At the beginning of each academic year at the University of Dundee, where I work as a tenured professor of human communication technologies in the School of Science and Engineering, I meet a group of new students, many of whom are already familiar with who I am. My role as Dundee’s Director of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) research, and the collection of letters that follow my name (Ph.D., OBE), often leads students to put me on a pedestal. In my first lecture each term, I aim to show my students that I’m an ordinary person who’s simply made the most of the opportunities that have come my way. I’m just a little further along in my journey than they are. We all have the potential to become who we're meant to be, even when societal and socioeconomic challenges get in our way. As an educator, my career is dedicated to supporting people in reaching their potential, whatever that may be.
I grew up in 1970s South Africa, a very segregated environment where Apartheid’s many prejudices weren’t just based on race or color but also on ability. I was born with cerebral palsy, which impairs my ability to walk, control my hands, and speak. In contrast to my classroom experience where my reputation precedes me, strangers see that I have a movement disorder and a speech impairment, and assume that I have a learning disability as well. Apartheid South Africa was not a friendly place for people with disabilities. I was warned not to expect the public to listen to my voice and that I should know my place, which was believed to be behind the scenes.
My parents emphasized the importance of independence, and would often tell the story of how I was constantly falling over while learning to walk—and how instead of picking me up, they made me get up by myself. While their family and friends were often a bit horrified, they recognized that I would not always be a cute child, and that as an adult I would have to stand on my own two feet and learn to do things independently. With congenital lifelong disabilities, there's often a high level of learned helplessness, as people with disabilities aren't expected to do more than just sit and smile. One of my students, Becky, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, has called me a "task master" because I demand as much from her as from her peers. I see that she is a highly academic person and I know she is more than capable. I believe that it's essential to view each person as an individual with their own potential, both academically and in their ability to make independent choices. My own teachers saw this in me, and I now spend much of my time working to connect technology with children and young people who face educational challenges stemming from disability.
The success of any child, whether disabled or not, relies on a comprehensive support system that involves the whole community. Parents play a pivotal role, and a touch of good fortune also contributes. But it is essential to recognize the crucial contributions of educators. The biggest support I had was from teachers who saw beyond my disability and encouraged me to pursue my interests. If it weren't for my biology teacher, who insisted I continue studying math, I wouldn't be where I am today. It's this intricate network of support that shapes our lives.
Rising with technology
I studied computer science at the University of Cape Town in the early 1980s. It was an exciting time because I witnessed the arrival of the first IBM PC on the market. When I started university, I didn’t even know what a computer was. The only thing I knew was that I had watched Star Wars and had this dream of building a robot that could carry a cup of coffee upstairs, a task that was challenging for me.
Oddly enough, throughout my undergraduate degree, I never actually saw the computer we worked on. It was a UNIVAC mainframe computer hidden away on most of the second floor of the department, and we were only allowed to see a small part of that area. At first, we could only access card readers and printers, and then finally, as we advanced through our undergraduate studies, we were allowed to access the terminals.
As technology evolved, so did the ways that I interacted with my coursework. During my first year at university, I struggled with punched card programming. It was awful because I couldn't type accurately and the keypunch device we used had a clunky keyboard for selecting where holes were punched. Every mistake meant throwing away another card. Which was not only annoying, but also emotionally exhausting. Typing has always been challenging for me because my fingers don't always cooperate, leading to lots of typos. People say they enjoy watching me type and are puzzled over how I manage to get letters onto the screen despite my unorthodox style. I had to rely on my mother, who had no idea what I was asking her to punch, but she was a great typist and simply typed as I dictated.
I was given an IBM Selectric typewriter for my 14th birthday with interchangeable typing elements for different fonts. We called the typing elements golf balls because they were round, about the same size as a golf ball, and had dimples all over them with various characters depending on the chosen font. I had a QWERTY golf ball and a mathematical symbol golf ball. To type algebra, I would type the QWERTY equations, leaving gaps, and then go back to fill in the gaps with the mathematical symbols. As you can imagine, this process was time-consuming and required a lot of cognitive effort to keep track of where I was going and what I was trying to achieve. We’ve come a long way since then and many of these challenges have been overcome as technology has improved, removing the cognitive burden associated with input and allowing me to focus my energy on the more creative aspects of my work.
Bridging universal and inclusive design
During my undergraduate studies, I experienced first-hand AI's impressive capabilities in improving language processing, and quickly recognized its vast potential to overcome communication barriers. Though I don't consider myself an AI expert, I have developed a keen eye for identifying the right technology and understanding how to use it effectively. I’m a bit like a magpie, stealing all the shiny technology and saving it for when it’s useful.
An early project of mine was software that generated rhyming puns to help children develop their understanding of language and its nuances. This was important because children with speech difficulties often miss out on these crucial developmental milestones. To provide the natural language processing capabilities for the software, I worked with the inventor of a novel AI program. Despite popular belief, working with AI isn't rocket science; however, its ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data efficiently is truly remarkable. The most challenging aspect of this project was developing the interface, which needed to connect children with profound disabilities to this groundbreaking technology. This has continued to be a central theme throughout my work, as the interface design remains the most complex and crucial issue to address.
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For us to achieve successful interface design, we need to bridge the gap between universal and inclusive design by acknowledging that it's impossible to create designs that cater to everyone's needs. Inclusive design focuses on taking individual users into account, ensuring they can access what's created. Given the heterogeneous nature of disability, with everyone's needs being slightly different, it's more practical to base designs on universal principles while incorporating adaptability for inclusivity.
Similar to physical design, where modifying a tricycle can suit a rider’s specific needs, open source is built for customizability. However, many consumer-facing open source solutions, from word processors to graphic design tools, face challenges in gaining widespread adoption because they lack the support and promotion that’s common with commercial applications. This raises the question: How can we provide the necessary support and training to implement these solutions, especially in educational settings? The key lies in striking a balance between the adaptability and accessibility of open source projects with the resources and support typically provided by commercial solutions.
Ordinary extraordinary users
Throughout history, technology that was initially developed to level the playing field for people with disabilities has benefited society as a whole. Inventions such as the typewriter, originally designed to assist blind individuals in writing, and the ballpoint pen, created for those unable to pour ink into fountain pens, have become widespread and commonplace. Corrective lenses are a powerful example. When I remove my glasses, text immediately becomes quite blurry, but no one considers that a disability. It’s just a part of life.
A colleague of mine coined the term "ordinary extraordinary users," highlighting that designing for extraordinary users benefits ordinary users in extraordinary circumstances as well. For instance, designing a system for those with visual impairments can also help someone struggling to read an e-reader in bright sunlight. Accessibility options support the majority of people in various environments.
These are called situational disabilities, where individuals who usually consider themselves non-disabled encounter environmental factors such as loud noises or crowded spaces that temporarily limit their abilities. Another example is when people on a packed train rely on subtitles displayed on a bulletin board. Situational disabilities are so commonplace that it can seem odd to refer to them as such; we tend to simply view them as everyday frustrations.
Most of us will experience a form of disability at some point in our lives, whether temporary, age-related, or due to an accident or illness. I'm fortunate that because disability is a part of who I am, I don't need to adapt to a completely different situation. However, when I see someone in their 50s having had a stroke or becoming infirm earlier than expected, that transition is incredibly challenging for them, as they never envisioned themselves in such a situation. The value of adaptability becomes apparent when we are forced to adjust to a new reality.
Disability is not abnormal; it's part of being human. We exist on a spectrum, and we owe it to everyone to support each other because one day, it could be us who need assistance—we are all interdependent!