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Turing Lecture considers benefits of making systems accessible to all

Justin Richards

People with disabilities are being discriminated against due to poor provision of user-friendly technology. In the recent Turing Lecture, Chris Mairs, director of Data Connection, exposed this sad state of affairs and looked at how the situation could be improved.

"OAPs in sex orgy protest" - an intriguing headline and one fraught with the possibility of misinterpretation, particularly if the "reader" is blind and is relying on a voice synthesiser to interpret it for them, said Mairs. The user's PC will misinterpret it because it has no capacity for building on previous experience, which enables humans to understand ambiguous sentences. Experience is a prerequisite for complete interpretation, and no machine has evolved to do this.

In the UK there is a legal and social framework which protects the interests of its 8.6 million disabled people. The Disability Discrimination Act insists that goods and services provided for the public must be accessible to all. It covers all manner of technologies, including websites, but does not compel technology manufacturers and designers to consider disabled users; it only requires that reasonable adjustments are made to accommodate them. 

Sometimes manufacturers do not see the opportunities - disabled people spend £50bn a year in the UK alone. And smaller organisations are probably only going to move towards greater accessibility through legislation.

Website designers too need to be led to make content development tools integral to their sites, not add-ons, said Mairs.

The Disability Rights Commission Website Report for 2004 surveyed 1,000 publicly available websites. No site reached the highest compliance level, and less than 19% had made any effort to include visually impaired people.

In HTML, one can tag the images, but these still need to be specific in content and context to provide useful information to someone who is visually impaired. To improve this situation there needs to be appropriate structure behind the website design, and web architects need to think carefully about how it can be read or interpreted.

Through open design principles such as XML-tagged data and Resource Description Framework for content interpretation, the headline"OAPs in sex orgy protest" can be broken down for the listener so that they can determine the true meaning of the phrase.

Ultimately, if designers made things simpler for everyone, more than just minority groups would benefit from talking visual remote technologies.

The IEE and BCS can help by acting as information centres to better inform designers and industry, by contributing time and skills in the promotion of open source technologies, and in lobbying government.

Disability is diverse. As a consequence, we cannot possibly address accessibility for everyone all of the time. Universal accessibility is impractical, but it is ultimately in everyone's interests to try to improve the situation, and if ethics is not the driving issue, then potential increased revenues should be, Mairs concluded.

Turing Lecture

In recognition of Alan Turing's contribution in the field of computing, the BCS and IEE established the Turing Lecture in 1998, and this series of talks continues to promote debate and innovation.


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