Really Understanding Assistive Technology

by · August 2, 2010

mada qatar assistive technology center David Banes, Deputy Director of Mada, Qatar’s Assistive Technology Center (and frequent Digital Qatar commenter) shares his insight on what accessible technology truly is – and how it is really for everyone. Look for more guest posts from David soon!

So, you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, lots of exciting and innovative things keep appearing, web 2.0, video conferencing, communication, collaboration. All things that we digitally enlightened get excited about, but now and then another word creeps into discussions, and it’s an important one for the future of ICT here in Qatar and globally. The word is “Accessibility.”

Have you wondered what we mean by that term, and what some of the implications are for the development of ICT in Qatar? If you have, and even if you haven’t, here’s a quick primer to help.

Accessibility is used to refer to ensuring that IT products and services can be used by everyone, regardless of individual or special needs. Accessibility is about ensuring that a design is inclusive and reaches all possible potential users.

Who does this include? Well traditionally, we thought of accessibility as being about ensuring that people who were blind, deaf or physically disabled could use the same technology as the rest of us. The area where it most commonly referred would with reference to operating systems or more recently websites. So that’s both platform and content, that’s pretty wide ranging before we start.

However, accessibility is about a much wider community than people with “obvious” disabilities. Accessibility is also about people with reading and writing challenges, such as Dyslexia. Accessibility is about people who as they age find their sight failing or hands becoming painful. Accessibility is about people who get confused easily, those with learning disabilities or Alzheimer’s disease. Accessibility is about people who find themselves with sore eyes, back, shoulders or wrists when they use a computer. In other words accessibility is about all of us. Microsoft estimate that something like 70% of all users benefit from ease of use and accessibility features, reducing pain and strain and increasing their productivity and efficiency.

Of course as technology evolves, so do the platforms which we are all using. Whereas once we were just talking about PC’s now we need to think about websites, ebook readers, mobile phones, MP3 players, even digital television. These are all channels by which people connect, communicate and collaborate. As a result they are all channels where accessibility and the principles of universal design apply.

What happens if we ignore these needs? The truth is that to be digitally excluded is to be socially excluded. Exclusion means that we struggle to be part of an education system, we find employment increasingly hard to enter or maintain, and ultimately we are unable to be play a full part in the communities within which we live. If accessibility is something that has the potential to impact upon each of us, a decision to ignore the issue may one day place any of us on the wrong side of the digital divide. That’s not a place where I want to be, and I’m sure readers of this blog feel the same way

It’s not an issue you need to address alone. Here in Qatar there is the new Mada, the Qatar Assistive Technology Center, on the 7th Floor of Al Nasr Tower. At the Mada Center you can explore the range of technologies that make ICT accessible to all, attend training on technologies, and try out solutions that might even help you today.

We all have a part to play in making sure that everyone has the opportunity to reap the benefits of being connected, and remember that “everyone” means you and I as much as anyone else.

–          David Banes

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