"Working well with others"

Making Collaboration Technologies Accessible for Persons with Disabilities

by: Jan Richards, Adaptive Technology Resource Centre

There was a time when "works well with others" meant that a child had gone for a few hours without knocking over a classmate's blocks - or at least not while the teacher was looking.

But, these days, someone might be said to "work well with others" if they can collaborate closely on complex multimedia tasks, with far-flung co-workers, only some of whom know each other personally.

While this sort of collaboration was not totally impossible with previous forms of communication, such as printed materials, faxes, conference calls, face to face meeting, etc. the advent of computer-mediated collaborative tools has made intensive collaboration both practical and accessible.

Yes, accessible.

Although the poor state of accessibility of many of the collaborative tools on the market today would seem to put the lie to this last statement, it's important to realize that the communication modes that were previously used for for collaboration all suffered from intrinsic problems with accessibility for people with disabilities.

For example, printed materials and faxes could not be read by people who could not see them. Live conversations and conference calls could be difficult for people who could not hear them. And attendance at face to face collaboration could be difficult for people with disabilities that affect mobility and travel.

In contrast, there is no fundamental reason for the existence of access barriers in computer-mediated collaborative tools. In fact, there are a number of intrinsic accessibility advantages:

The first advantage is that most computer-mediated collaborative tools rely to some extent on electronic text, which can be relatively easily transformed within and between sensory modalities. In fact, if development of the tool follows platform standards, the tool will usually be able to rely on third-party assistive technologies for many of these modality transformations.

For example: A person who is blind may be unable to read a paper fax. But, using a properly developed computer-mediated collaborative tool, the user will ber able to access forms of communication analagous to a paper fax, such as shared electronic files, using the screen reader or Braille display on their own system. On the other hand, a person who has low vision may be perfectly able to access the textual information in a fax, as long as it can be magnified and/or recoloured according to their preferences.

A second intrinsic advantage of computer-mediated collaborative tools is that they can more easily manage alternatives to necessarily inaccessible materials.

For example: A person who is blind may not be able to participate in a meeting where a physical whiteboard is used. But, a computer-mediated shared drawing space could be augmented to provide enough automatic and, if necessary ,human-assisted textual descriptions for the user to follow along. Similarly, a collaborative tool could implement a closed captioning system for video that would only show captions to those people who want to see them.

A third intrinsic advantage of computer-mediated collaborative tools is that they can automatically moderate the flow of conversations to allow all participants to contribute to real-time discussions.

For example, a person with a mobility disability may require some extra time to compose a message, which in a conventional real-time communication mode may result in the rest of the group moving on to a new subject before the message is ready. If a "floor" passing mechansim is implemented, then the system might ration access to the communication medium (chat, whiteboard, etc.) in order to control the flow of the conversation enough to allow slower communicating individuals to contribute.

The challenge of ongoing work on the accessibility of collaborative tools will be to more fully realize the intrinsic accessibility advantages of computer-mediated approaches, while guarding against the erosion of existing inter-operability and conversation moderation features as new technologies, such as voice over IP and more sophisticated whiteboard systems, come on line.

Perhaps the ultimate praise for a future collaborative tool will be that it enables any user, no matter what their physical or sensory abilities, to "work well with others".