Virtual Collaboratories for Users with Special Needs: Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Framework to Support the Disabled

Vesper Owei , Abiodun Bada, Manny Aniebonam

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Virtual collaboratories on the Internet, especially on the Web, presuppose that users are equipped with the requisite interaction tools and techniques to participate effectively and efficiently in the interaction. This is a presupposition that does not always hold true, especially with disabled users whose information and communication technology (ICT) needs are invariably ignored in the current accelerated pace of ICT development. The disabled therefore suffer from a huge level of information deficit. This has left them in a position of competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis their able-bodied counterparts in a world that has long-since gone digital. The loss is not that of the disabled alone, but also of their societies that thereby deny themselves of the potential benefits accruing from an ICT-savvy pool of disabled users. The loss is especially pronounced in the case of developing countries whose efforts at leapfrogging into the digital age are severely hampered by a dire lack of trained, skilled and knowledgeable information systems workers.

What is needed to address this neglect is the development of HCI interfaces and input-output interaction modes that are suitably customized for the different types of disability. In this paper, therefore, we examine a number of important issues in developing suitable HCI interfaces to enhance the interaction of the disabled with the online information facilities that underlie virtual collaboratories. A framework for the design and development of such interfaces is proposed. Because databases are ubiquitous on the Internet and the Web and underlie information systems (IS), we use issues in the design of web-enabled databases to illustrate our framework. Our framework is shown in Figures 1 and 2.

From the point of view of the disabled, it is highly desirable to reduce the cognitive burden associated with developing or using an IS. The gain in cognitive load reduction is that the disabled is then empowered to work online speedily and accurately. For this to be realized, the issues to be studied are: (1) determining special-purpose interfaces that will allow requests to be specified in a form that is minimally demanding cognitively, and (2) developing translation mechanisms for automatically mapping inputs from the special-purpose interfaces into forms that are recognized by the Web browser. The enabling architecture and client/server diagram are shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2 (both of which are adapted and extended from Ashenfelter).

Figure 1: Extended Four-Level Web Database Architecture for the Disabled

Figure 2: Web Client/Server Diagram with a Tailorable Interface for the Disable