Changing the Meaning of Our Words in the World of Access for People with Disabilities
When I began working as a technology specialist at Purdue University in the 1990, I began writing documentation on the use of adaptive technologies. These were additions to computer that made computing technology accessible for those with disabilities. This was in the same time frame the people who were in wheelchairs, still referred to themselves as ”crips” (most notably the Vietnam vets) in a time before politically correct language had cemented itself into campuses. We had signs on campus for the “handicapped ” when some buildings had no wheelchair access points available.
At that time, the word “assistive” was not even consider a word at all, and our work to help people with disabilities to have access on the computer were adaptions to the current system. We added synthesizers and software so that computers could speak. We added soundcards and software so that people who were paralyzed could use voice activation, which was about 20 words per minute in speed. We modified hardware like mice and keyboards so that people with disabilities could gain access to the otherwise inaccessible technology.
Some years later our adaptions were being built into computers, and our adaptions were then being considered assistive in nature – they helped people, but we didn’t have to engineer solutions, they were being to be common place. Prototypes turned into commercial products, and only the ones many people would use survived.
Today, people don’t recognize the trail of inventions and the blood sweat and tears that went into these developments. Often a family member with a disability would have an engineering relative, father or mother, aunt or aunt, or brother or sister, and they would be in their home workshop adapting some aspect of the computer. Adding larger monitors, writing software for speech, adaptive the keyboard, a joystick or a mouse. The Darci (see page 6), input device being one such product – the equipment allowed people to use morse code to input on the computer.
Today even the terms “adaptive technology” has come to be sweep up in a new use of the term to mean technology that adapts to users who are learning. The actual term is adaptive learning technology, but many people use the shorter term adaptive technology to mean the same.
Worst is the use for the word “access.” I cannot count the number of times I’ve been forwarded work because someone used the terminology access in their inquiry, when they mean having “access to a product, account or software.” They just can’t login or download something, and they are not interested in the level of accessibility a product may have. The vast majority of common folk think of access in this way. Only when they cannot use a piece of equipment due to injury or after developing a medical condition, do they understand what it’s really like not to be able to access technology.
As we build a 508-compliant environment, adapting it so that those with disabilities can use the tool with their “assistive” technologies, even the term “assistive” will fade away into the distant past. We’ll have assistive AI to help learners to find information, and probably we’ll have voice input technology like Siri to ask questions. No longer will “adaptive” mean anything to do with helping people with disabilities, and no longer will “access” either. These terms will default to conventional meanings once access is open to all, and that is a very good thing.