Technology accessibility is more than a feature; it's a necessity in ensuring equal access to information and tools in our digital society. By designing technology that caters to a wide range of abilities, we create a more inclusive and equitable environment for everyone. This approach not only benefits those with specific challenges but also enhances the overall user experience, making technology more intuitive and user-friendly. 

For a deeper understanding of technology accessibility and how it is leveraged at Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, we turned to Quincey Hobbs, executive director of technology, to shed light on the topic. 

What is technology accessibility?

Technology accessibility is the practice of designing and adapting technology to be beneficial for the entire spectrum of society, including individuals facing unique challenges. This concept is integral in a digital society where technology permeates almost every aspect of life, from education and employment to personal communication and entertainment. Ensuring accessibility means that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can engage with and benefit from technological advancements, thereby fostering a more inclusive and equitable community.

Hobbs further explained this inclusive approach.

“Technology accessibility is about designing technology in a way that benefits everyone, including those with challenges that the majority may not face,” he stated. 

Some common tools to improve technology accessibility include:  

  • Braille displays: Hardware that translates text into Braille, enabling blind or visually impaired users to read digital content.
  • Closed captioning and subtitles: Provides a textual representation of audio content in videos, aiding those with hearing impairments.
  • Customizable interface options: Allows users to adjust colors, font sizes, and contrast settings to improve readability and reduce eye strain.
  • Magnification software: Enlarges text and images on the screen, helping users with low vision.
  • Screen readers: Software that reads aloud text displayed on the screen, aiding users with visual impairments.
  • Switch control: Enables users with limited motor skills to interact with technology using simple button presses or other assistive devices.
  • Text-to-speech (TTS) tools: Converts written text into spoken words, assisting users with reading difficulties or visual impairments.
  • Voice recognition software: Allows users to control a computer or mobile device using voice commands, beneficial for those with limited mobility.

Assistive technology at Thunderbird School of Global Management

At Thunderbird School of Global Management, the approach to technology accessibility is multifaceted, tailored to meet the diverse needs of its student body. The institution recognizes that accessibility is not a one-size-fits-all solution but requires a range of tools and strategies. One key aspect of this commitment is assisting students in configuring and using the assistive technology available on their personal devices. This personalized support ensures that students can fully engage with their digital tools in a way that best suits their individual needs.

In the classroom, Thunderbird has integrated speech functionality into its computers, making educational content accessible for those with visual impairments or reading difficulties. Additionally, the school provides access to specialized software like the JAWS Braille Viewer, Windows Ease of Access, and ZoomText. These tools are crucial for students who require alternative methods of interacting with digital content, whether it be through enhanced visual aids or tactile feedback.

Emerging developments in assistive technology

The field of assistive technology is witnessing an exciting phase of innovation, introducing tools that significantly enhance accessibility for individuals with various disabilities. These advancements, while crucial within their respective communities, often remain unnoticed by the broader public. They range from high-tech wearables to specialized applications, each designed to address specific accessibility challenges.

Hobbs highlighted the diversity of these technologies: “There are a plethora of assistive technology emerging, often unnoticed outside of the communities they serve.” A notable example is Meta’s Smart Glasses, which facilitate hands-free interaction, proving invaluable for users with mobility impairments. Similarly, the Lunet 3D printable finger prosthesis represents a significant leap forward. Designed for specific injuries or disabilities, Lunet's 3D-printable and potentially open-source nature makes it a cost-effective solution.

Other technologies focus on bridging communication gaps. The Hand Talk app, for instance, allows seamless communication between those using sign language and those that do not. On the cutting edge, the NeuroRestore Brain Spine Interface offers new hope, enabling individuals who have lost the ability to walk to regain some functionality. These examples underscore the evolving landscape of assistive technology, where innovation is not just about creating new tools, but also about making them accessible and relevant to those who need them most.

Challenges in universal accessibility

The journey toward universal accessibility in technology is marked by diverse challenges, primarily due to the varying needs of users. Each individual's requirements can differ greatly, leading to a perception that many accessibility solutions need to be custom-made. This diversity calls for a design approach that is both flexible and broad, capable of accommodating a wide spectrum of needs.

Hobbs pointed out the importance of user involvement in addressing these challenges: “Garnering feedback from those directly in need of these solutions may provide a space to develop broader and flexible technology that is multifunctional.” This approach ensures that the developed technologies are not only effective but also relevant to a wide range of users. By actively involving users in the development process, designers can gain essential insights, leading to more practical and universally applicable solutions.

Another significant hurdle in the field of assistive technology is cost. Maintaining affordability is crucial. Hobbs points out, “An accessibility solution is not much of a solution if those who need it cannot afford it.” This involves balancing innovation and functionality with cost-effectiveness, possibly through new manufacturing methods, open-source designs, or funding support. Such strategies are key to making these technologies accessible to all, not just those who can financially afford them, thereby truly embracing the ethos of universal accessibility.

Aesthetics and usability in assistive technology

In the development of assistive technology, striking a balance between functionality and aesthetics is essential. While the primary focus is often on the practical utility of these technologies, their design and visual appeal cannot be overlooked. As Hobbs noted, “I would imagine that function always trumps fashion, but the aesthetics of an accessibility solution is an important aspect as well.” This perspective underscores the significance of designing assistive devices that are not only effective but also visually appealing and user-friendly.

Hobbs highlighted the importance of collaboration in creating this balance. “This is where the collaboration between designers and accessibility experts is essential,” he stated. Designers contribute their creative skills to ensure the products are engaging and appealing, while accessibility experts provide vital insights into the unique needs and challenges of users. Together, they create assistive technologies that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing, enhancing the overall user experience.

The evolving landscape of assistive technology, with its focus on inclusivity and accessibility, underscores the importance of designing digital solutions for a diverse range of needs. These advancements open doors to new possibilities, ensuring that everyone benefits from the digital revolution regardless of their abilities. In this context, the role played by educational institutions like Thunderbird School of Global Management becomes crucial. They exemplify how to effectively integrate these technologies into education, enhancing learning and support for students. 

By prioritizing accessibility, Thunderbird not only improves the educational experience but also sets a standard in higher education, reflecting a commitment to using technology as a tool for empowerment and inclusivity and paving the way for a more accessible future.

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