Cloud computing: Potential, pitfalls for people with disabilities

New research argues that cloud can be an important platform for increasing the independence of people with disabilities but industry and government need a conscious approach to accessibility

Cloud computing can help empower people with disabilities by offering increased independence and opportunities to participate in the workforce, according to a new report.

However, without a conscious approach to building services that support accessibility standards, vendors and IT departments risk limiting people's ability to use software-as-a-service applications and other cloud services.

The report, produced by Media Access Australia and sponsored by the Australian Web Industry Association, was released this morning.

The Accessibility of Cloud Computing – Current and Future Trends argues that while "the cloud environment may be beneficial for business and consumers ... it is particularly important to consider how these benefits and risks relate to people with disabilities and the additional consequences that may be associated with its broad implementation, particularly for consumers where cloud access is essential to product use."

Given that in this country we currently have, to use blind and vision impaired as an example, about 65 per cent unemployment, then cloud could be revolutionary in providing an accessible working environment

Dr Scott Hollier

"What we've noticed is that more and more industry is heading towards using the cloud and there hasn't been a lot of work done in looking at the implications of that," said Dr Scott Hollier, the report's author and the manager of major projects at Media Access Australia.

MAA is a not-for-profit organisation that works to increase the access to media for people with a disability.

"It was really important to look at what's going on both in terms of the business space to support CIOs and also in the consumer space [in terms of cloud]," Hollier said.

"While businesses have a certain amount of choice as to whether they stick with the more traditional client-server system or look at things like cloud storage, consumers are kind of locked into whatever ecosystem they're using — they almost have to use cloud to make the most of their particular device."

As cost and flexibility drive more businesses to adopt software-as-a-service, there needs to be a conscious approach to ensuring that people with a disability can access SaaS applications, the report argues.

"A CIO might be looking at the idea that if everything is hosted in the cloud — be it storage or infrastructure, or software — that's great for all employees," Hollier said. "But if people with disabilities aren't considered in that mix, then there's a real chance that they may find [using cloud services] difficult."

"That would be unfortunate because there's huge potential benefits, looking at cloud for business, for people with disabilities," Hollier said.

For example, cloud services can potentially make it easier a person with a disability to employ the assistive technology they already use at home for work tasks.

"If they could access their email, files and software online using that assistive technology it means that business doesn't have to pay for it, and they can use the tools that best work for them," Hollier said.

"Given that in this country we currently have, to use blind and vision impaired as an example, about 65 per cent unemployment, then cloud could be revolutionary in providing an accessible working environment."

Hollier, who represents MAA on the advisory committee of the standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), said that support for a number of existing mature standards can minimise the risk that organisations, whether they be producers or consumers of cloud services, exclude people with a disability.

"WCAG 2.0 [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] provides guidance on how you can build a website in accessible way, and W3C also has two other documents that are particularly relevant to app development and software-as-a-service development," Hollier said.

One of those documents is ATAG 2.0 — Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines — which provides standards for building accessible tools for carrying out Web development. The other is WCAG2ICT, which provides guidance on applying the WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards in non-Web contexts.

All three standards are part of W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

As part of his research, Hollier looked at the support for accessibility features among vendors that sell cloud services and devices whose full functionality relies heavily on cloud services, such as smartphones and tablets.

The report assessed the inclusion of accessibility features in software platforms from Apple, Microsoft and Google, including their cloud-enabled mobile and desktop operating systems and their storage-as-a-service offerings.

"While Microsoft may be the only popular cloud provider to currently offer accessibility specific cloud benefits, all of the three major ecosystems – Windows, iOS and Android – provide effective accessibility tools such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, on-screen keyboard support and captioned video playback," the report states.

The accessibility feature that won Microsoft plaudits in the report is its support for roaming profiles that allow a user to take their accessibility settings with them regardless of which device they are working on, Hollier said.

The MAA paper cites a blog post by Rob Sinclair, Microsoft's chief accessibility officer, which argues that "[t]he cloud can serve as a virtual glue that connects a user's devices".

"Microsoft has well and truly embraced the idea of cloud accessibility," Hollier said. "What they've done is if you're running a Windows 8.x device you can set up your accessibility preferences — so, for example, if I were blind I'd want to use the screen reader or set up the magnifier or a high-contrast colour scheme — and if I log into another Windows 8.x machine then all those features are automatically set up.

"If I change my high-contrast colour scheme on one device, say at work, then that scheme changes to the same thing in real time on my home computer if I'm using the same log-in. What this means for people with disabilities is that you learn one system, one device and the accessibility basically follows you around."

"While this is probably more consumer-based at the moment, there's no reason why business couldn't also take advantage of some of these exciting cloud offerings and use them to assist employment of people with disabilities," Hollier said.

This concept of having networked devices and services automatically adjust to meet the needs of an individual with a disability is one that Hollier is keen to see extended even further.

"Taking the idea of accessibility synchronisation to a more advanced level is an initiative called the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) that is striving to provide a greater, platform-independent solution that would automatically configure any internet-connected device to meet the needs of individual users with disabilities," The Accessibility of Cloud Computing states.

GPII is an initiative in the US by not-for-profit organisation Raising the Floor. The GPII project was founded by Gregg Vanderheiden, a professor in the industrial and systems engineering department and the biomedical engineering department at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Let's say you had a disability and you walked up to a ticket machine in a train station," Hollier said. "What could happen is that in real time you'd be identified, your profile would be pulled down from the cloud, and that ticket machine would be set up in a way that works for you.

"If you were a vision-impaired person, it might make the display high contrast and use large print and read things out to you. But if you're in a wheelchair, it might drop the text to a lower part of the screen and put the touch buttons at the bottom of the screen and make it accessible that way."

"The idea of GPII is that whether you're using a ticket machine, your work computer, your IPad, the TV, the interface looks and feels the same," Hollier said.

"In order for it to happen you'd need support from industry, government, key stakeholders and much better broadband than Australia currently has, but it is an exciting dream for the future."

Windows 8's support for accessibility profiles that follow users from device to device is a small taste of what could be possible, Hollier said.

Dr Scott Hollier

Dr Scott Hollier

"This was a dream and now that we're actually starting to see little elements of it happening," Hollier said. A number existing open source tools could play an important role in realising the vision, but in Australia there would have to be a substantial improvement in broadband infrastructure to make it possible, Hollier said.

"It's something that would be very challenging in Australia's current broadband environment. I know there's been a lot of discussion around the National Broadband Network and its implementation — but it's my hope that that does continue and does prove to be successful."

In addition there are "the usual issues of cloud around privacy, security, and data ownership," Hollier added. "From a person with disabilities point of view, there is a question mark whether people with disabilities feel comfortable having their personal details in the cloud."

The Accessibility of Cloud Computing includes a range of recommendations for business and government. Although there has been good initial work by some governments when it comes to WCAG 2.0 support, more needs to be done around ATAG 2.0 and WCAG2ICT to promote cloud accessibility.

"[G]overnments can provide early markets to help accessibility of cloud services become commercially viable and also provide real-world platforms for accessibility issues to be tested and refined," the report states.

Industry should "ensure that the implementation of cloud accessibility is taken seriously at the coal face of product innovation. Suppliers and vendors of cloud-based services need to take a more systematic approach to issues of accessibility, rather than the current ad hoc method."

"Suppliers and vendors of cloud-based services need to take a more systematic approach to issues of accessibility, rather than the current ad hoc method," the report states.

"While a fully integrated inclusive cloud may still be elusive, cooperation by consumers, industry and government can lead to significant and positive change in the independence and participation of people with disabilities," argues the report.

The Accessibility of Cloud Computing – Current and Future Trends can be downloaded from the Media Access Australia website.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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