IT companies have made fortunes on a philosophy of mass production and one size fits all. However, in a small but growing part of the industry, a band of companies has stood this model on its head.
For companies that produce hardware and software designed for disabled people - known as assistive technology - low production runs and customisation are the order of the day. Their products can be adapted to the individual requirements of a user, allowing disabled people to communicate, work, shop online, and so on.
Assistive technology has produced an extraordinary array of devices, and the ingenuity of some products is startling. With the aid of a small pipe that operates a two-state switch, a person with little or no movement can do everything a non-disabled person can with a computer simply by sipping and puffing on the mouthpiece.
Eye gaze technology
Some developments are at the cutting edge of technology. For example, eye gaze technology uses a camera to track the movement of a user's pupils to detect where they are looking, and in this way allows them to control a pointer, select options and operate an on-screen keyboard.
Eye gaze systems, like many other assistive technologies, were originally developed for quite a different purpose. For some years they have been used by designers to track the way people respond to web pages, advertisements and other complex images.
Researchers are trying to take tracking one step further by building systems that detect the minute electrical charges generated by the brain to allow users to control a machine by thought. But that is still in the realms of science fiction.
The reality is that those who buy and develop IT are under increasing pressure to ensure that their systems can be used by everyone.
The UK, in common with most developed countries, has a Disability Discrimination Act that calls on employers to make their services available to disabled people, provided it can be done at a reasonable cost.
Tighter legislation that puts more onus on technology developers to make products accessible is on its way from the EU. It plans to introduce a system of certificates for IT products and services that guarantees accessibility.
One of the problems for disabled people is that while IT is liberating, new technology tends to throw up fresh barriers. Usually, technology companies neglect accessibility when developing new products and have to adapt them later for disabled people.
PDAs and mobile phones are a case in point. Over the past three years a lot of effort has gone into adding features that allow blind and physically disabled people to operate these small devices. The retrofitting could have been avoided if the adaptations had been part of the original specifications.
Not that providing accessible IT needs to be very complicated. Often it is just a matter of allowing a user to make adjustments to the size of type on screen or the colour combinations in a display. People with dyslexia - one of the most common disabilities in the UK - can be helped enormously by being able to hear text rather than reading it.
For now, assistive technology remains a niche market. Even the market leaders get by on revenues of less than £5m per year - very small potatoes in the IT world.
UK firms lead the world
It may be a specialist business, but the UK has a number of market-leading firms. Dolphin Computer Access, for example, has taken its range of screen magnifiers, screen readers and text-to-speech products overseas.
In the US the firm has targeted the education market, and in Scandinavia Dolphin has acquired a local company. In the UK, it has launched a campaign headed by Olympic rower Steve Redgrave to promote text-to-speech systems for people with dyslexia.
"Companies such as Microsoft and Apple do include assistive technology in their products. But where we excel is in the degree of specialist knowledge we bring to a product. You need to immerse yourself in the needs of a vision-impaired person in order to develop products for them," says Steve Palmer, chief executive at Dolphin.
"We have barely scratched the surface. The Disability Discrimination Act has increased awareness among businesses that people do not want to be marginalised. Increasingly, more businesses are coming to talk to us. The challenge for us is to persuade people to treat assistive technology as just another IT product."
Much assistive technology is bought by the public sector through schemes to support students at schools and colleges. Inclusive Technology distributes plasma screens, switch access systems and communications aids for children who have problems speaking.
The company's managing director, Martin Littler, has been involved in technology for special educational needs since the 1980s. "A lot of advances in computers have worked to the disadvantage of children with special needs," says Littler. "For example, when mice came in many kids could not join in because they could not use them."
He has been a trenchant critic of government policy towards disabled children. "We are not quite as driven by fashion as the mainstream sector," he says.
"Some of the things we sell, like communications aids, are essential: many young people fall off a cliff when they lose their voice. But the industry is dying for lack of government support, and the situation has become worse over the past 10 years."
According to Littler, one of the problems is that the swing towards putting children with special educational needs in mainstream schools rather than in specialist ones has gone too far, and funds previously available for technology in special schools have been lost.
Charities also play an important part in developing and promoting assistive technologies. Well-known charities such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Royal National Institute of the Deaf operate technology departments that carry out research, promote technical solutions to their members and even sell products.
The British Computer Society and IBM have also started a charity devoted to IT, called AbilityNet. The organisation provides information and assistance on accessible IT through helplines, assessments, equipment loans and its own website.
"IT is a great leveller," says AbilityNet's chief executive Nigel Lewis. "It enables you to work often, with just a few free or cheap tweaks to a standard system. People at the other end of the communications link do not know if you are disabled."
Accessibility in the workplace
Lewis warns that too many organisations want to lock down their systems so that users cannot change their desktop PCs. He urges IT departments to provide systems that are flexible enough to allow users to adjust them to suit their needs.
Assistive technology is not just about helping people with disabilities. Those involved in the field argue that many people have problems with IT but are afraid to admit it. So offering people alternative ways of accessing technology benefits everyone.
For example, in the workplace it can head off potential damage caused by repetitive strain injury. Keyboards that can be adjusted to minimise the strain of typing, or software designed to limit the number of mouse movements in applications such as computer aided design, help to reduce damage to arms and hands.
Mainstream suppliers are responding to the demand for more accessibility. Apple, for example, has incorporated a screen reader (software that converts text and data into speech for people who have difficulty reading) into its OS X operating system, and boasts of being the biggest provider of screen readers in the world.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft has upped its game. The Vista operating system has in-built accessibility features, including speech recognition, which is almost as accurate as specialist standalone dictation systems such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
EA Draffen, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, has compiled a database of assistive technology. She expects to see more mainstream products incorporating assistive technology in the future. "If Microsoft and Apple go on adding to their systems then the assistive technology market may shift to simpler tools or even free tools. The elderly just cannot afford £700 apiece for software."
For all that, the future for assistive technology companies is bright. The ageing of people in the developed world who grew up with IT and expect to stay online means increasing demand for products that will help them do that.
There is also a growing awareness among companies of the need to cater for disabled customers and employees. The UK's eight million disabled people spend some £80bn per year and represent an untapped workforce that employers often overlook.
Assistive technology, with its emphasis on fitting technology to people, not only provides the means to unlock this potential, but also provides a blueprint for the rest of the IT industry.
● John Lamb is the publisher of Ability, a publication about IT for disabled people
This was first published in January 2008