Bill Gates Column (NYT Syndicate) 8/13/97
Helping people with disabilities helps everybody
By BILL GATES
I have lots of things to be thankful for, not the least of which are
Like many people, I have a permanent disability. My eyesight isn't the
greatest. Fortunately, my disability is mild and easily
overcome with prescription lenses.
I don't begin to equate my minor disability with the kinds of serious
disabilities that many people encounter. I'm grateful that my
eyesight isn't worse. And I'm grateful I have glasses.
Eyeglasses are one kind of "accessibility aid." A wheelchair is another.
An elevator chime is yet another. Any tool that lets a
person who has a disability gain better access to the world is an
Maybe you have a permanent disability, too. Many people are colorblind,
dyslexic, or have debilitating back problems or other
chronic illnesses or injuries, including repetitive-stress injuries such
as carpal-tunnel syndrome. As the average age of the
population increases, the number of people with significant disabilities
Helping accommodate people with disabilities makes sense. Just imagine
how much worse off society and millions of individuals like
me would be if eyeglasses had never been invented.
When ways are found to keep people productive, everybody benefits--not
just the individuals, but their friends, relatives,
employers and the whole economy, too. It's an intelligent use of
Sometimes investments or regulations intended to help people with
disabilities prove to offer unexpectedly widespread benefits.
The chimes and lights that announce the pending arrival of an elevator
car were installed to give people with sight, hearing or
mobility impairments a little extra time. Everybody takes these
accessibility aids for granted now, and if an elevator didn't have
them you might be annoyed.
The sloped "curb cuts" that provide gentle ramps from the sidewalk to
the street at many U.S. street corners were installed to
benefit people in wheelchairs. But people pushing carts or strollers, or
riding bikes or skateboards, rely on them too.
Closed-captioning for television programs was devised to help people
with hearing impairments, by displaying in written form the
dialog of a show. Now many people who hear just fine use
closed-captioning merely to watch TV in bed without disturbing a spouse,
or to watch the news while working out on a noisy exercise machine.
The flip side of this is that some innovations meant for society at
large have had disproportionate value to the disabled. The PC
and the Internet are great examples. They are, in effect, accessibility
aids for many people.
People with speech impediments can "chat" via text on the Internet or
other computer networks.
Many older individuals and others who may not be able to get out much
participate in social groups that communicate over the
Internet. They keep up with friends and the doings of their grandkids
and other relatives.
A lawyer can sit in front of a computer and call up every brief her law
firm has ever filed and every deposition. She doesn't have
run to somebody's office, or shuffle a lot of paper, or go to and from a
file cabinet. She may even be able to work from home.
Anybody with limited mobility--or even just limited time--can appreciate
how the Internet and electronic databases have opened vast
amounts of information to easy access.
The PC is one of the greatest accessibility aids ever created but people
who are blind have actually lost ground in recent years.
A decade ago most computer screens displayed only text, and it was
relatively easy for software to "speak" this text aloud to the
blind. The immediate result was a new level of independence for people
who could not see the printed word.
But today's more powerful PCs and software, which use graphics heavily
to communicate large amounts of information to the sighted
person, have proven problematic for people who don't have eyesight.
Similarly, as the Internet's World Wide Web becomes more graphical and
interesting for people with sight, its content threatens to
become less accessible to the blind than it is today.
Fortunately, a growing number of computer hardware and software
innovations are being developed specifically for people with
disabilities, including blindness.
Pioneering work has been done at universities and non-profit research
centers, such as the Trace R&D Center at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. Federal funding played an important role in these
early initiatives, and now commercial companies are getting
Enhancements are being built right into operating systems and software
applications. The broad goal is to make the interface
between the computer and the person so flexible that there are a variety
of ways to accomplish any task.
Because some people can't use a mouse efficiently, there are now
alternatives to the mouse. Because not everybody can hear sounds,
there are visual as well as audio cues available. Because not everybody
can see a screen well, or even see it all, there are
enhanced ways to convey information--from high-contrast settings to
software that allows a speech synthesizer to describe and read
aloud even screens that are richly graphical.
Microsoft will soon release technology to make it easy for authors and
third parties to add closed-captioning and audio description
to Web pages and software applications. Encarta 98 will be the first
multimedia encyclopedia to be fully closed-captioned. Windows
98 will feature numerous new features for people with disabilities,
including a screen magnifier and an easy way for individuals to
customize their machines.
Good accessibility work is under way at several other big companies,
including IBM and Sun. And numerous small companies are making
important contributions by providing everything from speech synthesizers
to foot pedals for people who have trouble holding down
Still, the industry has a long way to go in establishing and promoting
these techniques so that they will be used everywhere, in
every software product, with the benefits available to everybody.
We'll get there. I can see the day coming, even with my glasses off.
(For information about current and future accessibility aids, visit
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