep watching for details, and visit to check its calendar of events.
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