Book Review: Computer Accessibility Rights

By on February 27th, 2018 in Book Reviews, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact, Topics

Making Computers Accessible: Disability Rights and Digital Technology. By Elizabeth R. Petrick, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2015, 196 pages.


Don’t look now, but have you ever noticed the nibs on the F and J keys on your computer keyboard? History of Science scholar Elizabeth Petrick shifted scholarly interests from computer science to history allowing for an interesting discussion between computer technology and its impact on civil rights and disability rights. These nibs are, Petrick explains, “tactile feature(s) that help people with visual impairments quickly place their fingers on the correct keys.” Throughout the book — Making Computers Accessible: Disability Rights & Digital Technology, she identifies the origins of assistive device “gems” like these. In this context, assistive devices include any component that is employed to make task completion easier. Further, Petrick provides historic perspectives of how computer technology was developed in the United States allowing persons with disabilities (PwD) full participation in their own lives and in the society. This political action occurred as a direct result of disability activism by disability activists and parents of disabled people.

Petrick provides historic perspectives of how computer technology was developed in the United States allowing persons with disabilities (PwD) full participation in their own lives and in the society.

Making Computers Accessible provides significantly more detail than just assistive technology trivia. Assistive technology (AT) refers to any piece of equipment, software, or product system that is used to maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. The graphic on the book’s cover depicts someone using toes to type on a computer keyboard. The typing toes elucidate the primary argument of the text — the connection between disability rights and digital technology. Petrick explores how digital technology has been adopted by unintended users. These users include persons for whom digital technology was not originally created nor anticipated and hence provisions were not built into the technology by developers. Nevertheless, these unintended users, persons with non-normative bodies, appropriated the technology to enable their own participation within wider society. Petrick identifies how the personal computer (PC) and the values embedded therein held potential for an increased level of participation by disabled people promoting their own wellbeing. Focusing on the role of everyday users and PwD in particular, she argues that the existence of accessible PC and computer technology exists through PwDs’ struggle for disability/ civil rights. This struggle began in the face of almost non-existent and/ or ineffective legislative frameworks for protection of PwD and within the cultural philosophy of the medical model, espoused by the inventor Ray Kurzweil, that the non-normative body requires “fixing.” She argues that greater social interaction occurs when using the PC and accessible computer technology.

Hence, further on, Petrick outlines in specific detail the strategic partnerships established between users, developers, large and small computer companies, and the various alliances. Petrick follows the Brand family, based in the U.S. over several years, in particular, their daughter Shoshana living with cerebral palsy. While the case (Chapter 2) opens with Shoshana and finding appropriate technology for her, the narrative evolves to the Brands being instrumental in communicating to other parents and family members the need to think of their disabled children growing up to be independent disabled adults, using available and accessible computer technology. Petrick argues that the technology must exist and users be made aware of its existence (through existing social infrastructure) to render it useful. Addressing these basic concerns, the Brands formed the Disabled Children’s Computer Group (DCCG) with other like-minded families/parents and subsequently other alliances at the local and national levels. This author illustrates Shoshana Brand’s development from limited fine motor skills to using different levels of computer technology. She also inserts basic photographs and/or screenshots of switches, and showcases the movement from command-line DOS input to graphic user interface, user-friendly features that would be Computer Accessibility Rights Making Computers Accessible: Disability Rights and Digital Technology. By Elizabeth R. Petrick, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2015, 196 pages. D Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MTS.2017.2763439 Date of publication: 5 December 2017 14 IEEE Technology and Society Magazine ∕ DEC e m b e r 2017 appreciated by Assistive Technology Professionals, Rehabilitation Engineers, and Computer Scientists alike. Although Petrick identified that the Brands were both teachers, she fails to highlight their elite background; Mr. Brand was able to stop working for one year to become trained in computer programming, while the child’s mother was able to leave teaching to work with the Center for Independent Living (CIL). Those with less financial resources would have been at a disadvantage.

What does disability rights legislation have to do with computer technology? In Chapter 1, Petrick seeks to answer this question using five historical themes that encompass the shift from a caretaker model to a rights-based model. She discusses early disability legislation, disability activism, and how the computer industry, with IBM as a case study, considered the development and potential benefit of computer technology for users with disabilities. She argues that the achievement of disability rights was enabled through digital technology generally and specifically through computer technology, eventually adopted into what we now call the PC. However, the nexus between these concepts of disability rights and computer technology is not always well articulated. I question the interchangeability of the terms Petrick uses, namely, “technological accommodation” and “computer technology,” which leads to ambiguity and requires a repeat reading for clarity. Nevertheless, she provides a historical narrative on the development of computer technology prior to the PC, while including a detailed history on the variety of stakeholders involved.

Chapter 2 explores how the early PC became a consumer item facilitated through disability activism. However, this process was delayed as assistive technology with maximum capability was financially out of reach of the average user and the PwD was rendered nearly invisible. Critical to the promulgation of disability rights, with a primary focus on accessibility, were continuous discussions on how persons with different kinds of disabilities/impairments can functionally use a PC. Frank Bowe, disability studies scholar and activist, with a keen interest in providing oversight on devices for use by PwD advised that “Personal computers should be made accessible while technology is still in its infancy, so that barriers did not have to be removed later.” As such, Petrick, later recognizes different strategies used to make the PC adaptable to individual needs as the use of the LOGO computer language which used graphics instead of words for those with certain cognitive deficits. Until the mid-1980s, Petrick argues that the “design of personal computers was embedded with assumptions about what kinds of people would be using them, and computer technology evolved that left people with certain kinds of disabilities unable to use off-theshelf products easily.” She highlights that a hierarchy of disability existed then and those with severe disability could not be catered to without placing the device into a high-priced niche market. This reality unfortunately still exists.

In Chapter 3, Petrick provides close details on the alliance formed between the DCCG and the Apple Computer Company, which served as an effective platform for communicating accessibility. Together, Brand, representing the DCCG and Alan Brightman, a disability activist in the employ of Apple, founded the National Special Education Alliance (NSEA). This organization functioned at the national level facilitating knowledge transfer and exchange of expertise in accessible computer technology targeted at the needs of disabled persons. Petrick flip flops in her analysis of Apple as a corporate entity in addressing the needs of PwD. On one hand she argues that Apple’s engagement with the DCCG followed the charity model yet on the other, Apple “had both an interest in and resources to commit to creating such an organization.” She later highlights that the engagement with this local entity was mutually beneficial since it alerted Apple to the needs of their consumers and the partnership created a direct pathway for these exchanges to occur. On the other hand, NSEA’s primary stakeholders — local disability groups around the United States — were being listened to, probably for the first time by a major computer developer and had the opportunity to articulate how the technology would best meet their needs.

The Growth of Accessible Computer Technologies in Chapter 4 was enabled by legislative changes — the passing of the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act), and the American Disability Act of 1990. Petrick advances that the increased availability of computer technology enabled PwD among other things to “have greater control over their own lives and otherwise benefit from opportunities that are taken for granted by individuals who do not have disabilities.” She succinctly connects the availability of disability legislation to a stronger sense of cultural identity among PwD.

Chapter 5 focuses on the shift to the graphical user interface (GUI) from the old fashioned line commands required of Microsoft’s DOS system. If you are a non-technical person like me, the pleasure of not having now to recall the exact commands was appreciated when they were replaced with the simple act of pointing to an item of interest on the DEC e m b e r 2017 ∕ IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 15 screen and selecting. This technology simplified the use of the computer for many persons. However, this shift reduced accessibility for those who preferred command input entry. The GUI was more user-friendly, but it rendered the availability of the screen reader more problematic. Accessibility for many continues to be a moving target.

This welcome text addresses the nexus between historical perspectives of computer technology development and disability rights. Important to disability, technology, and communication studies scholars, as well as to universal design practitioners, Petrick puts into perspective the strategic partnerships that are necessary for the existence of accessible computer technology for PwD.

Reviewer Information

Sylette Henry-Buckmire is a doctoral student in the Disability Studies Track, Ph.D. Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Program at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Email: