From Julia Child to mobile devices: How one group cooks up accessible media technology

The National Center for Accessible Media helps develop tools, standards and policies so people with disabilities can access new technology and content

When the first iPhone came out in 2007, as we all know, it created a quite a buzz and a whole lot of excitement - except for one group: the blind. “The blind community was very upset,” said Larry Goldberg, the director of the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), a research and development group in Boston devoted to improving the accessibility of media and new technologies for people with disabilities. The original iPhone’s glass screen, single button and - most importantly - lack of accessibility features, such as screen reader integration, made it all but impossible for visually impaired people to use.

However, thanks to input from the blind community and NCAM as well as Apple’s dedication to making their products accessible, by 2009 the iPhone 3GS had VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reading technology, fully integrated and today the iPhone is, “the most popular phone with the blind community,” says Goldberg. Apple, he said, “bought in.”

[ For more information on accessibility issues, read Phil's recent stories "For visually impaired users, the iPhone is the only way to go", "DOJ reports on federal IT accessibility" and "Making Breaking Bad accessible to all". ]

NCAM_signage-290x218.jpgITworld/Phil Johnson

The iPhone example illustrates an important issue in this day of lightning fast technological development, when, seemingly, new smartphones, tablets and laptops (not to mention associated apps) are introduced daily: Who makes sure that hardware manufacturers, software and app developers and content creators are ensuring that people with vision problems, hearing difficulties, or other disabilities can enjoy of all the new media and technology most of us take for granted? NCAM is one of the most important players filling this role, which is only getting more challenging as technology advances. “It’s always a game of catch-up,” says Goldberg. 

I recently had the chance to visit the NCAM offices and lab to learn more about their history and mission and their view on the future of accessible media and technology. I also learned about a system they recently developed, Media Access Mobile, which may soon be coming to a museum (or theater) near you.

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