frog Design Mind

A World of the Insatiably Enabled


By James Craig

My friend Randy is a technical consultant for IBM. He codes Java and provides user feedback for internal development teams. Like most of us, the majority of Randy s work involves communication through phone or by email. And like most of us, his mobile phone is an essential tool for business and personal communication.

Randy has also been blind since he was 18 months old, due to a rare childhood eye cancer, retinoblastoma. As a result, he s very keen on seeking out handsets designed for maximum accessibility—handsets that, in truth, benefit disabled and non-disabled users alike.

A 2004 survey by the American Foundation for the Blind lists the top two mobile phone accessibility needs as keys that are easily identifiable by touch and voice output — that is, the phone speaks menus options and settings, like the current time. Randy s last phone had both features, but his current phone, a Sanyo SCP-200, lacks voice output — his phone no longer talks (back) to him — but it does have voice input features, such as voice-enabled dialing.

When I asked why he gave up voice output, Randy said the technology is not yet good enough to be truly useful for a blind person; not enough programs and settings were voiced. Also, he mentioned, when I used the voicing feature to check the time in an especially long business meeting, the meeting organizer gave me a funny look. (Did I mention Randy has a good sense of humor?) He now checks the time on a Braille wristwatch.

Though he can live without voice output, any phone Randy buys must have accessible features such as voice dialing and tactile keys. With rare exception, these design considerations make a handset more usable and desirable not just for the disabled, but for everyone. That s because accessibility is really just usability, a concept that should concern everyone — especially designers.

frog Design Mind

The most ubiquitous example of accessible design is the curb cut. Required in the US by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), its intended purpose is to provide sidewalk access to the mobility-impaired, particularly those in wheelchairs. But think who else uses a curb cut: parents pushing strollers, bicyclists, delivery personnel, travelers with luggage, and a slew of other people. It s a design for accessibility that benefits every user of public resources.

Who benefits from an accessible interface design? You. Have you ever used voice dialing? Do you feel the raised nibs on your mobile phone s 5 key, or on your computer keyboard s home keys? Ever bumped up your font size to read an article?

Imagine you re running late to the airport. You are driving in rush-hour traffic but need to check your flight status. If your smart phone had voice output and the software to support it, you could. Most importantly, you could keep your eyes on the road while you did.

Dean Kamen invented a revolutionary gyroscopic stabilization technique first used in a wheelchair-like device called the IBOT. The IBOT allows paraplegics to go up and down stairs, and even stand upright by balancing on two wheels. Why should you care about the development of a gyroscopic stabilization device for the disabled? Because the technology was integrated into Mr. Kamen s most famous project, the Segway Scooter.

frog Design Mind

The Joint Optical Reflective Display, or JORDY, is a video magnifying goggle named for the Star Trek character Geordi La Forge. The visually-impaired use JORDY to view art museums, attend sporting events, and otherwise enjoy normal lives, but it s easy to imagine how future variations of the technology may be used to augment the vision of pilots, or other non-disabled people.

Dr. Alex Cavalli, of the IC2 Institute, envisions a time when all physical disabilities will be of no more consequence than myopia is today, a world in which biological and cybernetic enhancement yield the same final, improved result, no matter the recipient s original condition: With the advance of bio- and nanotechnology, coupled with modern convergent media, we can look forward to the possibility of having the word disabled retired from our vocabulary. We will speak, instead, in terms of how enabled we are.

Scooters, video magnifiers, voice dialing, curb cuts—technology advances and interface designs for the disabled almost always evolve to enable the needs and desires of the non-disabled masses.
The question now is, how enabled are you?

James Craig is a Senior Design Technologist in frog s Austin studio.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.