High-tech pundits have long extolled the Web as an unprecedented portal for access to information. But when it comes to technologies, not everyone gets included in the developers' vision. A new browser launched recently, www.yousearched.com, is aimed exclusively at people with disabilities. The program was designed in England but conceptualized by Canadian consultant Ross Dunn. It has achieved the highest standard of accessibility certification by the UK's Royal Institute of the Blind.
The browser is compatible with many currently used devices, including one that continually translates written text onscreen into an adjustable Braille interface, so blind surfers can feel their way through the Web.
The site also filters out content designed with Flash and Java-script that leaves most assistive devices stymied due to the frantic pace of information flow.
Recently, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) launched its digital library, an online portal for access to thousands of books, daily newspapers and magazines. Included is the Children's Discovery Portal, where blind kids can play games, chat online or get help with their homework with Braille keyboards or content that's read aloud.
This new initiative, funded by the federal government and Microsoft Canada, took some time to get off the ground.
"People's preconceptions often get in the way of funding," says the CNIB's Elizabeth O'Brien, manager of e-delivery and distribution services. "They don't really understand how a blind child could even use a Web site," she says.
And then, once this barrier is overcome, charitable organizations need to convince companies that these technologies have applications beyond the small percentage of the population that is disabled.
Canada is also home to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), which has launched a massive federally funded research alliance to look at everything from bank machine access to e-learning and post-secondary services.
"There is an assumption that information technology (IT) is good for people with disabilities because they have access to so much information," says Deborah Stienstra, director of the CCD's Disability and IT (DIS-IT) Research Alliance. "But the trouble is that it hasn't been a panacea. We're looking at where IT has created new barriers and digital divides."
When asked why she thinks the disabled are getting left behind, she echoes the CNIB's sentiments.
"It hasn't been recognized that these technologies are useful in a broader market. When you make technology inclusive to all, it immediately becomes accessible for poor readers or people in emerging markets such as India where English isn't widely spoken."
Gary Annable, community co-director of the DIS-IT Research Alliance, reminds me that they have a budget of $900,000 over three years, which isn't much compared to corporate research and development budgets.
In addition, he says, "Disabled people are often on low or fixed incomes and can't afford these technologies. People who already have jobs or receive job offers can apply for aid from the government so companies can keep their workplaces accessible."
But others aren't so lucky. The digital revolution may be happening at a dizzying pace, but we're still a long way from access in its truest sense.