Not everyone experiences the world in the same way. For persons with disability (PWDs) like me, things most people take for granted – like physical infrastructure, transport options, or even information – often prove to be inaccessible. The world of digital technology, however, holds promise thanks to the accessibility solutions it affords everyone (http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/167/167), and automation is playing the role of a catalyst here.
Even until the 1970s and 1980s, accessibility was largely seen as a social responsibility. All the significant developments in this field happened much later, toward the end of the 20th century, thanks to the advent of digital technologies and the regulatory impact they had on industry.
Today, concepts like automation are so ingrained in our lives that we almost don’t notice them. For instance, I am amazed at the rapid strides that AI and machine learning have made in the game of chess. Being a FIDE-certified chess player, I follow the game closely.
As recently as last year, an AI program called AlphaZero taught itself chess in less than four hours, and then proceeded to beat an advanced computer program called Stockfish 8 using its newfound knowledge! (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/07/alphazero-google-deepmind-ai-beats-champion-program-teaching-itself-to-play-four-hours).
Access at Your Fingertips
When key infrastructure or services are not accessible, the physical, financial, or even emotional burden people have to bear is often invisibilized. Even a decade ago, if I wanted to access basic banking services or make retail purchases, I would have to not just arrange for help for commuting, but also for each step involved in the service I was seeking. From filling up forms to even reaching the bank, it was all an uphill task for me.
The coming of the internet age and digital technologies was a turning point for PWDs across the world – apart from the fact that companies were legally bound to cater to them, this also gave them visibility and representation. It was also a significant moment for the IT field – we now had to adapt to updated standards and ensure that digital technologies were accessible.
The logical next step should be for the world of technology to intuitively and proactively solve problems that might not even have been vocalized yet; the digital world needs to be inclusive by design – it needs to be non-discriminatory. By using accessibility as a tool for innovation, enterprises can not only create a more equal and just world, but also differentiate themselves in the market.
Take the case of audio books. Initially created to serve as an assistive technology for the visually impaired, they have now become an accepted standard in the publishing industry, bringing in substantial return for e-retailers. Same with speech input/output, which now comes bundled as a service on most smartphones. Inclusive design helps make life easier for everyone.
At TCS, I run the Accessibility Center of Excellence, where we have adapted this concept of inclusive design in the field of digital publishing. We built a platform that facilitates one-click many-to-many conversion of inaccessible digital publications into accessible formats, which today powers a digital library featuring over 400,000 books!
And it’s not just us – across the world, innovators are hard at work looking for ways to make the world a more equitable and comfortable place for everyone. From braille-enabled digital tablets (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/03/arts/tablet-devices-blind-braille.html) to smart prosthetics, and from haptic-based live navigation wearables (https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/6/16610728/2017-new-york-marathon-blind-runner-wearworks-wayband-simon-wheatcroft) to a more inclusive fashion field (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/us/cerebral-palsy-transgender-fashion-model.html), the world is committed to accessibility-led innovation. With time and the right inputs, these solutions will become increasingly integrated, more affordable, and widely available.
I see these wonderful solutions not just as a way for me and my cohort to make life easier for other PWDs, but also as living demonstrations of the transformation Business 4.0™ technologies have brought about in society.