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Providing Digital Access With the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure

By Susan A. Knight

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are everywhere, shaping how we live and function on a daily basis. But health impairments and other barriers can make it difficult for people to access these technologies. Raising the Floor’s Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) project seeks to remedy this, by developing a range of tools that address these barriers and support widespread ICT accessibility.

People with physical disabilities, such as vision or hearing impairments, often find it difficult to use digital devices effectively. But access issues can also arise for people with learning disabilities, cognitive issues, and challenges related to aging. For anyone facing any type of challenge or barrier as they engage with technology, the GPII will make it possible to access the internet and online services in a way that meets the unique needs of each individual.

On-the-Spot Customization

Raising the Floor is a consortium of individuals, organizations, and universities committed to providing the tools and infrastructure that will support digital inclusion. The goal of their GPII project is for all types of digital devices to accommodate individual user needs through personalized, on-the-spot customization. By applying accessibility settings that have been preconfigured to meet the user’s needs, each device becomes accessible to the person using it at that particular moment.

These preconfigured settings could include a variety of features: text-to-speech functionality, audio aids, simplified interfaces, or text captions. Through a small device (e.g., a card, ring, or USB flash drive) containing a special key, the user would be able to apply their preconfigured settings to whatever ICT they wish to use. Whether at school, at work, or out in the community, all types of digital devices would immediately become accessible to the user.

Integral to the GPII project is the belief that people should be able to access any type of ICT that they encounter anytime, anywhere. To achieve this, rather than developing new technologies or services directly, the project is building the required infrastructure to support such development worldwide. They compare this infrastructure approach to building a road system. In and of itself, the road system is not a form of transportation, but it enables other parties to provide a variety of transportation options more effectively.

Meeting the Needs of a Diverse User Population

The presence of this infrastructure to coordinate the development of tools will lead to a wide range of cost savings. This, in turn, will help to accelerate the rate at which different regions and organizations can develop the technologies and services required. These cost savings will also allow a greater variety of tools to be developed in order to better meet the needs of a diverse user population. This will be especially beneficial for traditionally underserved populations, such as those with multiple disabilities.

Through lowered entry costs, shared resources, and a worldwide network, the GPII will make it easier for developers to enter the development space and offer their contributions. Reduced barriers to entry will encourage participation from more developers coming from different backgrounds and specializations. Broadening the overall pool of expertise in this way will inevitably lead to a broader range of tools being designed and built.

Implementing a shared infrastructure will also benefit the development process by supporting collaboration between developers. Through the sharing of technical components, researchers and developers will be able to work together more efficiently. This will allow them to incorporate greater interoperability while minimizing duplication. Widespread collaboration and resource sharing throughout the development process also means that the move from the research stage to the market will be more efficient.

Worldwide Attention to Digital Inclusion

Digital communications have been instrumental in moving the issue of digital inclusion to the forefront, socially and politically; this, in itself, demonstrates the power and importance of ensuring widespread digital access. The internet has provided increased opportunities for people with disabilities and advocacy groups to reach out and share their concerns with others, and their voices are being heard. As the online world expands, awareness around the need for accessibility and digital inclusivity is also growing. This growing awareness has led to action being taken globally.

For example, in May 2016, the European Commission announced its official approval of new rules to support accessibility for government websites and mobile apps across the European Union (EU). Implementation of the rules will make it easier for users across the EU to engage with public sector websites, especially those users with visual and hearing impairments.

And in Australia, 2016 has officially been recognized as the National Year of Digital Inclusion. Throughout the year, events are being hosted to raise awareness around the need for digital inclusion at all levels of society. In addition, special efforts are being made to increase digital literacy levels across the country. Target populations include aging community members, people living in remote communities, and indigenous communities.

The digital divide is complex, multifaceted, and far-reaching. Oftentimes it goes unnoticed by much of the general population. This type of concrete action, with participation from all sectors, is critical in the effort toward greater digital inclusion.

The Digital Divide, Nationally and Globally

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Commerce released the report “Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience.”

The report indicates that factors such as age, race, family income, education, and geography can influence the propensity for computer ownership, internet access, and broadband (i.e., high-speed internet) adoption. It also indicates that computer ownership, internet access, and broadband adoption rates are lower among households headed by someone with a disability. While digital access is much broader in scope than just owning a computer and having high-speed internet access, this serves as a relevant marker and a good starting point for looking at the big picture.

According to statistics published by the World Bank, 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s current population, are living with some form of disability, and between 110 million and 190 million people are experiencing significant disabilities. It also reports that people with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes compared with people without disabilities, such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower employment, and higher poverty rates. As our world becomes increasingly digitized, it’s inevitable that a lack of digital accessibility among those with disabilities will exacerbate such adverse outcomes.

Given these statistics, there’s no question that the work of the GPII project is very much needed at this time. However, to say that the project’s goals are ambitious would be an understatement; the scope of the work is enormous. Fortunately, support for the project is also extensive. In addition to funding from several European and North American government institutions, a number of well-established organizations and academic institutions, including IBM, Microsoft, Mozilla, Serotek, the Adobe Foundation, and OCAD University, are also providing funding.

$20 Million Grant to Support U.S. Pilot Testing

In 2015, the project got a further boost with a $20 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Disability Innovation Fund. The grant was provided to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) to support the development and deployment of the first operational version of the GPII in a large-scale pilot. An estimated 15,000 users across the United States will be involved in the pilot testing; their feedback will influence subsequent decision-making and the project’s continued work.

In announcing the grant, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan articulated the project’s long-term vision: “As we build tomorrow’s workforce, this project allows everyone to participate—no matter their disability.”

Gregg Vanderheiden, PhD, is an industrial and systems engineering professor at UWM and director of the university’s Trace Center; he is also a long-time promoter both of the GPII project specifically and of accessibility in general. He initiated the international efforts to build the GPII, and he serves as technical director for the international consortium that has been working on prototypes in Europe for the past four years. His early work was instrumental in developing many of the accessibility features that users routinely access in computers today.

In the university’s press release for the grant, Vanderheiden discussed the grant’s impact on the project and moving research to reality. Describing the current conditions that exist and the urgent need for greater digital accessibility, he says, “[T]there are many people who, because of disability, literacy, digital literacy, or aging, can’t use the technologies they encounter. As a society we are designing the world out from under these people.” In light of such dire conditions, a major intervention is needed. Against this backdrop, the GPII has the potential to be transformative.

Promoting Increased Equality Through Digital Access

The GPII is much more than just a technical project; it represents a bold vision for promoting increased equality through greater digital access. It’s exciting in what it promises to deliver and the impact it will have on millions of ICT users worldwide.

Enabling this type of digital access will allow people to participate and engage more fully in the areas of education, employment, civic activities, and health care, as well as their personal and social lives. The GPII reflects a concrete step toward the achievement of digital inclusiveness—or e-inclusion—where everyone can enjoy the benefits of digital access regardless of age, disability, or any other barriers they may face.

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.