SAN DIEGO, Feb. 28, 2002 — Kristin Berry was working in New York’s financial district, earning a high salary and living a glamorous Manhattan lifestyle, when she realized her heart just wasn’t in it. Within months she had quit her job, moved into her parents’ home in San Diego, and founded the nonprofit Pangea Foundation to pursue her dream: using technology to unite communities and provide resources for people who are underserved by traditional organizations — such as people with disabilities.
That was nearly six years ago, and since then the Pangea Foundation (the name symbolizes unity, with “pan” meaning “together” and “gea” meaning “earth”) has become a leader in bringing state-of-the-art technology to schools and community organizations.
Today, another of Kristin Berry’s dreams will be fulfilled when the Pangea Foundation launches Abilities Networks, a new Web-based technology developed in collaboration with Microsoft that empowers nonprofit and community organizations to create online content and applications that are highly accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. The pilot project, which will serve communities throughout California, is being announced today in San Diego.
“With the explosion of the Internet, getting Web designers to make their sites easily accessible to people with disabilities is like trying to herd cats,” says William Stothers, deputy director of the Center for an Accessible Society, who previewed Abilities Networks to help evaluate it from an end-user’s perspective.
Stothers, a wheelchair user since the 1950s, has observed the evolution of accessibility from the days when the widespread use of curb cuts was only a dream. “Pangea and Microsoft have created a toolbox that enables community organizations, with minimal effort and expense, to put their information on the Web in a form that is more universally accessible. That’s a terrific idea,” he says.
“Abilities Networks is a very user-friendly Web site,” says Ellen Mosner, government affairs and public relations manager for Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group. “People can go there to learn more about nonprofit organizations in their area that serve people with disabilities. It is also a resource for those organizations to get the tools they need to ensure their own sites are accessible.”
The 40 members of Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group work with various product groups at Microsoft to make its products more accessible to people with disabilities.
“On the Web, the user experience depends on how well the site is designed,” Mosner adds. “No matter how good the assistive technology you’re using, if the site is poorly designed you’re going to have a bad experience. That’s why a resource like Abilities Networks is so valuable.”
Abilities Networks Provides Community Information, Web Tools
Abilities Networks is two resources in one. First, it provides at no charge the tools that nonprofit and community organizations need to easily create and maintain accessible Web sites. Participants must be certified as nonprofit organizations by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and undergo a review process conducted by the Pangea Foundation. Once approved, they are given access to tools that enable them to build and maintain a Level 3 accessible Web site, the maximum level of accessibility defined by the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The sites will be hosted free of charge by the Next Generation Internet Center at the University of California at San Diego’s Supercomputer Center.
A study conducted for the Pangea Foundation by the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance found that only 11 percent of the local community organizations had a Web site that met the minimum level of W3C accessibility standards. The W3C itself estimates that more than 97 percent of the information on the Web does not meet that minimum level, yet the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that approximately 10 percent of the population lives with a disability that in some way limits one or more of their daily-life activities.
Second, Abilities Networks is a centralized Web resource — a series of regionalized hubs that serve as community portal sites. This offers people with disabilities easy access to information and services they need, including career opportunities, housing, transportation, medical research, training and education, news and upcoming events.
According to Berry, Internet search engines frequently overlook local, community-based organizations — the very organizations that often provide the most services to people with disabilities – and many of those organizations do not have Web sites. Abilities Networks ensures that all organizations — those that are consumer driven and those serving people with disabilities — not only have a Web presence, but also one that is well integrated with other organizations in their community.
Microsoft Visual Studio .NET Offers “Ideal” Solution
Abilities Networks was developed using Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, Microsoft’s new application-development tool system. Microsoft donated the software for the project, with more slated for upcoming versions, and employees in Microsoft’s San Diego field office embraced the project as part of their commitment to the community. The Microsoft .NET platform allows nonprofit and community organizations to create dynamic, accessible Web sites without the added expense of employing programming professionals. A series of accessible templates allow content to be added to an organization’s Web site and to the community-based portal at the same time, making it easy for an organization to update its own Web site while ensuring its information reaches the widest possible audience.
“Microsoft Visual Studio .NET is ideal for creating and using applications in an Internet environment, because it allows applications to communicate and share data over the Internet regardless of the operating system, end-user device or programming language,” Berry says. “For us, that was of prime importance, because accessibility is about having a lot of alternatives and options, so as we were looking at various tools and platforms it was just very clear that Visual Studio .NET would be the best technology for us to use.”
John Little, who works with Microsoft Consulting Services in San Diego and built Abilities Networks for the Pangea Foundation, said it was clear from the beginning that Abilities Networks would require data to be searchable and extensible. As a result, he didn’t want to use static HTML, because it limits how data can be displayed and used.
“At its core, Microsoft .NET is about making technology work for people, instead of forcing individuals to adapt to the limitations of their computers,” Little says. “The .NET platform allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to use any device to experience the Internet on their own terms.”
Little says the advent of the Microsoft .NET platform and its underlying XML (eXtensible Markup Language) eventually will lead hardware manufacturers to create better computer devices to assist people with disabilities. Improved devices that take advantage of .NET technology will be able to consume data and incorporate it in accessible formats tailored to the needs of users without the need to customize every Web site.
“Web producers won’t have to do any additional work to make their content equally accessible to people who are deaf versus those who are blind or unable to use their hands,” Little says. “As device makers begin to incorporate the new Microsoft .NET technology, the data will be consumed in the right way for each user, and will no longer have to be published in the correct way.”
Berry says Abilities Networks was designed to optimize accessibility features already built into Microsoft’s Windows operating systems, such as screen magnifiers and sticky keys, and to put them into the Web environment as well. (Sticky keys allow users to take a motion that is typically executed simultaneously, such as the Ctrl+Alt+Delete command, and turn it into a sequential motion so that each key can be typed separately yet the desired command is still issued.) As a result, users can carry forward into Abilities Networks’ accessible Web environment the knowledge and skills they’ve already developed for offline computing.
“It really is true that Microsoft, more than any other software company, is just so committed to accessibility,” Berry says. “That was of prime importance to this project, and it has been a very natural fit for us to collaborate with them on development and delivery of this system.”
Nonprofit Organizations Benefit from New Web-Based Resources
“Abilities Networks provides a one-stop Web resource,” says Barbara Pflaum, technology coordinator for Project NEEDS, which provides more than 60 school districts in the San Diego region with special education resources for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind or have low vision, or who have mobility disabilities. “Rather than having to search the entire Web looking for information, people will be able to go to one place to get all of the information about community-based resources and services in their area,” Pflaum says.
“Nonprofits often don’t have the staff or money to invest in individual Web resources,” Pflaum adds. “Abilities Networks gives them the ability to create great Web sites and to make sure their information is widely available to everyone in the community, including people with disabilities.”
Says Berry, “The whole goal of Abilities Networks is not to release a bunch of content, but to put the power into the hands of the community to manage their own content and basically decentralize the whole Web experience for nonprofits. Most of these organizations have a national chapter that’s shooting information down to the local community. We’re reversing that.
“Funders are beginning to evaluate organizations that are applying for grants in terms of whether they have accessible Web sites,” she adds.
Building Community and Eroding Isolation
Stothers of the Center for an Accessible Society, calls what the Pangea Foundation and Microsoft are doing with Abilities Networks “another approach to universal design, making information and technology work well for as many people as possible. It’s a matter of enhancing functional ability in certain environments.”
According to Stothers, “disability” doesn’t mean “inability” or “dependence” and shouldn’t be viewed that way. “Disability is not in the individual person, but in the interaction between a person with certain characteristics and the environment they are in,” he says. “It’s a question of how well a person can adapt to their environment. Technology can help people adapt and give them more control over their ability to overcome challenges presented by various environments.”
Pflaum, like many others involved with this project, sees Abilities Networks as a technology solution that has applications far beyond community organizations that serve people with disabilities.
“Pangea will be able to roll this concept over to benefit many other underserved populations, from new immigrant communities to the homeless,” Pflaum says. “Many groups are working to make hardware more available to underserved populations, and Abilities Networks will make sure there is good information available about resources and services as more and more people come online.”
Stothers says helping organizations throughout the community improve accessibility on their Web sites may also encourage them to look more closely at accessibility in other areas.
“Hopefully, as people make information more accessible, they will also begin to think in terms of making their programs more accessible and inclusive,” he says.