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Inside risks

Disability-Related Risks

People with disabilities often experience difficulties that arise from their interactions with computer technology, above and beyond the usual risks. Their job performance, health, safety, financial stability, and general well-being may all be impairedfor example, because of shortcomings in system interfaces and workplace conditions, human limitations, legal inequities, and other factors. As technologists, we must be much more proactive in understanding the nature of the problems and potential approaches to improving the situation. Unfortunately, mainstream competitive commercial software developments tend to ignore many of the relevant problems and risks.

Visual disabilities. Interfaces with flashy but functionally limited graphical applications and Web sites create serious obstacles for people who are visually impaired. Examples include email challenge-response schemes that require graphical recognition of images in order to receive the content, and Web sites that say "click here if you cannot read this." Voice input and output, which have been improving, both have enormous potentialespecially if the mechanisms are compatible with conventional systems. Software that transforms displayed formats into audio can be particularly useful. Braille output is another option that can help some individuals, although this is far from a universal solution because only a small minority of people with visual impairments can read Braille. Specialized computer terminals are available that provide some help, but they are still very expensive.

Auditory disabilities. Applications and Web sites with extensive use of audio have little value for the hearing impaired. Telephones can present a significant challenge. Although some devices exist to transform audio into a computer-readable form, their availability is not widespread.

Physical disabilities. Carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries affect many computer users, with voice input as a possible alternative. Users with impaired mobility may sometimes benefit from remote access, although better security is needed to avoid integrity and privacy compromises.

People with several disabilities. These problems are compounded dramatically for people who have more than one disability. For example, loss of both vision and hearing presents huge obstacles, because many of the technological solutions designed to assist the visually impaired rely on auditory communication (such as text-to-speech). For example, some medical devices have removed visual displays in favor of only auditory warnings. Some paperless electronic medical records systems are engineered oblivious to disabilities. In order to help address such concerns, interoperability among different media for different disabilities would be a worthy goal. However, it would require significantly greater attention to interface standards and in some cases represents a formidable technical challenge.

On the positive side, addressing the needs of special populations can result in interfaces that are easier for everyone to use. For example, extensive research on aging has shown that older adults increasingly have problems with high demands for short-term memory. Careful attention to reducing the working-memory load to help serve the needs of older populations can make interfaces more fluid for everyone. Also, attention to simplified interfaces in Web sites that have been redesigned to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act has led to improvements for all users.

Today's e-voting systems provide an example of an application that must confront such problems head-on. Although there are some hardware/software attachments for the visually impaired, they all seem to have serious limitations regarding ease of use, security, voter privacy, assurance that ballot integrity is preserved, and protection against coercion and vote selling. Although some of the privacy concerns might be addressable via remote voting, other ongoing problems arisewith both paper absentee ballots and Internet voting. These problems are widespread, but are perhaps especially complicated for people with disabilities.

Issues surrounding the accessibility of technology raise public policy concerns as well. Many (and perhaps most) laws regarding accessibility were not written with a clear understanding of the technological issues involved; the ADA in some cases overspecifies overly narrow technology solutions. Similarly, many (and perhaps most) technological systems are constructed without careful consideration of the legal implications of the level of accessibility they achieve. As citizens, we need to be cognizant of the technological implications of the accessibility standards we pursue; similarly, as technologists, we have a responsibility to honor (or at least consider) such standards when we design and implement systems with broad public deployment.

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Peter G. Neumann moderates the ACM Risks Forum.

Michael D. Byrne ( is a professor in the Psychology Department at Rice University.

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/0800  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2005 ACM, Inc.


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