Accessibility: Shrinking the digital divide

Shrinking the digital divide

Making universal access to Information and communication technologies a reality

Not everyone is able to use the web, computers, tablets, smart-phones, learning resources, electronic ticket machines, and even some digital-based home appliances. These digital technologies now pervade all aspects of our lives. They govern our access to education, employment, civic participation, travel, entertainment, health and safety. People left out include those with disability, citizens who are not digitally literate or those who are experiencing ageing-related barriers, and can therefore not easily access information and communication technologies (ICT). These people will not be able to participate in the emerging world we are creating. They will be left out. This is why we need to ensure that all of us are able to operate these digital technologies with ease and confidence.

We can no longer ignore the tails of the population–or even disability groups–and focus only on the larger consumer groups. Today, the majority of ICT solutions are aimed at the larger market segments, because they offer promises of higher returns. As a result, those left out feel increasingly isolated. This is precisely why we need some mechanism to reach the segments of the population typically classified as not suitable for optimising profit. We need to ensure that they too have access to available and affordable inclusive digital solutions.

GPII: Making digital technologies accessible to everyone

Recognising that we are diverse has been key in the process of developing the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII). This initiative advocates “One-size-fits-one Digital Inclusion.” Individual preferences are instantly made available on the technology interfaces that users of GPII Solutions encounter so that their appearance change to a form that these users can understand and use. For example, the standard font size of text characters increases.

Since 2011, the international effort to build the GPII has been hosted at the headquarter of an international consortium, called Raising the Floor International (RtF-I), based in Geneva, Switzerland. Funded by grants from the European Commission, for the Prosperity4All project, in conjunction with United States and Canada governments support as well as foundation and corporate contributions, this international efort has taken the GPII from concept to reality.

The GPII has been designed to address three basic needs for universal access to Information and communication technologies. It is an enabling approach build around several guiding principles: being able to easily find access solutions if they exist, making it easy to apply solutions to any technology a person encounters, and making it easier to create and market new solutions to satisfy unmet needs.

The approach offers transparency and an open and collaborative model. The GPII brings together key elements to foster technological inclusion everywhere. It is designed to help people and organisations to find solutions that will best suit their specific needs if they exist, and create them if they do not. It is designed as an open development space to foster a collaborative environment for creating, developing and sharing solutions and tools among a like-minded community of people.


What is needed today is a paradigm shift in e-inclusion, a fresh approach to accessibility and digital inclusion. the idea is to offer people with disabilities and e-illiterates greater choices. This can be done by letting them become experts of their own solutions and assert their right to access the digital world.

And we need to make it all simpler — for users, for developers, and for everyone trying to make their information and communication technologies–or environments that use ICT–accessible and usable by everyone.

A key goal of the GPII is to bring consumers and developers closer together, encouraging and supporting co-design, avoiding duplication, breaking problems down and engaging a wider variety of professionals in the development of solutions to ICT access.


The initiative addresses these challenges through a three-pillar infrastructure.

The first pillar is the DeveloperSpace, which aims to capitalise on the shifting market reality to address unique needs that have little or no economy of scale. With platforms that aggregate demand and directly connect demand with supply and with technologies that move toward personalisation and away from mass production, the GPII aims to address marginal needs in a sustainable way.

The DeveloperSpace is the first digital hub of its kind and is unique in that it looks at accessibility as a whole. The tools it seeks to develop apply across the board to all types of ICT technologies, as long as they have a digital interface. This choice provides an insight into the full process from ideation through development, testing and marketing. It is a resource for anyone interested in accessibility, particularly developers, companies and the scientific community.

Capitalise on existing solutions and personalise

The second pillar of the initiative is the concept of Unified Listing. It consists of an up-to-date platform consolidating information on existing solutions and addressing the issue of access for all users to information and communication technologies. It is unique in that it includes both resources for people who want to find assistive technology solutions and mainstream products with built-in accessibility features.

The third pillar of the GPII is its personalisation of access solutions. By adapting to a person’s needs and preferences, such solutions automatically set up the devices for these specific users. This means that whenever a person uses information and communication technologies, these would instantly change their interface into a form that the user can understand and use without them having to work out how to set up the product themselves. When they no longer use the product, it would instantly change back to its original settings.

The fundamental principles of the auto-personalization components of the GPII are based on the pioneering work of Jutta Trevinarus on personalization performed as part of her Web4all, and CulturAll projects, among others. The idea is to makes things simpler for users, and also easier for public access points and organisations to accommodate the needs of their employees and users in general.

Extending the ecosystem

By stretching our digital systems to include people with alternative access needs, we make these systems better for everyone. All the others in the ecosystem will then more easily reach their customers even if they are sparse and distributed. And it makes it simpler for users themselves to discover and use the access features that exist. Particularly, those which have often been difficult to find and harder to configure.

In addition to the increase in quality of life for all those who gain access to ICT through the GPII, there are also benefits for society as a whole. Increasing the independence and productivity of any segment of society is a gain for all. Also, the auto-personalisation of the GPII allows everyone to instantly change the interfaces of technology to meet their individual preferences making them easier, faster and more pleasant to use for each person.

Gregg Vanderheiden

Gregg is director and professor of Trace R&D Center at the University of Maryland – College Park. He is also the co-founder of Raising The Floor (RtF-I) and the Technical Coordinator of Prosperity4All. The concept of the GPII was first proposed by Dr Vanderheiden as part of his work on the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Universal Interface and Information Technology Access.

Matthias Peissner

Matthias is director and head of business area- Human Technology Interaction at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO). He is Project Coordinator for Prosperity4All.

Jutta Trevinarus

Jutta is director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and co-founder of Raising the Floor (RtF-I). She also heads the Inclusive Design Institute, directs an innovative graduate program in Inclusive Design and is a professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Canada.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Seeteufel

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