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Trust and Technology, The Key Enablers

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Alan Breakspear is a former senior public service manager now working as a consultant in Ottawa and as a strategic planning adviser to T-BaseCommunications Inc. He is also a director of the company. This article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Issue 50, Spring, 2002. Image: A hand holding a palm-pilot

The real enablers for all of us, no matter what obstacles we face, are passion and perseverance. But in today's world, the obstacles we face get bigger if we don't have the right tools, and if we can't count on friends and allies. Trust and technology are truly key.

At T-Base Communications Inc., we bring the right technology to bear, to help ensure that information, such as that held by governments, corporations and other organizations, which is needed to ensure the full participation by people with disabilities, is readily accessible to all, regardless of abilities or obstacles.

But we are concerned that the level of trust needed for effective communication, amongst people and amongst organizations of government, and of the private and voluntary sectors, should be improved, not weakened by bureaucratic processes and singular, uncoordinated, objectives.

We know that the people and organizations trying to improve accessibility are well motivated and conscientious - many are impassioned by the cause.

But in communicating important issues like accessibility, we all struggle with the admixture of our self defined objectives, and the distorting effects of our assumptions and biases. We all must be clear, open and trusting in communicating our understandings and our agendas.

The Internet and the world-wide web have ushered us firmly into the information age, and the resulting explosion of information technology holds the promise of enabling all Canadians to take part fully in society and the economy. Governments and corporations, aided or hastened by lobbying, laws and lawsuits, are working hard to ensure that information is accessible to people with disabilities. We worry that they don't have a clear common understanding and approach to that objective.

Some seem to regard people with disabilities as special cases, minorities that must be served by specially tailored measures and tools. This "disabilities" approach stands in sharp contrast to "accessibility", a broader philosophy that says information must be presented, as far as possible, in ways that make it equally accessible to all - in ways that minimize the need for individuals to use expensive special equipment.

In Canada, government initiatives like Government On Line (GOL), Common Look and Feel (CLF), Web-4-All, Public Access Centres and web-based "disability cluster" portals, and private sector developments like talking ATMs and just-in-time publishing in multiple formats, all have great potential to effect real improvement in accessibility, but lack a common approach.

Everyone, it seems, is doing their own thing. Stove-piping in industry is understandable, but it shouldn't happen in government where common national interests are at stake.

What do the Public Service managers of these initiatives assume about the tools and technologies available to people with disabilities, about their affordability, and about the willingness of industry, and of governments at all levels, to meet common standards?

What assumptions do politicians and their policy advisers hold about the need for accessibility standards and legislation? And about the expectations of the consumers - the people with disabilities who expect to be enabled and empowered through accessible information?

Wouldn't it be more useful for government to adopt a common framework for all accessibility initiatives? In past years, the federal government achieved important success in resolving language issues in Canada - a kind of accessibility issue -- by introducing the Official Languages Program. It provided terms of reference to guide all levels of government and society, across Canada. An "Accessibility Program" could be equally important in providing a solid basis for coordination, consultation and development of enabling practices in relation to people with disabilities and accessibility issues.

An "Accessibility Program" would enable the government to establish the clarity and trust needed for effective consultation with industry and with the special interest groups that represent people with disabilities. It would serve as an example to those groups, encouraging them to find common ground and representation. And it would help to defuse emerging policy issues affecting the voluntary sector -- incomplete procurement policies, for example, that lack standards for compliance and confuse the role of charities as service providers, competing perhaps unfairly with the private sector, and as advocates for people with disabilities.

We also think that the special interest groups that represent people with disabilities, some playing an advocacy role, others providing services, some doing both, should strive for common ground. They should avoid the rivalries that have potential to undercut the credibility so important in meeting new social imperatives. They should engage in common cause, at least in terms of the objectives and the resource requirements of their campaign.

An "Accessibility Program" would provide a framework for the resources and priorities needed for various accessibility issues and initiatives.

Important among these, in our view, is the need to manage content and to present information, especially in electronic media, in accordance with universal design principles. This approach would simplify and standardize the web accessibility technology problem, and could significantly reduce the need for individual users to buy and learn to use special (and expensive) adaptive technologies.

T-Base Communications has been integrally involved in the development of many accessibility tools, including several mentioned earlier. We benefit from the passion and vision of our CEO, Sharlyn Ayotte, and the technological genius of our Board Chair, Len Fowler. Sharlyn (aka Charlie) is a blind entrepreneur, leading T-Base to success. She is an expert in universal design of information for accessibility, and an inspiring example of personal success and leadership. Technology for accessibility is our key to success - we trust government to establish the framework for us, and others, to succeed!