Accessible Technology Awareness: Remembering SpecialNet

Accessible Technology Awareness: Remembering SpecialNet

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The following blog post was written by Gary Moulton, Senior Marcom Manager at Microsoft. Gary works on technology issues related to aging and people with disabilities, and has worked at Microsoft for 17 years.

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During the very early days of the internet there was a bulletin board system (BBS), named SpecialNet, that existed to provide special education teachers, school-based clinicians and administrators a way to get answers for questions about solutions for students with disabilities. The questions that were typically asked on SpecialNet ran the gamut from low to high-tech in nature. During this time period, I was working as an accessibility consultant at a large technology company which required me to find answers to the “high-tech” questions that had been posted.

It is important to note that when I say “find answers” it was genuinely a treasure hunt.  Many of the questions that were posted to SpecialNet had never been asked before and likely did not have a known answer. In fact many of the questions would leave me thinking: “Someone is trying to do what?” The SpecialNet BBS was low tech by today’s standards, a command-line interface with nothing but text.  It was a very different experience from the Internet forums of today.

The questions I received via SpecialNet varied in complexity.  It could take me hours, days, sometimes even weeks, to provide an answer about the accessibility of an operating system or the compatibility of “x” assistive technology with “y” application. Typically I would have to track down (by phone) a person who knew the operating system or application at the code level. For easier questions I might locate a manual or user-guide to find relevant information about the product’s Accessibility. On rarer occasions, what I really needed was to find a person with a disability who was doing something unique with technology, usually in partnership with an innovative parent, teacher or clinician working with them. These rare individuals, and information about their successes, were nearly impossible to find.

Once I succeeded in finding a solution to a question and had posted my answer to SpecialNet, I would enter it into a personal database that I created to track my findings. Given the effort taken with each item, I wanted to make certain that anyone in the future wouldn’t have to dig too much if a similar question was ever raised. 

In contrast to the days of SpecialNet, information and resources are abundant in today’s online world, with information about the Accessibility of a device, computer, tablet, smartphone or the applications that run on them readily available.  I can only imagine how much more productive I would have been in my SpecialNet days with access to information about the hundreds of Assistive technology hardware and software manufacturers that exist on the Microsoft Enable website. 

Despite this progress, there still exists low awareness of what is possible today for people with disabilities and the aging population. This is something a colleague and I were reminded of firsthand on a recent road trip. If you know anyone who could benefit from Accessible technology, help spread the word by referring them to an in-person local resource or to one of many online resources like the Microsoft Accessibility website.

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