At one time or another we have all received an email highlighting the paradoxes of American culture. Why is it that we drive on parkways and park in driveways? Why isn’t phonetic spelled the way it sounds? Why is traffic at a stand-still during rush hour? And the stand-up comic’s favorite: Why do they put Braille dots on the keypads of drive-up ATMs? While the first two still leave us scratching our heads, Annette Kellermann, senior vice president of Bank of America’s Accessible Banking Program, has an answer to the third, and to many it’s no laughing matter. “Bank of America believes in providing access to everyone equally,” Kellermann says. “People who are blind or have low vision may want to access a drive-up ATM from the back of a cab or while riding as a passenger. They deserve the same access to convenient technology as anyone else.”
During the International Conference on Technology held at California State University Northridge (CSUN), Bank of America was one of the 160 exhibitors on hand to provide answers and offer solutions to many of the issues that impact people with disabilities. The conference, which will be celebrating it’s twentieth anniversary next year, welcomed more than four thousand participants from all fifty states and over thirty countries. Vint Cerf, senior vice president of architecture and technology for MCI, served as keynote speaker and set the groundwork for what was to come. Often called one of the “fathers of the Internet,” Cerf is also known for helping create what we know today as email, motivated at least partially by a desire to communicate with his wife, who is deaf, during his trips abroad where TTY was not universally available. In December 1997 President Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his partner, Bob Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet. And isn’t there another humorous anecdote about Al Gore?
There is no doubt that the excitement about CSUN and the number of attendees continue to grow each year. Michael Takemura, disability director for HP, acknowledges the growing trend. “Disabilities do not discriminate. People with disabilities comprise the largest minority that we have, not only here in the United States but worldwide. We are embracing new members each and every year, every day and every minute. As these individuals are awakened to the challenges and opportunities associated with having a disability, information technology will continue to play an even greater role in the ability to schedule appointments or obtain an education, in the way they work and the way they play. The percentage of first time attendees is something I’ve noticed. I’ve had an opportunity to go out and talk to a number of them, and it’s great to see they’re coming out and being made aware of what’s available to them.”
For Kellermann, Takemura and many others the conference served as an opportunity to hear the voice of the customer as well as the community at large. “We are here to raise awareness and listen to our customers with disabilities or access needs,” Kellermann says. “We’re rolling out the welcome mat.”
At the forefront of Bank of America’s accessible products is the talking ATM, a voice-prompted automated teller machine. By listening to pre-recorded instructions through earphones, users who are blind or have low vision are able to independently access their accounts. The recordings provide a tutorial that walks the user through the transaction flow by explaining the layout of the keypad and what the tactile symbols represent. For those using the talking ATM feature, the numeric keypad is used exclusively so that the hand stays in one place. At the completion of the transaction, the location of the money, receipt and ATM card are all carefully described. The talking ATM offers people who are blind or have low vision the same independence, privacy and security available to a typical user.
For many years, Panasonic has been a leader in accessible technology through the incorporation of universal design elements into their products whenever possible. A Panasonic cordless phone with talking caller ID includes a speaker phone and headset jack on both the handset and the base. The cordless phone also features talking caller ID voice prompts for easy operation and is TTY compatible. Buttons discernable by shape, size and nibs; a dual color visual ringer; illuminated controls on the handset; and high contrast button labels also make this phone more accessible to people with various disabilities. Panasonic also features the Allure digital wireless phone which includes voice activation, a large LCD screen, TTY compatibility, illuminated controls and high contrast button labels. “What makes this phone unique is built-in features such as a voice enhancement that works to make the sound clearer and a very loud volume feature—practically three times the volume of a normal phone,” states Robert Wegner, Panasonic’s accessibility and program manager. “Additionally, it is compatible with head sets, hearing aids and even a TTY.”
One key to Panasonic’s success has been the strength of their research and development capabilities. Having helped lead the way in the development of the DVD, SD memory cards and other important technologies, the research and development centers of Panasonic are working to make emerging technologies even more accessible, and to develop new technologies that further enable and encourage employment, independence and enhanced entertainment experiences for people with disabilities. A few examples of future technologies include Digital TV with enhanced captioning display capabilities, advanced applications allowing the remote control to interface with everyday devices and appliances, and text-to-speech and speech recognition technology that may evolve into the development of truly universally accessible user interfaces for many types of products.
What sets the corporations represented at CSUN apart from other technology companies is their dedication to make their products as fully accessible as possible. “We wanted to really simplify banking and make it easier for all our customers to bank with us—whether English is their second language, they have a disability, or any other potential barrier [exists] to accessing an ATM. We believe accessibility and universal design play a big part in accomplishing that,” points out Bank of America’s Kellermann. “There’s a difference between just being ADA compliant and actually having your products be accessible.” It’s no surprise that Verizon’s marketing director, Lisa Harrison Burke, agrees. “The demographics of the American population are changing, and it’s been calculated that the majority of Americans will experience some form of disability in their lifetime. For Verizon, this isn’t just about including accessible features on one or two of our products, but to make all our products as accessible as possible so that everyone can benefit from universal design,” Harrison Burke says.
For many, the biggest obstacle to accessing the information superhighway isn’t navigating the computer itself, but rather the Internet. “If you go down the hall and talk to people about accessibility many will tell you specifically about the importance of Web access,” says Francis West, director of IBM’s Worldwide Accessibility Center.
“If you look at the laws, for example Section 508 [legislation mandating accessibility in technology for federal agencies], they focus on standards and compliance. At IBM we believe that accessibility is more than just compliance—its really about allowing people to have access. Our fundamental purpose is to allow people with and without disabilities to have a meaningful life experience. Technology can play a significant role in enabling that.”
Unveiled during the conference was IBM’s accessibility framework, a comprehensive way of viewing approaches to accessibility that is comprised of four tiers: compliance, experience, relationships and life needs. Compliance-driven technology meets the minimum worldwide standards and regulations. Experience-driven technology considers the productivity and satisfaction of customers, employees and business partners and often exceeds minimum standards for compliance. IBM’s goal of being relationship-driven means understanding, anticipating and responding to the preferences of customers in all aspects of the relationship. The fourth tier—to be life needs-driven—requires seamless interaction across related businesses and agencies where all organizations are contributing to provide comprehensive services for a consumer at a particular stage of life. West hopes other businesses follow IBM’s lead in expanding the paradigm for accessibility. “IBM has the skill and vision to apply this thinking and view to accessibility and put it into a framework that we can all understand: a fourtiered accessibility framework.”
Another significant product from IBM that demonstrates how technology is changing the lives of students is Liberated Learning, which utilizes IBM’s ViaVoice, a personal computer software that leverages generations of IBM voice recognition research. Liberated Learning is a a unique application of speech recognition technology that serves as a method for assisting students with disabilities in the university classroom. In Liberated Learning classrooms, lectures are transcribed in real time using automated speech recognition and projected to the class, enabling students to see the lecture. After the lecture, comprehensive, software-generated notes are provided in a variety of formats. To present a lecture using Liberated Learning, the instructor first develops a personalized voice profile by “teaching” speech recognition software to understand his or her speech. During lectures the instructor uses a wireless microphone connected to a computer system running speech recognition software modified for this application. As the instructor speaks, the custom software receives a digitized transmission of the spoken lecture and converts it to electronic text. The text is then displayed via a projector to the class in real time so students can simultaneously see and hear the lecture as it is delivered. Furthermore, the software makes comprehensive lecture notes available to all students in a variety of formats. “It is exciting to witness the technology as it is applied in real-life scenarios,” adds West. “Years of research eventually produce mainstream applications that are making our vision of equal access come true.”
For all who attended the conference, there was an undeniable energy brewing, an excitement that comes only when the greatest technology companies work to bring greater independence and freedom to people with disabilities. This year, visible signs of collaborative efforts were everywhere. Hewlett Packard invited their assistive technology vendor partners to share space and demonstrate their products. Often smaller companies are unable to afford—or don’t have—the opportunity to actually display their products at CSUN. “What we did was invite them to actually be in the booth with us. The opportunity is set for them to come and to show their new technology,” notes Takemura. “Agent Sheets, for example, is a vendor using the pocket PCs to assist people with cognitive disabilities in gaining access to their local metropolitan bus system.” Another vendor, Keybowl, demonstrated the over-touch keyboard, which facilitates typing for persons with limited mobility by using two domes instead of the standard keyboard with a hundred and one keys on it. “We also have representatives from iCommunicator demonstrating their software, which converts speech to text and speech to sign language. You actually have a virtual person who appears onscreen to translate the speech into sign language,” Takemura adds. “By bringing in new companies that are using HP technology to develop solutions for people with disabilities, we are positioned to have a very profound impact.”
In addition to showcasing vendors who are using HP technology as a platform, HP representatives also showcased some of their latest technology. “One of the items I’m most excited about is a pocket PC that has voiceactivated capabilities. I could say ‘next appointment’ and it will tell me what my next appointments are. Or I can say, ‘What is Chip’s phone number?’ and it will tell me the number,” adds Takemura. “When you consider the ramifications this type of technology will have for someone with a severe mobility-related disability or limited dexterity, or a person who is blind and would not be able to use the touch pad, it also allows us, the assistive technology vendors, to take that even further and embellish on it.”
Whether it was Stevie Wonder testing a new electronic keyboard or actor and advocate Max Gail speaking on the connection between media and technology, the activities at CSUN highlighted how incredibly innovative solutions are being created to help people access information, better their employment, pursue greater education, enjoy entertainment, and communicate more easily. These technologies are providing access to independence…and that’s no joke.