Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Independence Day: Designing Computer Solutions for Individuals with Disability

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Independence Day: Designing Computer Solutions for Individuals with Disability

Article excerpt


Four years ago, only a few months after Alan Brightman created our Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation, I was invited to participate in a day-long meeting held on the Apple campus. About half of the 30 participants were Apple employees, mostly key decision makers from our hardware and software development groups. The others were largely involved in product development of a related sort. Some were rehabilitation engineers and third-party developers who focused on designing and manufacturing equipment that made our technology increasingly more useful to individuals with disability. Some were parents of children with disability. And some were individuals with disability themselves.

All had been invited to Apple to learn about our products. And, perhaps more importantly, to teach us about the computing needs of individuals with disability.

As I think about it now, four years later, I'm able to recall that meeting vividly. I suspect the following two reasons have a lot to do with that.

First were the images I watched on videotape, images of individuals with disability skillfully using a personal computer. Some typed using not their fingers but their toes; the keyboard was positioned not on a desktop but on the floor. Others operated the computer by raising an eyebrow or by tapping a switch with their forehead or their knee. Still others used the computer to speak on their behalf. Or they used it to help overcome a history of failing at learning.

These were powerful images, to be sure. And they were accompanied by equally powerful messages delivered by the individuals themselves. "Look what's possible," each seemed to say, "when you have the tools to do the job." It made no difference whether the job was, in fact, a real job ... or whether it was the job of communicating or learning or just having fun. These people were doing it - proudly, productively and independently.

These were not the images of disability to which our society has been historically subjected. We're more accustomed to pictures and words in the mass media that play upon our sympathies, that condition us to feel pity for "those less fortunate." The images I watched during the meeting evoked none of that. They were pictures of strength, pictures of participation, pictures of people getting on with their lives. As Peter and Alan suggest in the book Independence Day, these were individuals becoming known for who they knew they were, rather than for what others have interpreted them to be.

Individuals with disability are frequently overlooked in our society and in societies all across the globe. The reasons, I suppose, are many and varied. But as I observed the literally life-changing effects of personal computer technology on the many individuals at that meeting, I was determined that Apple Computer would never fall prey to the same neglect. My determination, I'm pleased to say, has only been strengthened by what I've seen and experienced since that meeting.

The second reason I remember the meeting was for what it accomplished. You see, I wasn't the only member of the Apple family to have been so dramatically affected by what I saw and heard. So, too, were our engineers and product designers. Particularly as they came to understand how even our own computer products were not always accessible to individuals with disability as they should have been.

We all learned something very important that day about accessibility, about how easy it is to forget that what was designed as a convenience for some can turn out to be an obstacle for another. …

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