by Maureen Connolly
Original graphic designed by The Overleaf Group, Marcia Bernstein
In September 1997, leaders from Maine State government, business, education, and the non-profit community gathered for the Conference, Maximizing Economic Potential. They set out to explore how Maine can develop the information technologies the state needs to be globally competitive. Sponsored by the Maine CITE Coordinating Center and the Maine Department of Education, the Conference looked at how government and education can lead the way in ensuring that information technologies accommodate differing needs and provide access for everyone. This report is the outcome of that effort.
Maine's Opportunity to Lead the Way to Information Access for Everyone
State government can play the pivotal role in making information technologies and information systems accessible to all citizens. As a provider of a broad array of information services and as a major contractor with businesses and community organizations, State government is in a unique position to spur the development of universally designed computer, telephone, fax, and other information technologies. State government can help ensure that these essential technologies allow access to all individuals, regardless of their physical, sensory, or cognitive differences.
In September 1997, leaders from Maine State government joined with leaders of the business, education, and non-profit communities to explore how technologies that people must use to access information can be designed to accommodate differing needs. The Conference, Maximizing Economic Potential, sponsored by the Maine CITE Coordinating Center, the state's Technology Act-funded project, and the Maine Department of Education, concluded that having a system of fully accessible information technologies is vital if Maine is to be globally competitive.
The Conference was designed to build on the work of several Maine initiatives on access and telecommunications, including The Maine Project: A Partnership for Telecommunications & Information Technology Planning. The Maine Project, which issued its final report in 1996, envisioned an advanced, integrated public and private telecommunications system for Maine. The Maine Project called for a system that is affordable, easy to use, accessible throughout Maine, and available to individuals and organizations in homes, schools, and workplaces.
Among the purposes of the Maximizing Economic Potential Conference was determining how State government can advance the mission of The Maine Project and other significant initiatives, particularly in ensuring that information technologies are accessible to everyone. Participating in this two-day roundtable discussion were organizations including Maine's Department of Education, Department of Administration and Financial Services, Department of Labor, Department of Human Services, Division of Purchases, the Legislature's Educational and Cultural Affairs Committee, Maine State Library, AARP, Alpha One, Maine Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, New England Board of Higher Education, Starvision Multimedia Inc., Time Warner Cable, and Unum, as well as consumers and nationally recognized experts in access and information technologies. The Conference featured demonstrations of accessible information technologies, a review of survey data on Maine's population with disabilities, discussions of barriers to access, and the development of principles that decision-makers can follow as they plan for and implement accessible information systems.
The key to access for everyone is universal design. Universal design is a term most commonly associated with architecture. A home or a workplace utilizing universal design may include ramps, levered doors, remote-operated electrical switches, roll-in showers, and a myriad of products and design features that afford easy access and use for people with disabilities.
Many universally designed products that were originally intended to provide access for people with disabilities have resulted in new, often unintended uses that benefit large numbers of non-disabled people. Closed captioning, developed for people who are deaf, today assists children who are learning to read or adults who are learning English as a second language. In many public places, where the sound of a television would be a distraction or an annoyance, the TV volume is off and the captioning is on so that viewers can know what's being broadcast.
A universally designed information system, like a universally designed living or working space, incorporates features that are usable by anyone, regardless of differences in how individuals see, hear, move, talk, or think. A universally designed technology as manufactured and sold-or "off the shelf" or "out of the box"-is usable by anyone with little or no alteration. Universally designed technologies, such as computers, telephones, and faxes, can be designed to work together in a seamless, integrated system that provides access for everyone: universal access.
Universal access to Maine's information systems is vital to the state's economic future. As a small, geographically isolated state, Maine can only compete in a world that depends on electronic information if the state's economy provides access for everyone. While universal access is considered a social imperative, it also contributes heavily to Maine's economic survival.
"We need to think of our market in the largest terms. We need to expand the base of customers and labor," said Conference participant Jay Menario of Unum. "We can't afford to leave people out."
Participants stressed the importance of universal access to Maine's educational system and to the development of an educated workforce. Maine's goals for academic achievement and higher graduation rates for all students, in K-12 and post-secondary institutions, will depend on universal access to information and assistive technologies.
A 1997 survey sponsored by Unum Life Insurance Co. of America, the international leader in the disability insurance industry, underscores the importance of making information systems accessible to everyone and accommodating differences. Nearly 170,000 Maine residents-one in seven citizens-has a physical, sensory, mental or emotional disability that affects their ability to function in one or more life activities, such as working, learning, caring for themselves, or participating in the community.
The survey, conducted by the Bureau of Economic Research at Rutgers University, is based on telephone calls to 3,300 Maine households. The survey found that people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities represent 13.5% of Maine's population.
While fewer than 5% of Maine children under 15 have a disability; 6% of people aged 16 to 30 have a disability; 12% of people aged 31 to 45 have a disability; 20% of people aged 46 to 64 have a disability; and 34% of people aged 65 or older have a disability.
Many Maine people have disabilities that affect more than one aspect of their lives. Nearly 62% of Maine people with disabilities have difficulty walking; 52% have difficulty lifting; 29% have difficulty seeing; 22% have difficulty learning; 20% have difficulty hearing; and 14% have difficulty speaking.
Some 37% of people with disabilities use assistive technologies such as communication devices or adaptive devices in their home, vehicle, classroom, or work site. About 30% of Maine people with disabilities use a computer on the job or at home.
For the thousands of Maine people with disabilities, having access to information gives them "a stake in our democracy, an opportunity to participate, and opportunities for self-development," Kim Wallace, public policy analyst for Alpha One, a Maine Center for Independent Living, told the Conference.
Citizens look to State government for information they need in all parts of their daily lives: information on health, education, jobs, housing, safety, transportation, taxes, travel, and recreation. Unless the system of technologies that Maine State government uses to distribute that information accommodates the needs of every individual, Maine will have a society deeply split into "information haves" and "information have nots."
Maine State government is typical of states and major businesses and industries that use a broad array of technologies. A July 1997 survey of 17 Maine State agencies and departments showed brochures, maps, newsletters, fiche, diskettes, tapes, CD-ROM, modem dial-in, e-mail Internet, FTP files, and fax technologies are components of systems used to gather and give out information.
The Maximizing Economic Potential Conference found that too often information systems are put together in a piecemeal fashion, and while they serve many people, these systems also pose barriers for others. Frequently barriers are not discovered until systems are in place. The result is the need for costly and time- consuming retrofitting.
Conference participants pointed to the State of Maine's purchase of a costly software package for all state employees that could not initially be used by people who are blind.
Accessible information technologies such as TTYs are going unused or underutilized because not enough state employees are trained to operate them. Home pages for the World Wide Web are being increasingly developed throughout Maine State government with little or no coordination among agencies and no standards for accessibility. State-sponsored Web pages frequently do not recognize standards for accessibility and often rely heavily on graphical images that are not accessible to people who are blind.
William Paul, a retired vice president of United Technologies and a consumer, said there is a natural tension between those who want to quickly adopt the latest technologies and those who want to slow down until those technologies are proven to be accessible. Paul urged the Conference to find ways that State government and the private sector can streamline the design, testing, and implementation of accessible technologies so that everyone's needs are met.
State government and municipalities, including School Administrative Units, have the ability to not only effect universal design of its own information systems but to promote the development of fully accessible products and systems in the private sector.
According to Conference advisor Steven E. Miller, director of the Mass Ed OnLine Project, it is not acceptable for technology developers to require users to figure out how to adapt products after their purchase. Inclusive features need to be incorporated into the product's structural and functional design. State government, as a regulator of the telecommunications and major customer of the technology and software industries, can influence designers and manufacturers to incorporate universal design into their products so they are ready-out of the box-for use by people with a wide range of abilities and needs.
Many manufacturers simply don't understand how and why universal design is critically important. Others assume that the cost of universally designed products would be prohibitive. But the world of technology already has proven how access can be designed into a product, often at little or no additional cost. Glide points included on computer keyboards, for example, can be easier to manipulate than a mouse and improve access for people with mobility impairments.
Alan Hurwitz, Director of the Northeast Technical Assistance Center at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, NY, called for designers and manufacturers of information systems and products to build in "redundancy of access." All products, he said, need to accommodate at least two methods of access.
"Make visual information available audibly, audio information available visually, and both available tactilely," Hurwitz said.
Mary Beth Walsh of Maine Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired said that every graphical image used on a Web page should have descriptive text that someone who is blind can access with the assistance of a sound card included in most computers.
Jim Tobias, a nationally known consultant in access technologies, called on the State of Maine to collaborate with other states in promoting and implementing universal design and to use its influence to engage telecommunications companies to foster universal design. He suggested providing technical assistance to manufacturers and using the State's buying power to influence change.
To the greatest extent possible, information systems should be consumer-driven, and people with disabilities-the users of information products and systems-must be involved in all levels of system planning, development, and implementation. People with disabilities are access experts. Their involvement, especially at the planning stage, will result in lower cost, higher quality products.
Conference participants urged Maine's State agencies to adopt internal policies that promote the involvement of people with disabilities in all information system design activities and to make the process fully participatory. They encouraged better understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other State and Federal laws and policies that require or promote equal access.
Participants also agreed it is essential that people with disabilities know how to assert themselves when they encounter barriers within information systems and to work to remove those obstacles.
Achieving universal access and promoting universal design require a significant shift in thinking and action. The process, however, will include many challenges and require people to set priorities and make compromises.
Because technology is constantly evolving, any information system must be regarded as a "work in progress," said one Conference participant. What is accessible today may not be accessible tomorrow as technology advances and formats change. It is important that people who are planning for universal access anticipate accelerated growth and changes in technology.
"The universal design of Internet technologies poses a particular problem. The Internet is a free market, and no individual or organization can force such monumental change", Tobias said.
Participants called on the disability community to unite to promote universal access, but warned that not every person with a disability will have immediate access to all information services. Trade-offs may be necessary throughout the process of seeking access for everyone.
Extensive educational efforts will be necessary to help businesses and the general public understand the potential benefits of universal design to all of society.
The Conference drafted ten Guiding Principles of Universal Access to Information. The Conference called for decision-makers, at all levels of State government, to use these principles in planning, developing and implementing information technologies and systems:
The Conference suggested many ways that Maine State government can use the Guiding Principles for Universal Access to Information in developing its information infrastructure. Among those recommendations for State government were:
The following individuals participated in the Conference where they crafted the Guiding Principles and Recommendations. Leaders and decision makers at all levels are urged to use these principles in planning, developing and implementing information technologies and systems.
David Noble Stockford
Mary Beth Walsh
T. Alan Hurwitz
This document is available in alternative formats. Contact Maine CITE Coordinating Center, 46 University Drive, Augusta, ME 04330, 207-621-3195 (voice/TTY), 207-621-3193 (fax), E-mail: email@example.com, or the Maine Department of Education, Special Services, 23 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04330. 207-624-6650 (voice), 207-624-6800 (TTY), 207-624-6651 (fax).
Maine CITE is authorized under the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, Amended 1994, and funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education.
16 April, 2005