Justin Richards caught up with this year's Turing Lecture speaker, Chris Mairs, to talk about social inclusion, open source software and water skiing.

BCS: Please can you provide us with a brief potted history of your background leading up to you becoming a director for Data Connection?

CM: I worked for IBM as a pre-university student and then worked for them again for a couple of years after studying computer science at Cambridge.

A group of people with skills ranging from sales and marketing, through to very heavy weight development programmers left IBM in 1981 to form a new company called Data Connection, which is now coming up to its 25th birthday.

I was actually Data Connection's first employee joining 3 months after the company was founded, and became a director about three years later, I'd guess. The company is now up to around 350 people.

BCS: What's Data Connection's remit?

CM: Despite our size, we still have a generally low profile amongst the public and even within the IT industry because Data Connection has been historically a technology provider to larger players in the communications and computer industries.

We provide protocol stacks to the likes of CISCO, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Lucent. Take most of the big players in the industry and you'll find Data Connection communications technology buried somewhere in their product line.

I am now the chief technical officer of the MetaSwitch division of Data Connection, selling next generation telephone switches to carriers in the UK and in North America.

BCS: How do you think 'disabled' persons should be referred to? There are many terms bandied around - visually or audibly challenged, for example. Which do you think work best? Do you think they should be categorised separately or not?

CM: It's a very good question. It's important to differentiate between impairment and the disability that can arise from the interaction between that impairment and technology or society's expectations.

I have vision impairment. My eyes don't work very well, but I'm only disabled because of society's expectations of what 'normal' people can do, and because of limitations in the technology that we all live with, which doesn't properly accommodate my impairment.

In contrast, for example, someone who has height impairment is not going to be, in general, disabled by that height impairment.

If they are slightly tall or short they won't be greatly disabled by that, they can still get through doors or reach the taps in a sink. However, I am disabled because society and technology doesn't cater well for the very difficult impairment of sight.

Just as an aside, I was on the world governing body for disabled water skiing for many years. One of the blind members of the committee, Kevin Murfitt, was actually the equal opportunities officer for an Australian University.

In one memorable exchange, when the chairman of the committee said 'This is an issue for the visually impaired', Kevin retorted, 'No Jim you're visually impaired, i.e. you're ugly - I'm just vision impaired!'

People have to understand the difference between the impairment, which you can't get away from and the disability, which is caused by the interaction with society and technology.

BCS: With regard to your own invention the 'Speak On' gadget how long will it be before that will be in general use and can you give a little background to the Speak On device?

CM: I should clarify that I wear two different hats. We've talked about my role as Chief Technical Officer of MetaSwitch within Data Connection, but I'm also chairman of a small charity called a-technic, which has a remit to develop and prototype assistive technologies.

We tend to focus on technology for the vision impaired, partly because two of the trustees, myself and Professor Isaac Porat, from Manchester University, are ourselves both blind (sort of gives you a bit of a privileged insight).

We've recently renamed the 'Speak On' project. It's now moved into two phases. The first phase, which is entirely Isaac's baby, is available for download at the a-technic website www.a-technic.net.

This is a software version of the technology. It runs on a regular computer and provides access to a broad spectrum of media like pod casts, music libraries and talking newspapers.

This is a great way to access all sorts of content with absolutely no use of the computer screen - all the output and all the control feedback is entirely audible.

It does, however, still require users to understand the concepts of a computer, a standard keyboard, and things like Windows and Start menus to get the SpeakOn program initially running.

We've named the next phase Pipistrelle, in which we hope to make Isaac's software or something functionally equivalent, accessible to the group of vision impaired users Isaac refers to as the technologically frail.

These are people who have vision impairment and who also are not comfortable with technology. The idea here is that users will view this as more like a radio or VCR.

It will be a 'black box' with a few controls on the outside. Because it communicates exclusively by speaking, you don't have to understand that it's a computer.

The Speak On project is now in user trials, the hope would be to deliver a Pipistrelle gadget next year. It depends on how much help we get. We are quite a small charity and are actively looking for volunteers to help us to develop the hardware platform.

BCS: Why name it after a bat?

CM: 'Blind as a bat!' As a blind person I can make that kind of pun!

BCS: In your Turing Lecture you stated that universal accessibility is impractical. How far down the road of accessibility do you think we can go and within what time frame do you perceive that we will be able to go no further forwards with regards accessibility to all?

CM: The government have stated that by 2025 disabled people in Britain should enjoy full choices and opportunities to improve their quality of life and be respected and included as equal members of society. That's a quote from the government policy document 'Improving the life chances of Disabled People'.

The interesting thing is that date of 2025. That's a long way away. And the reason the goal has been set so far away is that the government recognise that it's an immensely challenging problem.

To get to genuinely equal access for people with disabilities is hugely problematic. So to answer your question, as to when we might get there, I think that's the sort of time frame we're looking at.

Can we achieve genuine universal accessibility? No we can't. There will always be some combination of impairments which mean that some life styles are just not plausible. For example, am I ever going to be able to become a Formula One racing driver? No! Some things are just inconceivable.

However, the bigger issue is that our life style at the moment is becoming more and more influenced by technology.

If you look at things like mobile phones and internet access, these technologies simply did not exist 10, 15 years ago. But now they are absolutely essential to many people's lifestyles. And more interestingly they're more pivotal to young people than to older people.

There are social groupings that are driven by those technologies. Text messaging is a classic case in point, which has actually changed our style of communicating. The World Wide Web and broadband access has also changed the style in which young people communicate.

They tend to communicate in much shorter bursts and typically have multiple conversations going on at once. (Mobile phone in one hand, Skype in another and a couple of text or IM threads going for good measure).

And communities which revolve around these different communication styles are simply not open to people with impairments that prevent them from accessing the technologies they use. And so we are in danger of technological advances actually excluding people rather than including them! 

This is the challenge for the IT industry. As we embrace new technologies, which enhance life styles for the public at large we must take great care not to accidentally exclude a whole segment of society who suffer from a particular impairment.

Technology can be a great enabler and liberator for people with impairments but it can also exclude them.

If we have sufficient awareness amongst the developers of new technologies, an appropriate legal framework and social moral pressure on the developers and providers of technology-based services then I think there can be excellent advances for the various impaired communities.

BCS: With regards to website development, in your lecture you alluded to a recent survey that had found most developers seriously wanting with regards their inclusion of visually challenged people. Do you feel that legislation could be changed to ensure that this situation improves considerably in future?

CM: It's finding the right balance between sticks and carrots, using incentives and legal consequences if you don't conform.

There is a legal framework already, which makes it a legal obligation for anyone providing a service to the public at large to make that service accessible to people with all forms of disability. However, there are a couple of things, which mean that that obligation is not being met by very many websites at all at the moment.

The first is that the law only requires reasonable adjustment. So if an organisation can demonstrate that adjusting their website to make it fully accessible would mean that they would go out of business then the law would not force them to make those changes, for obvious reasons.

But the second issue is that to date there have not been many test cases taken against website providers - in fact none when I last checked. To date, The Disability Rights Commission (guardians of the Disability Discrimination Act) has dealt primarily with complaints about lack of physical building access for wheelchair users.

Access to web sites for users with sensory impairments is a less obvious disability issue to the general public. For whatever reasons, sensory impaired individuals and supporting charities have been less vocal than wheelchair users.

I would hope to see that change, with the DRC and maybe charities like the RNIB helping individuals take one or two test cases on website access to the courts.

BCS: Why is OATS important to the open source community and for those with accessibility issues? You seem to be championing it at the moment.

CM: OATS stands for Open Source Assistive Technology Software. The mission for OATS is twofold. One is to provide a repository for free, or very low cost, access tools and more importantly, from my perspective, it's creating a community of developers and users who can build assistive technology components that can then be used by other developers to create accessible solutions.

The reason why this is important is that writing accessibility software is very difficult. If you look at the amount of resources that you have to put into writing, for example, a high quality screen reader and the relatively small market that these products address, the cost to the end user becomes expensive.

A screen reader (i.e. software that allows a blind person to hear the content of their computer screen) might typically be £500 to £1000. If you look at the amount of function in a screen reader compared to something like Microsoft Office then the 'bangs for buck', in the case of the accessibility software, is very low.

However, with organisations like OATS, if we can build a community of developers, a database of assistive technology components, and a set of impaired users who can act as testers and provide feedback on the requirements for that assistive technology, then that could be a very interesting way to build a set of low cost or free solutions.

BCS: How is OATS doing at the moment?

CM: It's a very fledgling organisation. As a way to find out about various low cost assistive technologies it is effective. It remains to be seen whether they will build a critical mass of developers and disabled users to actually make it into an ongoing viable project. Watch this space, basically.

And if you are an IT professional or software developer who would like to get involved then please do go to the website and offer your services. Even if it's for only a couple of weekends a year, programming, that could well be very useful. You could have some skills that other people would benefit from. www.oatsoft.org

BCS: The future we can guess will be IT assisted but how do you think the IT industry as a whole could improve things for those with social inclusion problems? By that we mean not only seriously disabled persons but also elderly people and others with a lack of confidence to use technology.

CM: There are an absolutely huge number of people in this country who are challenged by technology, and that includes older people and those with cognitive impairments. To be honest almost all of us at some point or other are challenged by some pieces of technology.

The interesting thing is if we look at something like a traditional telephone or a portable radio we don't think of that as 'technology'. One of the reasons for this is because it just works. The interface is simple and we don't have problems with it.

The things that we look at as being technology are things like PCs, very high end stereos, satellite navigation systems, and all sorts of things where the user interface is sufficiently unintuitive that we struggle with it.

The technology sort of forces itself into our faces so my view is the best way the IT industry can make IT more usable, within the broader community, is to hide the T. You hide the technology and present an interface that people can just work with.

That's always got to be the thing. Make the interface simple, intuitive and foolproof and the rest will just follow. Easier said than done!

BCS: What do you think the UK (UK PLC) do well within the IT spectrum, and conversely what do we do badly? How do UK websites stand up internationally for their accessibility? How do you see the UK on the international stage?

CM: I think the UK, with regard to technology in general, has always been extremely good at innovating, at being on the leading edge of research. Not always been so good at taking an idea and commercialising it.

If you look to the US, for example, one of the reasons why the US is such a phenomenally successful economy is that they have a mindset to take an idea and ruthlessly commercialise it. 

To make something a commercial success you have to make it actually usable. That's an aspect where the US is ahead of us. On the other hand I think there is overall quite good social awareness in the UK.

When talking to website designers here in the UK, increasingly they do recognise that accessibility is an important issue. While they might not have sufficient funding to deliver on what they would like to do they do at least understand that there is an issue to be addressed and they feel they ought to be addressing it, which is a good start.

BCS: With regard to website design what are the basic minimum requirements for, for example, someone like yourself to be able to access the information off a website? What are the basics that people should be doing anyway, excluding the bells and whistles type of material, which just makes sites more palatable?

CM: There are a set of guidelines provided by the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, which go into a lot of detail on what aspects of web technologies are accessible and what are not. There are 65 different checkpoints in the 1.0 guidelines - there's also a new set of guidelines just coming out now.

These guidelines include such obvious requirements as providing an alternative text tag against each graphical image so that screen readers can still meaningfully represent the item. However, just following this guideline may not really help.

For example, I recently visited a website where against each item on the website there was a red circular graphic which my partner subsequently explained had superimposed on it the price of the item.

The website designer had been careful to provide a text tag against these price labels. Unfortunately, the text tag said 'Price Label', so I could be confident that each item did indeed have a price (i.e. was for sale), but I couldn't find out what the actual price was!

That's a case where someone has followed the guidelines but completely failed to deliver on accessibility because they've provided a meaningless label in the context in which it's being used.

The key lesson is once you think you have made your website accessible, it's absolutely critical that you get disabled users from different groups to actually test the website. The only way you will identify some barriers to access is by getting people with different impairments to try the site.

There's a UK charity called AbilityNet that provides guidelines and professional services to help create accessible sites, and audit websites for accessibility, including trial usage by users with various impairments. They will then provide website owners with specific recommendations for improvements.

BCS: You touched on water skiing earlier on, and from your Turing Lecture I gather you have been involved in disability water skiing for a while, even developing new technology for it. How did you get involved? 

CM: My own involvement in water skiing came from having the desire to find a sport, which gave me exhilaration and speed without necessarily being life threatening.

Water skiing for the blind is actually a very exciting sport and provided the boat drivers and the competition organisers understand the disability issues it is extremely safe. So that was why I got into it.

The reason why I developed some technology was that until the mid 90s slalom competitions for blind skiers were not a good simulation of an able-bodied competition.

We were sat in a bar after a European championship one year and someone suggested that maybe we could have an audio slalom competition. From that germ of an idea, with help from various people, I developed various solutions for an audio slalom system. 

We are now on the Mark 6 Bat Blaster, which is used throughout the world in disabled water skiing championships.

BCS: Are there any other sports, which this new technology could be used for?

CM: Well technology can help in all sorts of sports. That was just for the blind. Even in water skiing there are different technologies, which are used by paraplegic skiers, or by skiers who've only got one arm.

If you look at sailing, I know there is quite a bit of high tech equipment used in disabled sailing. I had a paraplegic friend who was actually building a boat to sail across the Atlantic on his own. It was only the existence of technology that enabled him to even consider that.

One cannot over estimate the importance of specialised technologies to improve the quality of life and the sense of self-esteem and well being for a person with an impairment because their disability is no longer their defining characteristic.

If you look at me water skiing using the audio slalom system, it's not my eyesight that's the problem it’s my lack of coordination, it's my lack of technique and my general decrepidation which are the issues at hand! And that's how it should be.

BCS: How does the system actually work?

CM: The solution at the moment is based on measuring the angle of the towrope. Knowing this and the length of the rope you can work out where the skier is. And give them audible signals when it's time to turn.

We have done work on a more advanced prototype, which is a scanning laser from the boat, to actually track the position of the skier, but as ever these technological solutions are very, very expensive to develop for relatively small communities and they require enormous expertise and more money than can often be thrown at them.

BCS: Do you think more lottery funding should be channelled toward these sorts of projects?

CM: There are a large number of good causes competing for lottery funding and it's quite hard to make the case for something like disabled water skiing. It's a very niche sport.

For me it's my life and I would gladly throw money at it but I wouldn’t want to make the case for that versus something, which would genuinely benefit a much larger group of people. On the other hand there are some lottery-funded projects that I wouldn't endorse at all!

BCS: What do you think to the current technology and effort going into the development of games for blind people, for example, the work the ICCHP (International Conference on Computers Helping People) have been doing?

Do you think the government should encourage younger disabled people to interact more with games as a precursor to using other forms of technology later on in life?

CM: It's very hard for people to make money out of assistive technologies because of the relatively small size of the market.

If you look at how many copies of a successful game you'd sell to the blind community versus a game that was targeted at the general public the equation is simple you will sell many, many more copies of the one targeted to the general audience.

That just dictates commercially that people who are brilliant games designers will tend to design for the large market, unless they happen to have a personal reason for targeting games for the blind; for example, if they have a blind child, or close friend, or are blind themselves.

So you can't rely on commercial pressures to create games aimed specifically at the blind. Therefore, lottery or government funding is potentially the only route.

I do think this is a good candidate for government funding as games can be a great way to introduce people, who are uneasy technologically, to technology. It's a great way to tempt people into it. So if you can design a good game for blind children it's definitely worth spending money on.

BCS: Do you think IT professionalism as a whole could really be stepped up not only in the UK but around the world?

CM: I think IT professionalism is definitely a worthwhile think to be pursuing. For example, if an IT professional qualification includes appropriate awareness of accessibility issues that has to be a good thing.

It is a step towards promoting inclusive design for new systems and it's always so much easier to build accessibility in from day one rather than trying to graft it on later.