Influencing Innovation: The Americans With Disabilities Act

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a code of law that has influenced society and tech companies in interesting ways already, and is expanding to influence them even more.

One recent example: feds encouraged schools around the country, notably Princeton and Arizona State University, to drop the idea of requiring students to use e-readers, specifically the Amazon Kindle DX, until the devices were made “accessible.”

Accessible and acceptable e-readers would need features that work for students who are deaf, blind or have limited manual dexterity.

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice – which enforces the ADA – published plans today for four new ADA proposals that would impact our movie going experiences, the way 911 call centers operate, and how automatic teller machines and government websites are built.

No matter how much you think government should be involved in private sector business, it’s worth asking from a design standpoint:

Why can’t a deaf person watch a movie at the theater with closed captions alongside hearing friends? Does an ATM work more effectively in a tiny room where wheelchair access is impossible? Why should 911 dispatchers accept calls from the voiced, but not a text message from someone mute?

There’s definitely a market demand for more accessible technology. Today some 54 million Americans are disabled, or one in every five people, according to government estimates. Seniors and veterans returning from combat are adding to this population.

Some companies realize the needs and potential of the market, there. On display at Apps4Access in Washington D.C., today, an event hosted by the not-for-profit Committee on Disability Power & Pride and sponsored by AT&T, were products like the Braille Controller and Vlingo apps.

The Braille Controller (or Alva BC 640) by Optelec, a keyboard-like device that’s been around for a few years. It can “read screens” within Windows, web browsers, and now Skype and Facebook, and turn what’s on screen into either narrated audio content, or tactile Braille. Yes, its keys raise and lower almost like the web is typing back. It works with USB or Bluetooth enabled smart phones and PCs and a range of software.

A more mainstream technology provider, Vlingo created the already-popular “search by voice” apps for Blackberry and iPhone, and recently rolled out their Android “Super Dialer.”

According to the company website, Vlingo apps let mobile users search the web by voice, listen to incoming email text and text messages, and update their Facebook and Twitter profiles by voice. Vlingo is useful for people with vision loss, blindness or limited manual dexterity. But it’s also pretty useful for commuters stuck in traffic, or people who hate typing on touch screens.

On a bright note, Americans with disabilities are gaining access to the internet and all the information and sites that can help them there says a new survey by Harris Interactive (sponsored by Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability).

Eighty two percent of 18-29 years olds with disability access the internet (compared to 92% of people without disability in their age group). Among seniors, only 37% of those with disability access the internet, while 70% of seniors without disability do so. More than half of all disabled Americans have internet access.

Celebrations of the ADA, and conferences concerning the civil rights of Americans with disabilities will be taking place throughout the weekend and on July 26th through regional offices of the ADA Network around the country.

[FDR statue image via Jim Bowen]