Internet inventor: Make tech accessibility better already

Vint Cerf says "it's almost criminal" that programmers aren't held accountable to design with disabilities in mind.

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Joan E. Solsman
4 min read
Vint Cerf

Both Vint Cerf, known as a "father of the Internet," and his wife have hearing disabilities.

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This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

Vint Cerf is often called the "father of the internet." Consider him a pretty stern papa.

Cerf, who is hearing-impaired, played an integral part in the invention of some of the most crucial technologies of the last half century, including the internet and email. But as quickly as he'll extol how tech can advance society, he won't mince words about its track record accommodating people with disabilities.

Accessibility shouldn't be a "pixie dust" designers sprinkle on as an afterthought, he said.

"It's a crime that the most versatile device on the planet, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology," he said in an interview last month. "It's almost criminal that programmers have not had their feet held to the fire to build interfaces that are accommodating for people with vision problems or hearing problems or motor problems."

Plenty of guidelines for designing accessible technology exist, but their implementation too often has been subordinate to other design goals, he said.

Cerf is best known as one of the designers of the architecture for the internet in the early 1970s, helping to shape the rules that dictate where internet traffic goes and, about a decade later, helping to deliver the first commercial email system. Today he is Google 's "chief internet evangelist" and contributes to the People Centered Internet, a group he cofounded to advance connectivity worldwide. His own disability, and the disabilities of people close to him, shaped his approach to tech, he said.

Email, for one, brought Cerf more than the typical benefit of posting and interacting on your own timeline.

"Because I'm hearing-impaired, emails are a tremendously valuable tool because of the precision that you get," he said, sitting on a hotel couch in his trademark three-piece suit before a SXSW keynote organized by engineering trade organization IEEE. (On this occasion it was grey pinstripe with a blue shirt.) "I can read what's typed as opposed to straining to hear what's being said."

He's not alone in needing an assist from technology. About 360 million people worldwide have a hearing disability, roughly 5 percent of all the people on Earth, according to the World Health Organization. Then factor in those with vision, motor or other impairments. In the US alone, more than one in three households has a member who identifies as having a disability, according to panel research by Nielsen last year.

Vint Cerf gets Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
Enlarge Image
Vint Cerf gets Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

President George W. Bush presented Cerf with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award, in 2005.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Email and the internet were also crucial to his wife's adaptation to her own disability, even though Cerf teases her for being uninterested in email for more than two decades after he began playing with network mail in the early '70s.

Sigrid Cerf, who became deaf as a 3-year-old because of spinal meningitis, finally took the plunge onto the net in the mid '90s to learn about cochlear implants: surgically embedded devices that bypass the ear and send the brain signals it interprets as sound.

She learned about the technology -- and the doctors specializing in it at Johns Hopkins Hospital -- by surfing the web. "She couldn't get anybody's attention at Johns Hopkins until somebody in Israel put her in touch by an email exchange," he said. Even as an inventor of the internet, Cerf said he was amazed by the role email and the net played in so fundamentally changing his wife's relationship with her disability.

Cerf's awareness of disability also sharpens his criticism of tech's shortcomings.

"It can't be a pixie dust that you sprinkle on top of the program and suddenly make it accessible, which is the behavior pattern in the past," he said. Accessibility should be a design choice that is rewarded, "something a lot of companies have not stepped up to," he added.

But he believes awareness among engineers and designers is improving. For people with hearing impairments, speech-to-text products are growing more sophisticated, like automatic closed captioning on YouTube . Voice-command technologies, like those in Amazon's Alexa, Apple 's Siri and Google Assistant, are more commonplace. And most recently, neural networks -- a programming technique based loosely on how the human brain learns -- are advancing speech synthesis, to make it more natural for people with vision or physical disabilities to interact with technology.

Perhaps most encouraging, he said, is a growing recognition in the tech community that accessibility is important.

"We need to build in these things from the beginning," he said. "That's very powerful stuff."

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