Many of us have experimented what it means to be disabled, by sitting in a wheelchair for a few minutes or putting a blindfold over our eyes. In Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind, author Kel Smith details the innumerable obstacles disabled people have to deal with in their attempts to use computers and the Internet.
The book observes that while 1 in 7 people in the world have some sort of disability, software and hardware product designers, content providers and the companies who support these teams often approach accessibility as an add-on, not as a core component. Adding accessibility functionality to support disabled people is often seen as a lowest common denominator feature. With the companies unaware of the universal benefit their solution could potentially bring to a wider audience.
Smith writes that despite our growing potential to augment human capability and competence through technology, the innovation curve sometimes leaves behind people who could most benefit.
One of the many examples of this which the book provides is how sidewalk ramps are often an easier access method to streets; not just for those in wheelchairs, but for those simply walking and desiring an easier method.
In the book, Smith details how digital outcasts often rely on technology for everyday things that we take for granted. The problem is that poorly designed products create an abyss for these outcasts, who number in the hundreds of millions.
So just what is this digital outcast? Smith notes that the term was first introduced by Gareth White of the University of Sussex to describe people who are left behind the innovation curve with respect to new advances in technology. The term is also relevant to today’s Internet user who can’t perform a simple function such as making an e-commerce purchase or checking their financial statement; due to inaccessibility of the content, platform or device. These outcasts represent large swaths of forgotten populations.
In the first chapter, Smith makes the chilling observation that all of us, at some point or another, will find that our capabilities have diminished. Today’s disabled users are not outliers of the able-bodied population – they are a prototype of what our future looks like.
The book provides a detailed overview of how people with disabilities use technology. More importantly, it shows that creating effective user interfaces for those with disabilities is beneficial for all users.
It showcases numerous application and case studies, including how iPad apps have been used for cognitive therapy, video games to help many types of illnesses and more.
An important point the book makes is that there are no easy answers or silver-bullet solutions. There are no quick add-ons which a firm can use to quickly make their user interfaces outcast compliant. Rather it takes a concerted effort from senior management to make accessibility work.
A key point Smith makes many times is that students with disabilities are left behind. There are many students who fail in antiquated educational systems since the administration can’t restructure their curricula around a child’s individual talents or aptitudes. He writes that students with disabilities get stigmatized into special education programs, some of which are very good, but can be socially ostracizing.
Throughout the book, Smith quotes many studies and significant amounts of data that shows the power of how software can make significantly positive impacts on the lives of those with disabilities. In chapter 7, he writes that at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas, they used virtual worlds and avatars to help autistic children. That form of therapy has proven to be successful and that 4 or 5 sessions using that technology, is worth 2 or 3 years of real world training.
As detailed in many parts of the book, many doctors say the best high-tech treatments are in fact the ones you can download from an app store.
As the end of the book, Smith writes that for accessibility to work, it has to be an enterprise initiative. He provides 8 strategic steps to doing that, including creating an accessibility task force (and engaging them from the very beginning of the project), knowing the legal landscape (and not to be driven solely by law), to designing mobile applications to be run universally, and more.
Smith sadly writes at the end of the book that while Apple has been at the forefront of accessibility, in 2012, despite having no legal mandate, Apple removed the Speak for Yourself (SFY) application; which was an extremely popular and helpful augmentative and alternative communication app. It seems that SFY is now once again available in the App Store, but with legal maneuvering what it is, that could change at any moment.
While the accessibility of technology is getting better every year, there are still many challenges to ahead. Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind articulately and passionately details the groundwork, itemizes what needs to be done, and implores the reader to do something to ensure this trend continues.
This book is an important read for everyone. As there are two types of people, those that are currently digital outcasts, and those that will be sometime in the future.
The book closes with a most accurate observation: digital outcasts are not a biological model for a future we should fear, they are an inspiration for what we can all become.