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Tech Industry

High-tech's disability mandate

Sun executive VP Patricia C. Sueltz warns of unforeseen ripple effects if the computer industry bows to short-term pressure for cutbacks and reduces funding to help disabled people access information and online services.

When things get tough, companies are forced to make cutbacks. The danger, of course, is that we'll make cuts in the wrong areas, or cut too deeply, and end up doing ourselves more harm than good.

In the high-tech industry, that could very easily be the case if we fail to maintain a steady focus on developing innovative solutions for people with disabilities, innovative ways to access information and online services.

The Internet has always been about access--bringing diverse computer resources to people in disparate locations so they can all be more productive. Tim Berners-Lee, designer of the first Web protocols, put it this way: "The aim was unification of all the many information systems, each of which did different, useful things but which did not interoperate."

The pioneers of the Web saw the value in making it possible for a wide range of machines to interact--machines with different microprocessors, different operating systems--and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.

In much the same way, we all recognize the value of making it possible for people of differing abilities to take part in that network, and we must never lose sight of that, in good times or bad. I'm not talking about altruism here. I'm talking about enlightened self-interest--or, in business parlance, the bottom line.

There are several ways in which a company's business benefits from the technologies that help people with disabilities:

• First, they enlarge the talent pool. That's especially true in high tech, where people are valued for the quality of their ideas--not whether they can see or hear or walk or type. So it's fitting that technology may one day enable us to take full advantage of all the very talented people we have in the global community.

• Second, such technologies open up a sizable market. In the United States alone, a staggering 50 million people are living with some kind of disability. So, just as we design products with an eye toward internationalization in order to capitalize on worldwide opportunities, we need to think about the opportunity involved in enabling people with all levels of ability to interact with the system.

• Finally, technologies developed to give access to people with disabilities often prove useful for the rest of us. Take voice-activated commands. People used to think of them primarily as a solution for people who couldn't use a keyboard. As it turns out, we all need voice commands when our hands are occupied--when we're driving a car, for instance.

As is often the case, necessity drives innovation--and convenience comes along for the ride. I mean, wouldn't you rather use voice commands than the tiny keypad on your cell phone or pager?

There's a ripple effect to all this. Solutions developed with accessibility in mind--whether an enlarged keyboard or an audible screen or a wireless handset to control the thermostat in your house--certainly help people with disabilities become more independent.

And that's reason enough.

But by simply considering the needs of the disabled, we do much more; we force ourselves to look beyond the first or most obvious way of doing things. There is, or should be, more than one way to accomplish any given task. We need to keep that in mind at all times and make it a design principle.

Those of us who can't hear need to have visuals, and those of us who can't see need to have audible or tactile inputs. Even a person who can move only his or her eyes should still be able to interact with a computer through eye-tracking technology---which will also enable fighter pilots to execute maneuvers in, pardon the pun, the blink of an eye.