Cloud accessibility and the changing dream

I love the Cloud. Yes, it may seem like a strange thing to declare at the start of a column piece, but it’s true.  Whether it’s knowing my files are safe even if my house burnt to the ground, my e-mails being instantly there when I set up a new tablet, or my accessibility preferences being updated instantly between my various Windows 10 computers, the upshot of it is that it makes my life much easier, both as a consumer and as a person with a disability.

To highlight the benefits and to take a snapshot of the Cloud’s accessibility implications I wrote a white paper two years ago titled The Accessibility of Cloud Computing – Current and Future Trends. The paper focused strongly on the need for government and industry to come together to provide accessibility in the Cloud space, concluding that:

“The rapid increase in the usage of smartphones and tablets that have limited storage and rely heavily on synchronising data with the Cloud indicates that it is becoming an essential service. As such, it is vital that people with disabilities are able to effectively access it, and government, industry and consumers all have a role to play in this.”

In many respects this conclusion is even more accurate today.  The rapid evolution of Cloud-based services and the increasing reliance on mobile devices with limited storage suggest that the Cloud is here to stay, and that we’re likely to rely on it now more than ever.  Yet while today the conclusions are similar, the Cloud is changing and its applicability to people with disabilities is rapidly changing with it.


Which parts of the Cloud are we talking about?

Generally, when we talk about the Cloud in consumer terms we’re talking specifically bout aspects of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS) Storing our data online such as files and pictures, storing data which affects our global preferences, or using a software application via a web browser that we used to use on our computers such as Google Docs highlights some of the popular ways we engage with the Cloud.  Yet there’s a new Cloud-based player in town and its shaking up the accessibility implications of how we do things – it’s the combination of Cloud-based services and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The synchronisation of data, such as profile information, is one of the ways in which Cloud has truly had an impact for people with disabilities   As discussed in the white paper, the inclusion of storing accessibility preferences in the Cloud in Windows 8 and now Windows 10 has meant that accessibility features can be set up once on one computer and then they’re always available on another Windows computer – the same high contrast theme, the same large mouse arrow, the same on-screen keyboard or on-screen alert settings, ready to go.  While Microsoft introduced this with little fanfare, it’s made a significant difference in being able to easily interact with multiple devices.  Recent announcements by Apple and the Windows 10 Anniversary Update have continued the trend allowing the syntonising of data between different devices commonplace, and this includes accessibility. However, there’s one key initiative which was seen as having great potential for people with disabilities which may no longer be as relevant due to the rapid growth of IoT. 


GPII versus IOT

The Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), an initiative of Raising the Floor, featured heavily in the initial white paper as a beacon of what was possible.  The concept is similar to the Windows accessibility preferences scenario but on a grand scale.  Imagine if you could walk up to any machine such as a ticket machine, ATM or vending machine and its interface changed instantly into something accessible based on your accessibility preferences?  This is the idea behind GPII.  The concept is powerful, possible and would significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities. 

While few would deny that a GPII-style world would be a great thing, there are some good reasons why it hasn’t happened yet and realistically it’s unlikely to happen in any significant form for some time to come.  The biggest issue is the sheer amount of collaboration that would be needed by government industry and consumers to make it happen.  Kick-starting this type of collaboration was one of the primary recommendations in the 2014 white paper and while collaboration is always a good thing to support people with disabilities, the practical reality of GPII is that it’s a big ask for any country to allocate all its resources to making every device accessible on the Cloud, especially if it’s something that doesn’t have obvious benefits to the general public more broadly.  There are also issues of privacy and security in that devices the world over would have to know about you and you and your disability to set themselves up accordingly.  Furthermore, GPII is prone to common Cloud issues as highlighted in the Federal Times article 5 ways the Cloud complicates accessibility which highlights issues such as version control, reliance on browser, platform quandary, use of thin client and rich data visualisation as all being issues.  Indeed, the thin client point is particularly relevant for the GPII model as a ticket machine by default is unlikely to have much processing power.

Yet as we consider the practicalities around GPII, what if there were a better way – a way in which consumers were already engage, d using technologies already connected to the Cloud that are also accessible, to interact with our everyday devices?  This is where the uptake of IoT has the potential to radically shake up benefits for people with disabilities.

Rather than focusing on the need for devices to provide us with accessible information through a Cloud-based profile, perhaps the reverse is more likely in that the person with a disability has an accessible device in which all other devices communicate.  We’re already seeing a number of IoT devices communicate their data with the user through smartphone apps, and with Google’s recent announcement by Google regarding Instant Apps, new possibilities emerge.  If the app, for a device, rather than a user profile, sits in the Cloud and can be instantly available on your device without kneeing to be manually installed, the already-accessible smartphone now becomes the gateway to using devices. For example, it may be possible in the not-too-distant future to walk through a train station and based on your local information offer you choices as to which devices to interact.  Purchasing a ticket and using the elevator to select a button could all be done using your personal accessible device rather than the interface having to take on the load.  With Bluetooth, NFC and GPS already with us, it’s not a stretch that all IoT devices could require less tweaking of its own interface and instead more supportive of the interface on the smartphone or wearable that’s being carried. 

With cheap smartphones running Android reaching a $50 price point, such a solution become affordable and avoids the privacy and security concerns of GPII due to the information being on the user’s device rather than the IoT device.  The issues raised around Cloud accessibility become less prominent too, given that the heavy lifting of engagement with an IoT device with accessibility features is all done by the smartphone. As it would operate in an accessible app on an accessible device, browser-dependent solutions aren’t required either.


It’s still a dream – for now

While the concept of being able to walk around a city and being able to easily interact with devices through my smartphone is something that excites me and I suspect would have mainstream appeal as well, the whole IoT space is still evolving and it’s unlikely we’ll see such solutions yet.  It’s also imperative that if the role of interacting with everyday devices does fall to the smartphone or wearable that we continue to push the need for apps and interface to be developed to web stands and for this we look to W3C with WCAG 2.0, ATAG 2.0, WCAG2ICT and Indie UI all providing a piece of the accessibility puzzle going forward.

So as I said at the start, I love the Cloud, and as we become more reliant on it for our everyday needs I suspect its benefits through the use of IoT interaction will see many more fans to come.