At the FCC today, Computer Science Professor Clayton Lewis asserted a new paradigm for accessibility is emerging and that this paradigm may require changes to public policies related to accessibility, such as Section 508, and intellectual property laws.
Professor Lewis, a member of the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council, kicked off today’s FCC’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative Speaker Series with his presentation on “The Future of Inclusive Design.” The day also included accessible technology presentations and demonstrations in the FCC’s Technology Experience Center.
Lewis framed the discussion in terms of the “Raman Principle,” how to push beyond the Raman Principle, and the needed changes in public policy to respond to the new paradigm.
The Raman Principle
The Raman Principle, named after computer scientist T.V. Raman, Ph.D. at Google Research, states: “The way to think about the visual system is as a way to ask questions about a spatial database. If you give someone another way to ask the questions and get the answers, they don’t need vision.”
This approach provides access to the underlying information and changes the way we think about accessibility. “This idea shifts our focus from making presentations accessible to making content accessible,” explained Lewis. Think about screen readers, he suggested. Although screen readers make certain types of information more accessible, screen readers create a direct path to a non-visual presentation that bypasses the visual presentation. We should provide access to the underlying activity and content, he asserted.
“We have accessibility problems everywhere today because people are creating presentations rather than content,” he said. “We have to replace presentation-oriented tools by content-oriented ones.”
An example of this shift is the increased online access to government content through application programming interfaces (APIs) and bulk downloads. Such access provides programmatic access to content rather than presentations of content. How do we then provide technical accessibility to the content? Third-party providers create and make available clients. In the future, clients might be increasingly tailored to particular users, in keeping with the overall trend away from mass production to mass customization.
Lewis asserted that this model of programmatic accessibility supported by clients not only changes the way we think about accessibility but also has the potential to provide superior access. For example, commands can traverse the logical structure, not just the layout order, and thereby leverage the underlying semantic structure. He provided an example of data flow programming to illustrate his point.
The outcome is a transformation in the approach to providing content so that people with disabilities can easily access the information. He suggested that this new paradigm supports non-visual “visual” programming and the non-visual “visualization” of data.
Further, he sees a broader strategic trend, dating back decades, that has given us today’s difficulties with Section 508 compliance. That trouble can be summed up in one acronym, “WYSIWYG.” Although John Seely Brown controversially warned the computing and disability communities back in 1984 that WYSIWYG was the wrong way to go that warning largely went unheeded, according to Lewis. Even Lewis thought Brown was very mistaken at the time. Yet, Lewis said he come to agree with Brown over the years because WYSIWYG doesn’t allow for more abstract ideas not tied to the presentation.
He observed that one “underexploited” opportunity to improve accessibility is to make content management systems more inclusive by design.
Pushing the Raman Principle
How does the Principle apply when we think about the inclusion of people with cognitive disabilities, he asked. The traditional paradigm is to have a linear progression from task to web page to user understanding. Application of the Raman Principle, he said, would suggest asking the question: “How can we make this task easier to perform?”
Public Policy Challenges
Among the challenges of the increased shift to programmatic access and clients is that government agencies responsible for producing the content might not produce clients. Who then is responsible for accessibility, he asked. Is it solely the providers of the clients? Since clients are developed by non-governmental entities, is government required to make sure they are accessible?
The question isn’t just theoretical, he asserted. He illustrated his point with the example of the Department of Veterans Affairs Blue Button, which allows veterans to download their personal health information in plaintext. The government does not provide clients to view the content. He originally thought it was a horrible idea because it provided no context to make it usable, but he then realized that clients would do that. Yet, does this foster accessibility, particularly given that the Veteran’s Administration is neither providing nor funding the creation of clients. He observed that the VA likely met their Section 508 compliance obligations because that responsibility lies with the clients to be accessible. Since those are developed by non-governmental entities, he said, the government doesn’t need to make sure they are accessible.
Accordingly, there is a new division of labor and responsibility. The government produces the content and makes that content available in “open and machine-readable” data formats. Lewis didn’t mention it, but President Obama issued an executive order on May 9, 2013 to require agencies to comply with a federal Open Data Policy and to make data available in machine-readable formats.
Public Policy Responses
To respond to the challenges of the new paradigm, public policy will need to address not only accessibility, such as Section 508, but also intellectual property laws. The Raman Principle, he said, suggests the conflict with intellectual property rights, particularly copyright, might get even worse. He recommended that someone within a government agency should convene a roundtable or similar forum to discuss these issues.
He said we also need to promote advances in software tools. He referred to the Global Public Infrastructure Initiative and FluidProject.org as examples of efforts to foster flexible, inclusive, innovative, and customizable approaches. He reiterated the challenge put forth a few years ago by Jamal Mazrui, the FCC Deputy Director of the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative, at a similar convening of experts and interested stakeholders at the FCC. “The Mazrui Challenge” calls for more software tools for use by developers with disabilities to create apps and software programs for people with similar disabilities.
Additional information and related materials from today’s FCC’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative Speaker Series are available at: