A 508 grace note

Thomas R. Temin

Ever notice how scientific advances have made so many ordinary things better in recent years?

The other night my job was to patrol, on bicycle, a long section of a local thoroughfare that was coned off for a footrace. On my way out the door, I found that my 18-year-old 10-speed had a flat tire. So I quickly purloined my son's bike, a recent hybrid with 21 speeds and a gorgeous paint job.

I was astonished at how smoothly it worked, easily it maneuvered and effortlessly it pedaled compared to my clunker. Metallurgical and polymer research for jet planes, deep-water oil drilling and disk drives had'in the intervening years'trickled down to the silky
precision of an average-priced bicycle.

Ask any backpacker, rock climber, photographer or car enthusiast how much better stuff is today compared with just a few years ago thanks to materials.

So why is the typical computer interface still the same clunky, fatiguing, carpal-tunnel-syndrome-producing item it was five, 10 and 20 years ago'especially considering all the advances in electronics? Isn't it time to apply the same creativity that has advanced materials science so far?

In the area of human-to-computer interfaces, I think the world will end up owing a huge debt of gratitude to organized efforts by handicapped users that have resulted in mandates such as Section 508.

I am fundamentally suspicious of using laws and mandates to effect social good. But where computers are concerned, the market doesn't seem able to correct the generally horrible interfaces that afflict disabled and fully able users alike.

A display or input system optimized for the handicapped is in reality a better one for just about everyone.

As the Education Department's chief information officer, Craig Luigart, noted recently in an interview with GCN, a law requiring caption decoding on TV sets opened up a new market'not for the deaf but for TV sets in noisy places such as airports, health clubs and sports bars.

Alternative interfaces, rationally presented Web sites, easier-to-read text and other displays will, of course, benefit the handicapped. But they will also improve productivity and ease of use for all users'and none too soon.

Thomas R. Temin
Editorial director
E-mail: [email protected]


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