A Call to Action: Let’s Close the Digital Gap

Making the Web More Accessible to the Elderly and Disabled

Web accessibility refers to the degree in which a web page is accessible to all users, especially the elderly and those with disabilities. Web browsers today have built-in accessibility features (some included in the operating system) that allow users to do things such as change text size, increase screen contrast, and control keyboard response, as well as interface with a variety of assistive technology (AT) hardware such as screen readers and alternative input devices. When it comes to supporting the elderly and disabled, however, web browsers have a fundamental shortcoming: they normally assume the user can either easily type on a standard keyboard, or use a mouse to select text and images. Even with the proper assistive technology, there is an incorrect assumption that the elderly or disabled can process and interact with web content in the same way the general population can.

The Plight of the Elderly

As a result, note a few things:

  • Elderly people also typically have some sort of disability, but a disabled person may not necessarily have cognitive challenges.
  • Most elderly folks are somewhat apprehensive to computers in general, overwhelmed mainly by their inability to process so much information.
  • Browsers, as they work today, do not lend themselves to be easily used and understood by the elderly. In Remembering How to Use the Internet, W Morrissey and M Zajicek show that seniors almost always have problems following nested links within web pages. Although specialized browsers heavily incorporate assistive technology and other aids to help make life easier for some, they also make certain assumptions about accepted standards and known concepts. For example, a person using a specialized browser might be expected to know how to reference a URL or send an email. That is not always the case.

AI Can Help

As specialists in the field, we should strive to make systems compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people. One big area of focus should be User-Centered Design (UCD) specifically for the elderly and disabled.

Based on what we know about the difficulties elderly and disabled people face, we would have to rethink the whole concept of the web browser, the goal of which would be to make the Internet as accessible to them as using a — much smarter — Echo device.

At a minimum, this device should allow conversations using Natural Language Processing (NLP). It should be ready to call nurses, doctors, and family members, detect if the user is showing signs of stress or needs help in any way, remind the person of medicines to take, upcoming birthdays, events, and celebrations, and record and analyze the user’s behaviors and needs. The device should tell Grandma, for example, that today is Stephanie’s 5th birthday, showing her an image of her granddaughter.

Grandma might not remember from the picture and therefore ask a question like, “who is that?” at which point the tool could talk to her a bit about her granddaughter, bringing up past events. If grandma never asks the question, the option would not be presented to avoid confusion. The screen would should as few visual cues as possible due to working memory limitations.

The device would also ask questions, like, “Would you like to send Stephanie a birthday card?” and keep track of grandma’s response time and whether she needs the question to be repeated. This could trigger changes in the approach of presenting things, or a gradual increase in volume.

Regarding the web, forget the URLs, search bars and links to navigate. The device should navigate to pages based on verbal commands or gestures typical of the user and intelligently parse the text to exclude any clutter that could possibly confuse the user. It should also be ready to open a specific URL on demand.

You get the picture.

The fascination with creating intelligent machines that can think, move, hear, speak or otherwise behave like humans has existed for quite some time. Even before the age of computers, people were awe-struck by anything that appeared to behave like a human, from religious statues in Ancient Egypt that through the manipulation of their priests would gesture and speak prophecies, to child-size mechanical dolls that could pen letters and play the harpsichord.

But this is a real need that is actually very possible to implement using today’s technologies. Devices like these would help the elderly and disabled better incorporate themselves into a society whose dependency on technology is ever-increasing.

Our understanding — albeit limited — of how the mind works, with its ability to induce and conceptualize from fact, can lead to smarter systems that solve real problems like these.

So this is a call to action! Let’s get our creative juices flowing, and create grandma’s future “browser.”

José is a Thought Leader Executive Architect with IBM, specializing in Cloud Architectures and App Modernization.