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Like We're Not Even Here

April 16, 2007 By

I was riding in a shuttle bus which takes passengers from Los Angeles Airport to hotels. The driver swung to the curb and opened the door for more people to get on. At the curb was a man carrying a suitcase and his wife who was driving a motorized scooter. The driver of the bus jumped out and began talking to the man on the curb.

I overheard the driver say, "Oh, no, don't let her get up. I'll put the lift down for her." I glanced out the window and saw the woman shake her head, get out of her chair and walk to the bus's stair well. She climbed one step at a time, and sat down next to me. Again the driver of the bus said to her husband, "You shouldn't have let her walk."

The woman, who was holding a collapsed white cane, turned to me and said, "They talk about us like we're not even here."

"Yeah, I hate when they do that," I responded.

It was Aldous Huxley who said, "Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted." Today, along with riding the bus and getting to the third floor, most people take technology for granted.

When we need to look up information, our first instinct is to look online. We go to our city's Web site to find the contact numbers for city council members, or where to pay for a dog license, and off we go. But how does a person who is blind get this information? Will a person with photosensitive epilepsy be able to access a page with flashing animations? How does a person who can not use a mouse due to limited mobility access their city's Web page? Making things accessible for people with disabilities doesn't stop when a ramp is built.

"After all these years it's still an awareness issue," Nathan Moon, research specialist with the Wireless RERC, pointed out at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference in March. "You'd think that after time, the awareness would just be there."

Having wheelchair accessible sidewalks and lighted fire alarms is seen as normal, no one thinks twice. But making technology accessible is not -- yet -- second nature. Many times assistive technologies, such as screen readers or magnifiers are not compatible with older Web sites. It is important to remember when upgrading a Web site to take into consideration how these various assistive devices will work with the upgrade.

Perhaps the best way to understand the needs of those with disabilities is to include -- the best experts on the needs of the disabled are people who live with it daily. Instead of guessing what would be helpful, ask. Someone with a disability would probably rather not have the government "take care of" her, but would more willingly take care of herself. To close the digital divide means digital inclusion.

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