Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Computing For The Rest Of Us


You’ve seen that phrase, “for the rest of us,” before. Now, I’m going to change your perception of it. How? With a new definition: “the rest of us” should mean people with less than perfect abilities—less than perfect vision, hearing, dexterity, and so on.

I see far too many examples of software that can be used only by perfect humans. Are the creators of this software not aware of the percentage of the population lacking the perfection they design for? (Presumably because they possess it.)

Simple question, but hard to find a simple answer. After examining a number of sites, the best estimate I can come up with is approximately 60 million people in the U.S. That’s one out of five! (Not surprisingly, this is similar to the 20% of Pareto’s 80/20 rule.)

We have closed-captioned television for the hearing impaired (not just for bar patrons). The National Library Service offers talking books and magazines for the visually impaired. In hard copy, there are large type and Braille editions.

These are older, more mature technologies. As a personal device, the computer is middle-aged at 35. I keep saying a computer can do anything but it’s barely scratched the surface of its potential for the rest of us.

Thirty years ago, I was involved with people limited by (and agencies for) physical and developmental disabilities. Personal computers were sub-teens then but there was more interest in providing computing for the rest of us than there is now. We even had early versions of Stephen Hawking’s speech device.

Back then I encountered a very clever substitute keyboard for one hand. An Internet search today reveals a number of specialty keyboards (another market expanded by war). But if you didn’t know they existed, would you know to search for them?

Why so little progress in thirty years? History tells us the telephone was hailed as great invention and a cultural boon. As was television in its turn. The first is now a tool for telemarketers, the second for infomercials. The computer is the greatest invention, but it too has become advertising’s bitch.

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