By Dr. William Kiernan
Today, as we recognize the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it is great to reflect on how far technology has come in providing equal access and inclusion for people with disabilities, as well as the growing elderly population who have diminished sight, hearing or mobility.
As with most advances in technology, change starts slow but then increases at an increasingly faster rate. It took millennia for humans to fly 120 feet (less than the wingspan of a Boeing 747). It took centuries upon centuries to advance from the simple abacus to the Turing machine, and then only decades to create IBM Watson that processes vast amounts of information similar to how humans think.
Today, technology is a driving factor in helping the more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide immediately be a productive and active participant in society. Think about mobile devices today. What would have been considered a super computer decades ago now fits in our pocket, and also happens to make phone calls. But for people with disabilities, this device has become an integral part of their daily lives.
For example, the vision-impaired community is using text-to-speech, voice recognition and GPS-based technologies on their mobile devices to read and respond to text and email messages, navigate their neighborhoods to find their favorite restaurant, and even identify food and prices on shelves of a grocery store just by snapping a photo.
Developing a next-generation of leaders who understand and can keep pace with the evolving concept of inclusion has become a necessity because with each decade the societal landscape changes. We need leaders who understand that new technology creates a risk of excluding people. Therefore, by thinking about accessibility from the outset in the design of new solutions will help not only people with disabilities, but also create a better user experience for the mass market.
It is for this reason that the University of Massachusetts Boston has created the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, the first graduate school in the world to focus on inclusion, wellness and economic development from an international perspective. We are preparing our students to be leaders in a new globalized and technology-rich society and helping them develop the skills necessary for careers in which they develop practices, procedures, and policies that support global inclusion.
As we launch this exciting endeavor, we are happy to be joined by IBM, a partner who has demonstrated a similar devotion to the inclusion of all people through its IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center. Together, we are forming a new collaborative research initiative to advance the development of accessible technology solutions in mobile, social and human-centric computing that reduce digital barriers and create a smarter, more inclusive planet.
As we look towards the future of technology and its increasing emphasis on delivering personalized, adaptive and accessible experiences, the University of Massachusetts, IBM, and like-minded government, business and technology leaders can affect real and significant change for people with disabilities, the aging population and others on a broad scale… and ensure that no one is left behind.
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