ERCIM News No.40 - January 2000

Challenges towards Universal Access in the Information Age

by Constantine Stephanidis

The radical technological changes in the Information Technology and Telecommunications industries have contributed towards a more information- and interaction-intensive paradigm for human-computer interaction. This trend, which is expected to continue, raises a whole new range of social, economic and technological considerations, regarding the structure and content of societal activities at the turn of the 21st century.

The term Information Society is frequently used to refer to the new socio-economic and technological paradigm likely to occur as a result of the changes that are taking place. The Information Society has the potential to improve the quality of life of citizens, the efficiency of our social and economic organisation, and to reinforce cohesion. However, as with all major technological changes, it can also introduce new barriers, if the diverse requirements of all potential users are not taken seriously into consideration, and access to computer applications and services is not guaranteed. This may lead to a ‘two-tier’ society of ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’, in which only a part of the population has access to the new technology, is comfortable using it and can fully enjoy the benefits.

The general architectural model 
of accessibility-oriented environment-level adaptations.

The acceptability of the emerging Information Society to all citizens ultimately depends on its accessibility and usability. Therefore, it is important to develop high quality user interfaces, accessible and usable by a diverse user population with different abilities, skills, requirements and preferences, in a variety of contexts of use, and through a variety of different technologies. Universal Access concerns the right of all citizens to obtain and maintain access to a society-wide pool of information resources and interpersonal communication facilities, given the varieties of context. To this end, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) plays a critical and catalytic role.

Universal access is predominantly an issue of design, namely how is it possible to design systems that permit systematic and cost-effective approaches to accommodating all users. The term universal design is used to reflect a new concept or philosophy for design that recognises, respects, values and attempts to accommodate the broadest possible range of human abilities, requirements and preferences in the design of interactive environments, products and services. Thus, it promotes a design perspective that eliminates the need for special features and fosters individualisation and end-user acceptability. Design for all does not imply a single design solution suitable for all users. Instead, it should be interpreted as an effort to design products and services in such a way so as to suit the broadest possible end-user population.

Over the years, the issue of access to computer-based applications and services has been addressed through various collaborative efforts. The traditional approach to accessibility is to adapt applications and services to the abilities and requirements of people with disabilities (see Figure 1). As a result, such an approach mainly reflects a reactive attitude, whereby Assistive Technology solutions addressed problems introduced by a previous generation of technology. Despite the undoubted value and usefulness of the adaptations-oriented approach and the accumulated body of knowledge, it clearly neglects aspects of accessibility that are particularly important in the context of the emerging Information Society.

The second and more recent approach aims to proactively account for accessibility by taking appropriate actions during the early phases of a product’s life cycle. Though cost/benefit data are missing, at present, to assess the economic efficacy of proactive approaches, the attention that is being devoted to the issue is rapidly increasing. Recently, there have been a number of initiatives by mainstream actors (Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Apple, etc) and research consortia to develop technological frameworks that provide more adequate support for accessibility and easier integration of assistive technology applications. These efforts aim to provide accessibility tools as integral components of mainstream interaction platforms and environments. Three promising alternatives are the Active Accessibility® initiative by Microsoft, JavaTM Accessibility by Sun and the Unified User Interface development platform developed in the context of the TIDE - ACCESS consortium funded by the European Commission. The FRIEND21 project in Japan has also made a very important contribution in this respect.

In addition to the above efforts, there have been several attempts, some of which are still on-going, to consolidate the existing wisdom on accessible and/or universal design in the form of best-practice principles. Such materials become increasingly available either as general and context-free guidelines or as platform- or user-specific recommen-dations (eg, W3C - Web Accessibility Initiative).

Universal Design is also addressed in some policy initiatives. In the recent past, the principles and practice of design for all have been progressively adopted and advocated by an increasing proportion of the research community (i.e., research consortia in the context of various RTD Programmes of the European Com-mission), industrial consortia, scientific and technical committees, standardisation bodies, as well as national legislation and international directives. Efforts towards universal design have met wide appreciation by an increasing proportion of the international research community, thus leading to the foundation of working groups, such as the ERCIM Working Group on User Interfaces for All.

Despite the fact that the currently available know-how has reached a level of maturity that provides evidence of technological feasibility in the area of accessible computer-based products and services, Design for All still poses many challenges in the field of HCI. The lack of consolidated theories to guide and facilitate universal access is evident from the limited input and impact that prominent HCI design strands (such as Human Factors evaluation and Cognitive Science) have had on the study of universal access. Furthermore, the situation is further complicated by the lack of practical means (tools and architectures) to guide developments towards universal access. Clearly, additional and significant research and development efforts are needed to address the challenges posed by Design for All in the HCI field. A research agenda is therefore required for providing a common and unifying frame of reference for subsequent endeavours.

A proposal for such an agenda is presented in the ERCIM ICST Report ‘Designing for all in the Information Society: Challenges towards universal access in the information age’. The report analyses some of the critical issues involved, provides an overview of the current state of the art in Universal Design, and identifies and proposes specific research directions. The thematic scope of the proposed agenda is broad and complex, and is articulated around four clusters: (i) the development of environments of use; (ii) the support of communities of users; (iii) the extension of user-centred design to support new virtualities; and (iv) the establishment of suitable accompanying measures.


Active Accessibility® initiative by Microsoft:
JavaTM Accessibility by Sun:
W3C - Web Accessibility Initiative:
User Interfaces for All Working Group:
ERCIM ICST Report ‘Designing for all in the Information Society: Challenges towards universal access in the information age’:

Please contact:

Constantine Stephanidis - ICS-FORTH
Tel: +30 81 391741

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