The Word “Cloud” Is Taking On a Whole New Meaning
By Jutta Treviranus

Have you ever felt loaded down with all the tools and documents that you need to lug around with you to get things done during the day? Is your wallet overflowing with cards, your briefcase with papers, and your computer bag with devices? Do you get frustrated when trying to use workstations that are not your own, or kiosks with unfamiliar interfaces? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could stick all of this personal paraphernalia up in the ether and access it wherever and whenever you need it? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could bring the workspace that is comfortable to you, that you can use without thinking, with you when you leave home?

This is the promise of “cloud computing.” The idea is that all that stuff you presently have on your personal computer or in your filing cabinets is available to you wherever you go. Even better, whatever device you use, wherever you go, will adapt itself to work like the workstation that you are used to. If you have ever used Google Docs, Facebook or Flickr, you have already experienced the cloud.

The cloud may eventually serve as a large potluck-dinner location. We will pool our resources “up there” so that we have a richer, more diverse set of resources available for everyone. And with a richer, more diverse set of resources, it is more likely that there will be a tool or resource that is perfect for you. It also means that less well-equipped and less experienced groups or organizations can benefit from the work of more technically savvy and well-resourced groups. We can all spend our time and energy creating new things, rather than replicating what others have already created.

You will likely hear more and more debate about cloud computing in the coming months and years. There is a growing global community that is trying to make sure that the cloud is designed so that people with disabilities can benefit from its promise. The idea is that all of the connected devices we encounter in our daily lives and in our travels (and some that we are not even aware are connected, like our car, our fridge, bus stops and road signs) will automatically configure themselves to our personal specifications.

This means that you can have your screen reader, alternative keyboard, magnification, captioning, description or any other assistive functionality with you wherever you go, without carrying anything but a password, a digital ring or a smart card. Those government- service kiosks, library workstations, ATMs, airline check-in machines, parkingticket dispensers, automatic checkouts at the grocery store and online-shopping sites will all automatically configure themselves to your personal needs and specifications— no more having to justify or explain your requirements to anyone.

With accessibility moving to the cloud, there is also the hope that we can stop categorizing people by disability, but rather treat every person as an individual with a unique set of needs. This way, you won’t need to worry about qualifying for a special service, or about falling through the cracks or competing with another special-interest group for limited resources or political attention. The hope is that the cloud will be a level playing field from the start, because by pooling our resources, there will be enough to go around.

You might ask, “If the cloud is a communal space, what happens to privacy, ownership and security? Do I really want to store my private information up there?” Part of the response is that the cloud will also be a place to pool strategies and choices for privacy and security. Designing “identity management” in a way that is accessible and protects the privacy of people with disabilities is one of the potential challenges of the cloud computing plan that needs to be very carefully considered.

This (and other potential kinks and work to be done) is the focus of a worldwide consortium called the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure, co-led by the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University (www.idrc.ocad.ca), the TRACE Center in Wisconsin and many others (www.gpii.org). The work is based on pioneering research conducted here in Canada. The grand vision is that by taking accessibility to the clouds, we will open the world around us to everyone, no matter how unique their needs.