Since the first staircase gave easy access to a second floor, advances in design have raised people's standards of living. But for every technological step up, the ladder of progress has left others behind.
As the century draws to a close, the strongest influence for change is the Internet. But here, history may not repeat itself.
Just as the future of tiny wireless computers is now, so too is a social and moral concern about who will be able to access the information, jobs, education, services, and even entertainment that are increasingly - and in some cases exclusively - available through these new online technologies.
Race and income levels are the best-known fault lines of the so-called "digital divide." But a movement has been steadily growing to ensure that people with sensory impairments or other disabilities - for whom new technology can be especially liberating - aren't left behind by the World Wide Web.
Last month, this movement arrived in federal court for the first time, when the National Federation of the Blind and its Massachusetts chapter filed suit against America Online Inc.
Among the blind plaintiffs was Maryann Lareau - for whom the sound of AOL's ubiquitous message, "You've got mail," would be especially sweet. Her grandchildren are AOL members, and she'd love to be able to get on their "buddy lists" and take advantage of the instant-messaging service. But she ran into problems when she tried to sign up using her screen-reading software, which translates text into synthesized speech. "It wouldn't let me on with my keyboard. It told me I couldn't do this and said goodbye to me," she says with a chuckle.
Beyond forcing the question of whether AOL will enable blind people to join the ranks of its roughly 20 million subscribers, as a spokesman says it plans to do in the coming year, the lawsuit touches upon the fundamental issue of how society will define its relationship with the new and fast-changing entity called the Internet. To what degree, for instance, should cyberspace be considered similar to the public accommodations covered by the accessibility provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as grocery stores and movie theaters?
"We can pretty safely say there will be universal need for Internet access ... so [the issue is] how do we provide universal access," says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and founder of the Association of Internet Researchers.
Computer technology in recent decades has opened up worlds of opportunity for people who face physical limitations. Everything from voice-recognition capacity to low-tech typing aids has enabled people to work, whether in offices or from home, at jobs from which they would otherwise have been cut off. "Without these things, I wouldn't be nearly as independent, and I couldn't work," says Jennifer Sheehy, a vice president of the National Organization on Disability in Washington.
Because these opportunities are so highly valued - 70 percent of unemployed people with disabilities say they would prefer to be working - anything that shuts them out from new technologies can really sting. "I know blind individuals who, as the computer world has gone from the old DOS systems to graphics systems, have actually lost work," says Jim Dickson, a vice president of the National Organization on Disability whose experience with talking computers has enabled him to take solo sailing trips without the benefit of sight. "We put braille in the elevators finally, but as more and more people do Internet work, it's like now there's no Braille on the doorway."
But that is starting to change, he adds. Indeed, a host of people in nonprofit groups, government agencies, and private companies are working toward communications technology that takes into account the needs not only of the blind, but also of the deaf, mobility-impaired, and learning-disabled. The National Center for Accessible Media, for instance, provides technical assistance on everything from how to improve closed-captioning services in television and cable to making a CD-ROM or Web site friendly to users with various disabilities. It has also developed a way for movie theaters to project captions directly to deaf individuals at their seats. One company the center has consulted with this year is AOL.
"Breaking through the clutter of all that's going on in information technology these days is really tough," says Larry Goldberg, director of the Boston-based center. "But once we actually have a chance to get the ears and eyes of developers and decisionmakers in the media, there's often at least a willingness to accept there is a need and a solution. Then it simply comes down to money."
One main function of the lawsuit against AOL has been to raise awareness both in the industry and among the public. "Most people, certainly in the new media, don't realize blind people actually do surf the Web," Mr. Goldberg says. (See story below.)
Guidelines for building accessible Web pages are available from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a collaborative effort of 370 industry and academic member organizations. Advice includes creating clear text labels for graphics, offering captions for audio material, and enabling people to "turn off" blinking or moving elements that may be distracting to those with cognitive disabilities. (www.w3.org/WAI)
Other guidelines coming soon will address the accessibility of applications such as browsers and multimedia players, and authoring tools that help create Web sites. Contrary to the initial concerns among Web designers when they are told they need to make sites accessible, "you can make an extremely flashy, very cool Web site and still be accessible," says Goldberg. In fact, the goal of accessibility for the disabled community parallels the original philosophy behind the Web. "It contributes to universal design of the Web; it increases usability," says Judy Brewer, director of W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative. "More people are accessing the Web from mobile phones, hand-held devices such as PalmPilots, information kiosks in a mall, computers in their cars," she says. So even if they have no traditional disabilities, they may not be able to look and listen and use a mouse the way most people do at their desktops. Yet the goal is for everyone to be able to access a "universal information space."
The concept of "universal design" also speaks to the bottom line. "A lot of the assistive technology that's developed for people with disabilities finds a broader market in the general population," says Ms. Sheehy. Many people appreciate "sticky keys," for example, a feature designed for those who can't hold down multiple keys at the same time on a computer keyboard.
The fact that companies already recognize those markets is the very reason some industry representatives bristle at the notion of placing legal requirements on the Internet. "The government doesn't need to tell the industry to do what they want to do for themselves," says Ben Isaacson, executive director of the Association for Interactive Media in Washington.
With a 70 percent rate of unemployment or significant underemployment among the 750,000 legally blind people in the United States, advocates say access to the Internet, increasingly pervasive in schools and jobs, is too crucial to leave up to companies' discretion. Despite growing awareness, "people will continue to build things and realize after the fact [that they are inaccessible]," Goldberg says.
That's why advocates have high hopes for lawsuits like the one against AOL filed in US District Court in Boston. Even if it gets settled out of court, they expect a similar case to eventually send a clear signal that under the ADA, Internet service providers are obligated to be as accessible as possible. In general, the law does not require anything that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, but rather reasonable modifications.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission continues to develop plans for requiring better accessibility to traditional mass media like television, and to newer technologies like wireless phones and the communications functions of the Internet. And already, federal agencies are required to make sure people with disabilities have access to their electronic information, including Web sites.
People in the disability community see technology's potential for helping everyone overcome limitations, and as they push for a wider recognition of their needs - in society and in law - a key issue is fairness.
"The Internet has opened up a large door," says Michael Kosior, a computer engineer blind since birth. He recently made a concerted effort to use AOL trial software and eventually had to give up, becoming a plaintiff in the suit against AOL. "We really just want this to work, for us as well as for everyone," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society