Disability advocates are demanding that government do more to increase the accessibility of the Internet and broadband devices, especially mobile phones. And their pleas haven't fallen on deaf ears.
Congressman Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and former chairman of the House's Internet subcommittee, introduced a bill in Congress last year that would require providers of Internet services and devices -- from desktop computers to smart phones -- to make user interfaces accessible to people with disabilities. The bill, still in committee, has more than two dozen sponsors.
But for all the hand-wringing about a "digital divide" separating the disabled from the able-bodied, a new era of empowerment is already dawning -- the result not of more regulation from Washington but of Silicon Valley's technological dynamism. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore coined his now-famous law: Computing power doubles every two years. Moore's Law is the unseen force that has transformed every aspect of our world, making computing increasingly powerful, ubiquitous and interconnected. It made the digital revolution possible, and it's now extending the promise of that revolution to users with a wide variety of special needs.
Consider one example: Nuance Communications recently launched its popular Dragon Naturally Speaking speech-recognition software as an iPhone app, allowing users to dictate e-mail, text messages or anything else on their iPhones. The program works so well that it could become the primary input method for millions of regular users. (I've been using the desktop version since having wrist surgery last year, and it's so good that I'll probably keep using it even if my wrists heal fully.) But for America's more than 20 million visually impaired people, such functionality makes smart phones radically more accessible. What's merely cool for many can be life-changing for the disabled.
Similarly, Google last year began letting users dictate their search queries on iPhones and BlackBerrys as well as on phones running the Android and s60 operating systems. And in November, Google announced that it would use voice recognition to caption all videos on YouTube, which it owns -- a feat made possible only by the sheer volume and affordability of processing power in the "cloud" (powerful servers connected to users by high-speed broadband). This will allow America's more than 20 million deaf or hearing-impaired users to enjoy the video cornucopia that is YouTube.
Did I mention that all this is free? Google gains because these features increase site traffic, and thus advertising revenue, but also because transcription allows Google to target ads based on the dialogue in the videos.
Disabled users can also increasingly tailor their technology interfaces through software that meets their accessibility needs. Apple and Microsoft have both built powerful accessibility features into their latest operating systems and Internet browsers, while Adobe has built on these features to make "screen readers" work better than ever to read Web text aloud to the blind and visually impaired. And whatever your disability, search engines and social networks can help you locate a wealth of resources and connections with others in similar situations.
Despite such advances, many advocates for the disabled complain about the inaccessibility of some hardware interfaces, particularly for mobile devices, and want the government to force all device manufacturers to implement certain standard features. That's the wrong approach.
There's only so much that can fit into a single device, especially hand-held devices. So accessibility mandates impose real costs, such as steeper prices, increased bulk and reduced functionality. "Equal access" to the latest gadgets may sound appealing, but policymakers should recognize that regulation will only stifle the innovations that could most help the disabled.
Berin Szoka is the director of the Center for Internet Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation (pff.org). This article is adapted from the forthcoming issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.