Thoughts on Engineering for Accessibility
Personally, my interest in engineering for accessibility started when I began my career working in education, more than a few years ago. I worked primarily with special education students. What I found very quickly was that, if I used technology and engineered systems to help bridge instructional gaps and help them overcome barriers to accessing and working with the information they needed to learn, even in very basic ways, that it could help level the playing field for these students. I could help bridge divides that may have been socioeconomic, that may have been physical, that may have been developmental, that may even have been a result of their own self-perception, or family dynamics.
Technology was the one tool that made learning truly accessible. The problem was, back then, we really had to fight with technology to find solutions that were good for kids. The solutions available to us were crude at best. Accessible technology including switch controls, solutions for students with vision or hearing difficulties, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or communication boards were either difficult to implement, ineffective, or in many cases nonexistent. That’s not the case today.
Consider what Apple’s accomplished. Not only have they made IT consumer-friendly, so that it’s shifted the emphasis off the developers and systems engineers and onto the user, but they’ve also democratized the creation of content and applications.
Now combine all that with accessibility, which is one of their core values. https://www.apple.com/accessibility/ It’s also a core framework built into every device; macOS, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. What Apple’s accomplished in placing an emphasis on this is to truly made technology a bridge to connect and empower people. You combine all that and the result you have in education is devices that can easily be personalized for many different or diverse learning needs. Accessibility that empowers and helps all learners.
Today, you’ve got content that can be distributed freely or at least equally, and you’ve got technologies that allow students to overcome very significant barriers to collaborating and working with others. You can truly impact and expand and enrich the lives of students. Even more important, they can be empowered to do this themselves; to be independent and self reliant.
SAMR as a Personal Journey
I had a conversation with Marco Torres (Tw: @Torres21) in Florida late one evening about technology integration. This happened back pretty early in my time as a contractor with Apple Professional Learning. We were talking about the SAMR Model by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, and if you look at SAMR, basically it has four levels of transformation of learning. It gives you a hierarchy where a device may be a substitute for a worksheet and you move up these levels. The way it’s presented, it’s as if this process is something that we all kinda go through.
What Marco really challenged me with, and what really resonates with where I see Apple going and how they are approaching the accessibility of their technology is to look at it as a personal journey. If I take a kid that can read and I give that child the ability to have something read to them, that can augment their learning, that can impact their life. But if I give that ability to a child that cannot read then I’ve truly created a transformative experience for that child. Now they can access worlds of information, and they can interact with peers in a way they’ve never been able to before.
Convenience for You is Independence for Me
Todd Stabelfeldt a.k.a. the Quadfather gave an amazing talk at Apple’s WWDC in 2017 about the importance of developing apps with accessibility in mind. (https://developer.apple.com/videos/play/wwdc2017/110/) More specifically, he talks passionately about how Siri and external switch control has basically given him and others with C4 quadriplegia independence and freedom. His highly personal speech is basically a call to action for developers to embrace Apple’s accessibility API in creating apps. (Find out more about the Accessibility API framework here: https://developer.apple.com/accessibility/ios/ ) This session really resonates with me on a lot of levels.
First and foremost, Todd chooses to live. He embraces life, and though he acknowledges his struggles, they don’t stop him. Check out the documentary page, “Todd Against the Machine.” http://www.toddagainstthemachine.com Second, he reaches out and helps others. Shares his story. His experience, strength, and hope. Often with a unique mix of humor and candor. He works with others with C4, helping them share their stories through TSF, a Washington based non-profit focused on independence and technology. http://www.thetsf.org He finishes the speech, urging developers to leverage accessibility frameworks and APIs because what may be “convenience for you, is independence for me.” I love this session and have reflected on it often since last summer.
Yet, Even Now, We’re Just at the Beginning…
I don’t really have an ending to this post. Teaching, technology, accessibility, equity, and helping others have been one in the same for me since starting this journey back in 2000, and perhaps even before that. Where we are now compared to where we were 18 years ago is simply amazing. What’s cool is that it all just keeps getting better. In his Ted Talk, “How can AI enhance memory, work, and social lives,” Tom Gruber, co-creator of Siri, shares that he “wants to make ‘humanistic AI’ that augments and collaborates with us instead of competing with (or replacing) us.” https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_gruber_how_ai_can_enhance_our_memory_work_and_social_lives What’s amazing about this talk is that these technologies, along with AI, can help all people. It goes beyond accessibility and becomes a means for all humans to augment their abilities in order to live happier, more productive, and more connected lives.
Featured image from Assist ID web page. ASSISTID is an EU Marie Curie research and training programme funding up to 40 postdoctoral researchers who are examining how technology can support people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism in education, employment, community participation and independent living. It is cofunded by the EU and the charity RESPECT. http://www.assistid.eu