What if whenever you sat down at a computer in a library, career center or another public setting, the device automatically configured itself in accordance with your preferences and abilities? Those adjustments could include increasing the font size, converting required key combinations to simpler one-click buttons, and turning on dark mode, among others.
That kind of convenient customization for shared personal computers (PCs) has gone from a “what if” scenario to reality in recent years with Morphic, a cloud-based auto-personalization program. Although Morphic makes PCs easier to use for everyone, it also enables people with disabilities who rely on assistive technology (AT) to transfer their AT and accessibility settings from one computer to another.
The Morphic project is just one example of how cloud computing can make the world a more inclusive place. While the growing prevalence of the cloud has made vital resources more accessible for all of us, this advanced technology has particularly significant potential to eliminate barriers, improve access to essential services and enhance the day-to-day lives of people who have disabilities.
The Rise of Cloud Computing and Its Power to Improve Inclusivity
Even before the pandemic necessitated widespread remote work and virtual learning arrangements, cloud-delivered solutions were already popular due to their flexibility, accessibility from anywhere, and easy deployment.
The need to ensure their teams could still work effectively from home during the public health crisis accelerated cloud adoption for many businesses: Flexera’s 2021 State of the Cloud survey found that 90 percent of respondents said their cloud usage is slightly or significantly higher than they’d previously anticipated due to the pandemic.
As the cloud has become an increasingly large part of our daily lives, researchers have explored the technology’s power to assist people with disabilities, which goes beyond making work and school programs available from anywhere. Presented with the challenge of helping people of a range of different abilities conveniently access and create content and services, individuals and organizations around the world have joined forces to work on building a Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) – an effort that includes the use of the cloud to increase accessibility.
This infrastructure is intended to “ensure that everyone who faces accessibility barriers due to disability, literacy, digital literacy, or aging, regardless of economic resources, can access and use the Internet and all its information, communities, and services for education, employment, daily living, civic participation, health, and safety,” according to the GPII website. This initiative’s projects and funding sources include Cloud4All and Prosperity4All, which helped make auto-personalization a reality by paving the way for the creation of Morphic by the non-profit organization Raising the Floor and the University of Maryland Trace Center. More information on the development partners and sources of funding for Morphic is available on the project’s website.
As technology becomes an essential tool for completing many day-to-day tasks and accessing many vital resources (e.g., health insurance portals and job listings), we must invest in making that tech accessible through initiatives like the GPII and the Morphic project to avoid excluding people with disabilities and limiting their opportunities, according to Clayton Lewis, Ph.D., a professor of computer science and fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado who is known for his work related to technology for people with cognitive disabilities. He also served as a technology advisor to the director of the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research (currently the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research), which contributed funding to Morphic.
“It’s obvious that more and more of what everybody does every day is happening online,” Lewis said. “In the pandemic, if anybody was in any doubt of this, they certainly aren’t now. One of the reasons this is so important is to ensure that people with disabilities aren’t left out.”
Cloud-Driven Accessibility in Action
Aside from Morphic, another notable example of a cloud-based tool transforming the lives of people with disabilities is Therap, which delivers a package of software services to help agencies that serve people with cognitive limitations. These agencies are often small and community-based and must comply with various regulations to receive government funding. Utilizing the cloud, Therap makes it so those organizations don’t need to maintain IT departments or worry about backups.
“The community agency just has to have a web browser,” Lewis said. “That’s very consequential and a really great example of what the cloud allows.”
Other notable projects related to accessibility via the cloud include the “Easy Reading” framework involving personalized digital content for better cognitive accessibility and the Technology First initiative by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, which in part aims to ensure remote support (e.g., check-ins via video call) is the first option on the table when authorizing services for people with disabilities.
The Technology First project has not only increased the availability of supportive services to people who need them but has also allowed those with disabilities to avoid home visits if they prefer to do so, Lewis explained.
“For many people, having somebody come to their home and check in on them is intrusive,” he said. “With an online way of doing that, there’s nobody actually coming into your house and being in your space, and that can be a plus.”
The Far-Reaching Benefits of More Accessible Technology
Ultimately, it’s advantageous to invest in projects that make technology more accessible so that as many people as possible can participate fully in an increasingly online world. Lewis noted that tools like Morphic benefit a broad swath of the population, as it’s not uncommon for individuals who don’t have disabilities to still have issues using computers.
“There are a lot of people who just find it challenging to work with technology in a way that’s not related to any sort of general abilities or aptitudes,” he said. “These needs are much more widespread than we thought. As an industry, we computer scientists have kind of assumed that everybody’s just fine with the stuff we’re putting out there. It looks like it’s bigger than we really realized.”
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