Diversity & Inclusion
Culture / DEI / Digital access / Disabilities

These locals are making tech more accessible for people with disabilities

From a blind iOS consultant to a Comcast executive, there are individuals and organizations striving to make the web and technology around it be more accessible to people with disabilities and aging residents. Here's how.

You may pass City Hall everyday without giving a second thought to its architecture or design. But longtime Philadelphia resident Austin Seraphin had never really known the building until earlier this year.

Seraphin has been blind since birth, and on a recent trip to maker space NextFab Studio, he was handed a model of one of the world’s most beautiful municipal buildings, made on a 3D printer.

“To have a model in my hands that I can touch and kind of get the whole picture in my imagination helped a great deal,” Seraphin said.

Seraphin is an iOS consultant and programmer who works out of Old City coworking space Indy Hall, helping developers and software engineers make their apps and programs accessible to people with disabilities. Seraphin particularly focuses on how the products relate to people who are blind, since he can approach the issue from both points-of-view: as a programmer and as a user with a disability.

He started around age 7 on an Apple IIe, and when he realized he could make the computer do whatever he wanted, he knew he would be going into programming as a career.

He also wrote a piece of Ruby code called MotionAccessibility, which “wraps accessibility protocols in nice Ruby,” including the protocol that helps programmers transfer their information into VoiceOver, the iOS technology that allows people who are blind to read their screens.

Here’s a clip of Seraphin describing the his iPhone’s accessibility:

During Philly Tech Week, Seraphin participated in a panel discussion at the Free Library of Philadelphia – “Tapping into the Invisible Consumer Base” – where representatives from a number of different organizations that work with the aging and disability population considered different tools that could help people with visual impairments better navigate the world.

It was a precursor to #hack4access, a weekend hackathon in celebration of the National Day of Civic Hacking organized by access coalition Philadelphia Link and, full disclosure, Technical.ly Philly.

There is mounting interest in this being an important next step in the digital accessibility conversation — last week was Global Accessibility Day, prompting the Philadelphia Accessibility Forum to host a hands-on event at Comcast’s Accessibility Lab, which launched last fall.

“People always come up to me, and say ‘What you’re talking about is so inspirational and so great,’ and I say ‘That’s awesome, thank you. So what are you going to do about it?’ said Seraphin. “This hackathon [and other events are] going to give people a chance to actually do something.”

One of the most important things developers and programmers need to keep in mind when considering accessibility is that every individual is different, said Seraphin. Two people may have the same disability, but the way they use technology may be totally different.

Andrew Larkin comcast

Andrew Larkin, the technical lead for Comcast’s accessibility team. Photo by David Ziegler.

“You can’t predict how someone is going to want to interact with technology. You have to let them define it for themselves,” said Andrew Larkin, the technical lead for Comcast’s accessibility team. “There’s a need for flexibility.”

Every month, Larkin organizes the Philly Accessibility Forum in Comcast’s Accessibility Lab, bringing together designers and developers as well as people with disabilities to ensure that Comcast’s products are accessible to a wide range of users. Right now Larkin and his team are working on simplifying their mobile platforms and creating a voice-activated television guide, something that has been in the works at Comcast for nearly a year.

Larkin also has a personal project called Xooie, which is an open-source Javascript library that defines semantic interactions for webpages and automatically adds accessible specifications to a developers’ markup.

He has a vision of the future where “accessibility professionals” don’t exist, it’s just something that’s ingrained in all technology.

“Computers and technology started off as a rather specific domain, and then became something ubiquitous. Everywhere we go there’s a screen, and the world adopted to it,” Larkin said. “Hopefully the world will be able to adopt to this idea of not just designing technology to meet the center of the usability ‘bell-curve,’ but that it encompasses all abilities.”


Jamie Prioli and Sandra McNally from Temple’s Institute on Disabilities. Photo by David Ziegler for Technical.ly Philly

Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities (IOD) is an organization that spearheads Pennsylvania’s Initiative on Assistive Technology. The IOD implements a number of programs dedicated to providing assistive technology to people with disabilities all across Pennsylvania:

  • Reused and Exchanged Equipment Partnership – focuses on moving gently used accessible technology devices into the hands of people who need them. If someone has a device they no longer use, they can contact the IOD and the IOD will post it on their online database. It’s sort of a “matchmaking” service.
  • Assistive Technology Lending Library – this is a free service that lends out devices so people with disabilities can figure out which particular device best meets their needs
  • The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program – this is a nationwide effort mandated by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. It provides assistive communication software and hardware to low-income individuals who are both blind and deaf. The IOD is PA’s lead organization on this program
  • Telecommunication Device Distribution Program- provides free specialized telephones for anyone whose disability prevents them from using traditional phones

Jamie Prioli, the assistive technology specialist at the IOD, said “I think for many individuals with disabilities, technology is that important, vital link to overcome barriers, and to allow them to be as independent as possible.”

Companies: Philadelphia Corporation for Aging / Comcast / NextFab
People: Andrew Larkin / Austin Seraphin
Projects: Philadelphia Neighborhoods

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