Ephraim P. Glinert


The power and affordability of today's computers, coupled with the flexibility of modern software, and further augmented by an almost endless variety of input/output devices, have the potential to unlock the door to rich and productive lives for people with disabilities of all kinds, whether their impairments are physical or cognitive, whether congenital or a consequence of chronic disease, whether due to unfortunate accident or the inevitable outcome of the natural aging process. Most of those lucky enough to live long will either experience a disability of some kind themselves, or watch friends or family members become so affected.

But progress can be a two-edged sword! If advances in computer technology, and especially interface technology, can herald a blessing, they can equally well harbor a curse. Explosive growth in the use of multimedia, for example, now threatens to relegate large communities of people (e.g., those with hearing impairments), who were in the past able to fully utilize computers, to the ranks of second-class citizens, much as happened to blind people with the proliferation of graphical user interfaces (GUIs). The challenge, then, is to design and build systems that afford access for people with disabilities to the same tools everybody else is using, especially in the workplace. Experience has shown that it is not just a matter of the right thing to do; in the end, the additional facilities developed to accommodate special needs will likely turn out to be of value to the general user community as well.

Several Japanese hosts told the JTEC panel that there are an estimated 350,000 visually impaired people in Japan today, about 20% of whom are actually blind. Statistics regarding the incidence of other disabilities were not provided. Developments related to computer technology in general will, as in the past, undoubtedly have a marked impact on these communities. New voice input/output (I/O) technology evolving at many of the sites that the panel visited will inevitably prove highly beneficial to people who are blind, while the algorithms that support the technology will lead to even more sophisticated hearing aids. Research into mechanisms for direct brain-to-machine communication, a topic that turned out to be of interest to teams at a couple of sites, will, when and if successful, be a boon for people who suffer from severe motor and speech impairments. The predictability of such indirect effects notwithstanding, this chapter reports primarily on efforts that are specifically classified by the researchers involved as assistive technology. The survey of individual projects in the following section is arranged in alphabetical order, according to the name of the organization involved.

Published: March 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian