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May 2, 2013: People of ACM: Vicki Hanson

Vicki Hanson is Professor of Inclusive Technologies at the University of Dundee, and Research Staff Member Emeritus from IBM Research. She has been working on issues of inclusion for older adults and disabled individuals throughout her career, first as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She joined the IBM Research Division in 1986 where she founded and managed the Accessibility Research group. Applications she has created have received multiple awards from organizations representing older users and people with disabilities.

An active ACM member for more than 20 years, Vicki currently serves as ACM Secretary/Treasurer. She is Past Chair of the ACM SIG Governing Board, Past Chair of ACM's Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing (SIGACCESS), and founder and co-Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing. In 2008, she received the ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award for the application of HCI research to pressing social needs. She was named an ACM Fellow in 2004 for contributions to computing technologies for people with disabilities

Vicki was recently elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2013). She also received the 2013 Anita Borg Woman of Vision Award for Social Impact.

How has your work with the SiDE (Social inclusion through the Digital Economy) Research Hub helped people benefit from digital technologies?

My research explores a range of issues on design for inclusion. It seeks to understand and address problems that create barriers to technology adoption and use. It examines the ways in which current technology can be adapted to better support older adults and disabled users. The goal is to inform the design of new digital products and services. While solutions to inclusion will need to come from many sources, this work addresses one critical aspect, namely, ensuring that technologies are appropriately designed so that nearly everyone can use them.

The SiDE Research Hub is a UK effort that brings together researchers from the universities of Dundee and Newcastle. Our work is defined by a focus on the end-users of technologies. We draw on a research pool of hundreds of older adults and individuals with disabilities who provide valuable input into research ideas and help us test developed software. To extend our reach, we partner with not-for-profit charities serving these end-user populations.

We have developed software that provides easier access to information, adapts information presentation to the needs of individual users with disability and age-related declines in capability, and is applicable in care home environments. An area we're just starting to explore is how care homes can be better designed to promote physical activity and wellbeing. This work involves collaboration across the disciplines of computing, architecture, healthcare, medicine of old age, and design.

What can we expect over the next decade as changes in website technologies and coding practices impact Web accessibility?

We know that websites are often not easy to use for people with disabilities. Current sites, even professionally developed ones, present users with content often difficult to see or hear, navigate, or understand.

We can look to at least three main areas to help improve Web accessibility. First, we must encourage input from users of diverse ages and abilities when sites are designed and developed. It is important to go beyond making information merely accessible to making it easily used by as broad a range of people as possible.

Second, changes in development practices may help accessibility. For example, the trend to separate content from presentation, and to code for cross-browser and cross-device support can help improve accessibility. Coding practices that aim to optimize pages for search engines can further aid accessibility.

Third, for those with severe disability, advances in ability to use the Web will come from researchers who work to invent new technologies to overcome barriers to consuming and creating web content.

Which areas of your research do you think will have the most impact on an aging population?

Access to online healthcare management tools and information is becoming increasingly important. Many potential users will be older, unwell, or have a disability (permanent or temporary). Designing usable technologies for people with such diverse needs will be critical if we are to improve the patient experience in health care.

What advice would you give to budding technologists, particularly women, in the creative sector who are considering careers in computing?

I'm extraordinarily lucky to have had supportive mentors and role models, both male and female, throughout my career. They encouraged me, helped me navigate challenging paths through both academic and industrial research, and always assumed I would succeed. Their support was invaluable.

Computing offers the potential for great career rewards. I was excited by the chance to create technology that has positive effects on the lives of people with disabilities. The motivations for pursuing a career in this area are many. Organizations like the Anita Borg Institute and ACM-W help promote the professional development of women through meetings and online information about careers in computing.