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Apple Computer's Passport

For the vast majority of people with disabilities, the microcomputer doesn't simply represent the ability to accomplish tasks a little faster or a little better. It represents the ability to do things previously considered unthinkable. In other words, the computer can indeed change lives. It can give new, varied and multifaceted expression to personal identity and, not incidentally, increase and improve self-confidence and self-esteem.

Consider a 15-year-old child in a wheelchair, who is paralyzed from the neck down and without speech. How is that child typically regarded by his peers? Perhaps even by his teachers? What's truly expected of him? And given how he's probably seen by others, how is he conditioned to see himself? Now we say to that child, “You can raise your eyebrows up and down. You have a movement you can control that enables you to pass instructions along to the computer, so you can do word processing, use a modem, and draw pictures. You can even acquire a voice. For the first time in your life, you can say `here' when attendance is taken. You can demonstrate what a whiz you are at baseball statistics. You can display your artistic talents. You can become known, in other words, for who you know you are rather than for what others have interpreted you to be.”

Once we say all this to a child, two things will happen. We will make him aware of astounding new, but very real, possibilities. And we will probably cause this young individual to ask a few questions, such as, “How can I make those possibilities real for me?” As a matter of fact, these two things have been the primary concerns of Apple's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation since its creation.

First, we try to generate awareness of how the personal computer can provide new options and opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. Second, we try to fashion a comprehensive response capacity to deal with the inevitable questions about actualizing these options and opportunities. This twofold agenda of ours is written in the rhetoric of expectations, that is to say, where other people may look at a person with a disability and see only the diagnosis, we see the promise, usually a great deal of promise. Apple has chosen to regard the person with a disability as someone who can, rather than someone who probably can't. Together with his or her family members, friends, teachers and coworkers, we approach the person with a disability eagerly and hopefully and we always offer answers.

To understand how Apple approached the area of product development, you have to understand only one basic premise: this is not a world that was designed or built with people with disabilities in mind. The natural world is difficult enough and there are so many man-made obstacles: curbs, steps, doors that are too narrow, and public phones that are too high. To make matters worse, a premium is put on physical beauty, making it an ideal that everyone should strive for. And if you don't have it, you belong in someone else's world, perhaps with people who can't see enough or know enough to tell you, too, are imperfect. All of which leads, of course, to those favorite worldwide pastimes: the stigmatization and segregation of others and the creation of deviance yardsticks by which some people can assure themselves they are normal. Nevertheless, particularly over the last fifteen years or so, largely because disability activists have grown tired of being told to “just be patient” and have demonstrated that they can conduct sit-ins and chain themselves to fences just as effectively as nondisabled protesters, the physical world has changed significantly. It's a much easier terrain to navigate today than it was not so very long ago.

When the personal computer entered the terrain, it promised people with disabilities access to all kinds of new power and capabilities, provided that they could get access to the machine in the first place. And that's the rub. Even with Macintosh, the computer “for the rest of us,” was effectively sealed off, shutting out people with disabilities. To them, ease of use was pretty much a hypocritical concept. A two-inch curb is enough to prevent a motorized wheelchair from getting up on the sidewalk. For that reason, we set ourselves the task of trying to identify where we needed to build, in effect electronic curb cuts into the computer. Suppose, for example, that you're working with a Macintosh and you make a mistake. Your machine will beep at you, which is a terrific warning signal; however, if you're deaf, the signal is irrelevant. Or consider the repeat key. Most good typists report that it's a wonderful feature. Most good typists, however, don't have poor gross or fine motor skills. If they did, they'd discover the frustration that's caused by not being able to remove their fingers from the keys quickly enough and, as a result, end up with rows of repeating characters filling up the screen. There are also other obstacles, generally born of an attempt to improve hardware or software technology. For example, most software programs now and again require you to press down two or three keys simultaneously. This is impossible if you happen to be able to type only by using a head wand or mouth stick, or if you are able to use only one finger. Finally, the mouse is obviously another major problem for the user with a disability.

Our challenge, then, was to educate our own designers and engineers about the needs of those users typically ignored in the generic design process. Incidentally, the reason our designers and engineers don't ordinarily think about these users is not because they're instinctively insensitive, but, like most people, they need to be reminded now and then that people with disabilities make up a significant fraction of the population. Several years ago, we brought together engineers and designers and sat them down in front of an Apple IIe. “You know this thing inside and out,” we reminded them. “You made it.” Then we put an Apppleworks disk in front of them and said, “You all know how to use this.” Finally, we asked them to put their hands in their pockets, put a pencil in their mouth, and type a memo. As soon as they decided to take the challenge seriously, the protests began. “How about if I turn on the machine first?” one of the participants asked. “It's going to be a little hard to do with this pencil.” “Let me just put the disk in the drive first, okay?” asked another.

n a short while, virtually on their own, the group identified a list of more than sixty design features that might prove to be an obstacle for one type of disability or another. Most of these barriers have, by now, been addressed. We've either fixed them or found simple ways around them. Our ultimate goal is to establish, within the product development group, a permanent filter that enables our designers and engineers both to recognize that there are many users in the world who are quite different from them and, therefore, to make our generic machine as accessible as possible. Apple is concerned with these product design issues for many reasons. In the first place, our engineers consider them to be important. They understand that the products they build are intended for individuals. That is, after all, Apple's design focus. Users with disabilities merely happened to strengthen the focus on individuals. So when our product designers realized that they had been ignoring this particular group of individuals, they were almost embarrassed. It was obvious, as well, that they were intrigued by the challenge of inclusion. More pragmatically, perhaps, they began to realize that conveniences that are initially invented and implemented for people with disabilities very soon become conveniences for people without disabilities as well. For example, many users who work in desktop publishing or graphic design have commented to us on how much easier it is for them to use mouse keys, rather than the mouse itself, to move objects on the screen with precision. The fact that conveniences for one turn out to be conveniences for all shouldn't be surprising. Consider the simple curbcut on the sidewalk. It was put there specifically for people with disabilities and now nine out of ten people who use it, of course have no disability.

We'll never be completely finished with this design task. In fact, there never can be a generic disability machine, one that meets the needs of all users with disabilities. Sometimes features that are useful for one set of needs conflict with another set of needs. Consider the curbcut again. Everyone praised it when it began to become popular and legally required, that is, everyone except certain blind people whose guide dogs had been carefully trained to stop at curbs and were now leading them into busy streets. Nor is the problem for blind people limited just to real world curbcuts. From an access point of view, this population represents our biggest product design challenge by far. That challenge grows more urgent as the world of computers moves ever closer to standardization on graphical interfaces and multiple windows, things that must be seen in order to be used. At this point, we are actively engaged in pursuing several avenues of response.


by Alan Brightman