Making Technology Accessible To All

Universal design in Information Technology is slowly becoming standard in the industry. Internet publication URL:

''Close your eyes and dial your home phone number,'' says Gregg Vanderheiden, holding out a cardboard mock-up of a typical cellular phone.

His interviewer obliges. But when she opens her eyes, she sees she made a mess of it, punching the phone's program keys instead of digits.

''Try again,'' Vanderheiden says, handing over another cardboard phone.

This one has a raised nib on the 5 key and ridges surrounding the digits, and her fingers trace the pattern smoothly.

''Now, every key has a tactile clue and you can dial with confidence,'' he explains.

Increasing users' confidence with technology -- be those users blind, deaf, technophobic or stuck in a business meeting -- is Vanderheiden's raison d'etre. As director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vanderheiden has devoted 18 years to ensuring that the digital revolution does not leave anyone behind.

That devotion has won him a slew of awards. It also has won him, and Trace, considerable clout. In recent months, for example, the 50-year-old scientist has appeared in an article in The New York Times, met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore in Washington, D.C., and has served as an adviser to the Federal Communications Commission.

Vanderheiden ''has really been extremely helpful at the FCC, and a real player on national telecommunications policy,'' says Pam Gregory, chief of the FCC's disabilities rights office. Several years ago, Vanderheiden helped shape an influential FCC policy requiring that technology purchased by the government be accessible to people with disabilities, she said. More recently, he was named to the commission's Technological Advisory Committee, a panel consisting mostly of chief technical officers from high-tech firms such as Cisco, Disney and MCI.

''They say things like 'If we don't tweak this right now, people who are deaf or blind won't ever be able to use it,' '' Gregory said. Vanderheiden's input is especially valuable, she added, because ''it's neutral, without a financial interest.''

Ask him what he has been up to lately, however, and Vanderheiden wants to talk ideas.

Ideas for cellular phones, for example. The cardboard mock-ups, props from a recent presentation to the FCC panel, were designed to illustrate the phone of the future. Features on that phone, as Trace envisions it, would include:

*Adjustable volume, for the hard of hearing.

*An optional speaker phone, for those who have difficulty handling small objects.

*A headset jack and infrared port, to allow connection with headsets, TTY's and other assistive technologies.

*A display panel, allowing the display of graphics and text.

*Easy to feel keys and a button that tells the phone to ''read'' whatever is on its display panel, for the blind.

That prototype would meet all of the FCC's proposed access requirements for wireless telephones, Vanderheiden said. It also would be a terrific product for the mass market. The same technology that makes the phone accessible to a deaf person would allow a hearing one to use it in a noisy environment, he explained. Users also could use the phone while they walk or drive, or could program it to connect with computer modems and other remote devices.

Then there's what Vanderheiden calls the baby-sitter feature. The phone can be programmed to dial only one number, he said, perfect for a babysitter, or grandparent, or anyone who might need to make a quick, emergency call.

''I can give them this and they're in instant communication,'' he said. ''And I don't have to worry about them figuring out how to use it.''

The phone is just one of many prototypes that have emerged from Trace in recent years (others include designs for accessible kiosks, ATMs, and a voting booth that will be adopted in some cities in time for next spring's municipal elections.) And like many of Trace's designs, the phone prototype was designed with reality in mind: according to Vanderheiden, almost all the changes could be made simply by changing existing software, at minimal cost to telephone manufacturers.

Over the years, Trace has taken its suggestions for simple, inexpensive accessibility functions to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Government officials, in turn, have used the suggestions when setting guidelines for industry.

''If you look at our new report, you would be amazed to see how many times we cite Trace,'' Gregory, of the FCC, said. ''People say access is too hard, we can't do it, and Gregg will say yes you can, and here's the evidence.''

That has led to a some frictions between Trace and the private sector, Vanderheiden acknowledges. But the overall relationship, he says, is positive.

''Different companies have different attitudes,'' he said. ''There are a lot of very caring and creative people in companies, and when this shows up on their agenda, it's a challenge and an opportunity.''

In fact, teaching the telecommunications industry about the many advantages of flexible design is a big part of what Trace does these days. In its shiny offices on Research Park Boulevard -- temporary housing until Trace moves into a permanent new space in UW's Engineering Centers in a few years -- Trace has hosted a series of conferences in recent months, which have been attended by participants from both the public and private sectors.

Trace's increasing profile has won it several new grants and employees in recent years. Among the latter is Ben Caldwell. Trace's Web/Information Specialist, Caldwell works to make Web pages accessible to all users, for example by including critical information as text, because images and links are illegible to many assistive devices.

''It's an exciting challenge to design pages that are flexible enough to be viewed by anything from a traditional Web browser to a cellular phone, palm pilot, speech browser or microwave oven,'' he said. In the past year, Trace's Web site -- a model for cross-disability access -- has logged approximately 1.5 million hits, he added.

Vanderheiden and his staff acknowledge that working on so many projects at once can be exhausting. But they also insist that it is worth it.

''There are definitely some really intense times,'' Caldwell said. ''But it's amazing to look back and see how much such a small group of people has accomplished in the last few years.''

Taken from: The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.