LET IT BE the Internet, the "Web", the "Net" that catches our attention at this particular point in time to seize the “assistive” information revolution as the keystone of a new Civilization. It took the invention of the fax machine to link the East to the West and create our global village; it took millennia for the intellectual world of Arabia to enter Greece, unleashing one of the highest infusions of knowledge with an everlasting effect on Europe and the world.

Thanks to the perseverance of Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau for developing the “Web” at CERN in 1990. Thanks again to them for releasing it free and open to the world in 1993. (The Internet was born at ARPA in the United States in 1969.)

Angela Brett with Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the worldwide web, behind the first web server, black box and all.

Angela Brett with Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the worldwide web, behind the first web server, black box and all.

How the Web and Internet have evolved! Today, this crucial worldwide infrastructure connects nearly two billion people or a quarter of humanity. Just a tap on the keyboard, or click on a mouse can link nations; rolling them into one bold new civilization à la Web. A civil, fair society, all with equal access to opportunities for health, learning, employment, culture and social services. “Open access” can be at once a buzz word in a digitized world or a real time validation of a whole society.

Whatever happened to the technological revolution? Evolution happened. Now, in its wake, there’s a new revolt to push the tendrils of innovation ahead once more. Call it social networking, it is the highway most travelled; the all-embracing path to move to Inclusion and Equality. One without the other would enfeeble the whole of society.

Alternate scripts –DisAbility does not mean inability

This past February, more than 180 people from 32 organizations benefited from a four-day Web-Accessibility workshop at the OMPI/WIPO in Geneva. Its aim was to ensure access is taken into account when moving forward with new information technologies and systems, and to present content in such a way as to remove barriers from an estimated 10% of the world’s population experiencing some form of disability or impairment. All sessions were generously provided free of charge by the joint organizers, the ITU/UIT and WIPO which hosted the event.

This was not a huge cultural sea change. As IT engineers, webmasters, designers and digital publishers attending the Web-Accessibility Workshop (WIPO hosted the first in May 2009), we are often the front line of international communication technology (ICT). Moreover we are part of the larger UN family who, along with non-governmental organizations, civil societies and public institutions, among others, have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that entered into force on May 3, 2008. (See the CRPD story in this issue).

The tenor of the talks definitely inspired us to become accessibility champions. Plenty of web accessibility guidance about the cutting-edge “assistive technologies” (AT) was delivered by leading Web accessibility gurus. Among the keynote speakers, moderators, and experts were specialists with Adobe, ITU, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WHO, WIPO, WMO, the UN (Geneva and New York), and Yahoo! Many presenters had travelled from California, London and New York.

The sessions were front-loaded with several presentations from the two main sponsors, WIPO and ITU, and other UN agencies. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) are top providers of standards and guidelines for the Web and mobile Internet access; they offered Web accessibility Quick Tips to make Web sites perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all people and particularly for those with disabilities.

Pascal said, “Nothing stands still for us.”

During the workshop, I asked Jarle Martinsen, Head, User Services of ITU’s Information Services, for an interview on behalf of the UN Special magazine. He suggested readers would be most interest if I wrote about what the training means to me, as a provider of intelligent, assistive technology.”

As an electronic publisher with WHO I produce "searchable" books for its several external Web-based publishing partners in on-line media according to specifications I receive from each partner. These relationships include libraries, academia, redistributors, and commercial booksellers such as Amazon, and the giant search engine Google—now providing access to WHO books in 40 languages and available to over 98% of the world’s population.

I was about 80% on the accessibility curve and to reach 100% I would be making WHO books even more “assistive”. I was keenly propelled when Artur Ortega delivered his hugely entertaining account of “Accessibility and Disability—A History of Innovation". Receiving directions from his headset, he delivered a stunning PowerPoint presentation. His Braille business card says he is an Accessibility Evangelist with Yahoo! But I call him the Net Prophet! And for each discussion during the week, Artur contributed Web accessibility tips, such as the idiosyncrasies of publishing in the UN’s major languages (he speaks a few of them), of using Mac and Linux on the Internet; and translation systems for voice recognition for various screen readers.

From Marco Ranon and Andrew Ronksley, both top experts with the RNIB, we picked up tips on web site design: “See it right, Surf it right”. Essentials such as high contrast colours, logical reading order, clearly written text, best fonts and sizes, captions for images, and of major importance: well ordered and simplified tables and forms.

Phil Archer brought us up to date with W3C’s Mobile Web Initiative, such as their role in “Mobile Health”. And Shadi Abou Zahra also with W3C, enlightened us about setting standards for all new players on the Web. He discussed YouTube with its automatic speech recognition capability, multiple language support for up to 60 languages, and devices like Magpie to slow speech. “Accessibility is not just for people who are physically challenged but for everyone, he said.”

Continually evolving Internet

My conclusion is, we are not technologists writing for the Web, but communicators. And the communication tool of choice for attending to our health, work, business, social and cultural needs–is the Internet. And soon, according to Nature magazine (4 February 4, 2010, Volume 463) four consortia (two in America, one in Europe and one in Japan) could launch a Super Internet, using bigger data pipes to transit data faster, and building on top of the existing Internet infrastructure, "a type of continually evolving Internet."

© 1949-2010 UN Special